We in Malaysia may have a good laugh at the American political circus. But we’d better watch closely when the orange-haired tiger called Donald Trump jumps through flaming hoops – there may be some lessons for us.
He was dismissed as a joke candidate (from the reality TV show The Apprentice) when he first announced his quest to become the next US President last year. But nobody is laughing now as he steamrolls towards becoming the Republican Party nominee for the White House.
What are his secret weapons? One of the most powerful is stoking racial/religious fear against Mexicans (he has called them “rapists” and “killers”) and Muslims.
The Donald, as he’s known, claimed to have seen “thousands” of Muslim Americans celebrating after the 9/11 attacks in New York in 2001, and recounted the dubious legend of American General John Pershing killing Muslim terrorists with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. There is no evidence for either story, but Trump keeps repeating them. In fact, the “Truth-O-Meter” of politifact.com, the Pulitzer prize-winning political fact checking website, has rated 76% of his statements as false and called him the 2015 “Lie of the Year”.
What is really disturbing is that his supporters don’t really seem to care about small inconveniences like, er ... the truth. Indeed, the polls show that 60% of Republican voters support Trump’s outrageous proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
One of his mental tricks of marketing (or manipulation) is to keep repeating simple selling points. It’s like a late night TV infomercial falsely promising you “six minute abs”. Trump is a master at promoting himself as a “winner”. But what is the reality behind the brand image? When Time magazine analysed his record, he was successful mainly in real estate while being a multiple “loser” in many business ventures including Trump Airlines, Trump Vodka, Trump Magazine, Trump Steaks, GoTrump.com, Trump Mortgage and even Trump Casinos,
But who cares about silly things like facts and a track record? As Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s propaganda minister, once said: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
Humans tend to be lazy about analysing complex ideas; it’s the simple slogans that stick in our minds. For example, a great YouTube video shows how Trump repeats the word “win” 12 times in 17 seconds – this is how advertising jingles sell stuff.
Next, he plants fear that America is “under threat” from Muslim fanatics or Mexican rapists. Fear is a very powerful emotion. It makes people focus on survival and they switch off from asking questions.
The final ingredient is for a “Strongman Saviour” to emerge. Here, it helps that Trump insults the other Republican candidates (“oh, those losers”) like a schoolyard bully.
“Yes, I may be an ***hole,” he seems to declare, “But I am a strong ***hole that will keep you safe from Muslims and Mexicans.” Or, to paraphrase his campaign line, “Make (White) America Great Again”. No wonder a former leader of the white supremacist organisation Ku Klux Klan has endorsed Trump for President. Sieg Heil, mein Führer?
So how are this showman’s tactics relevant to Malaysia? Perhaps we can look at those using racial fear as a tactic to rally supporters. In July last year, Shahrul Anuar Abdul Aziz, a 22-year-old alleged phone thief, was transformed into a sort of “hero” against “cheating Chinese traders” by a crowd at Low Yat Plaza, Kuala Lumpur.
Never mind the CCTV footage circulating on social media showing him running off with a phone. Once the crowd was stirred up by instigators to “protect” racial “dignity”, it didn’t matter whether Shahrul had actually stolen a phone or not. To them, all that mattered was what they wanted to believe.
But Shahrul is a “hero” with clay feet. On Feb 12, he was convicted of taking drugs (in a police station toilet, and just one day after being detained for the Low Yat incident). Later, he was charged with slashing a man’s head with a parang.
After the Low Yat incident came the Red Shirts rally in September (where a certain race was equated with a certain unholy animal) and then the Kota Raya brawl, also in KL, in December (again over alleged cheating on phones).
There was no need for supporters to ask deeper questions about economics, education or why Malay-dominated government agencies didn’t clamp down on (allegedly) dishonest Chinese traders. All that could be heard, like a Trump speech, was the simple mantra: “we” are under threat from “them”.
But it may be hard to change the fixed minds of people. An article in the Washington Post newspaper looked at how people from the campaign of rival Republican candidate Ted Cruz showed rural voters news videos of Trump’s negative comments about a crucial issue. But most rejected the video as doctored.
“They were inoculated to any truth that ran contrary to their beliefs. Data be damned,” as the article put it.
What can be done to counter people like Trump? Senator Bernie Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic Party nomination, says the first step is to acknowledge that people have every right to be fearful for their future.
He says the real solution is to deal with the root problems of political corruption and economic inequality. But Sanders points out that demagogues like Trump are offering an “easy solution” by turning Muslims and Mexicans into scapegoats to cover up the real problems.
So whether we laugh at (or loathe) the guy they call The Donald, we’d better take a closer look at some of his tactics. They could be surprisingly close to home.