People live by stories. In our age, these stories are both fashioned by them through social media and for them by the mainstream media. Facebook and Twitter provide them with galaxies of real and virtual characters; other outlets deliver emotional narratives where stories are central, the facts peripheral.
The modern politician who succeeds best is the one who grasps enough of that dynamic to be able to exploit it. In the U.S. presidential election, Hillary Clinton did not grasp it. Clinton looks into things: policies, issues, problems. She knows in some detail the possibilities of a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians, just as she knows the present and future problems of the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare.She could give seminars on both in a minute, without notes. And often did.
Donald Trump could not construct a sensible sentence about either (or at least, has not). But like the hedgehog in the Greek parable about that slow-moving animal and the quick, bright fox , the fox knows many things while the hedgehog knows one big thing. The U.S. president-elect knows that people need stories, and he knows that if he wishes to be and remain under the spotlight, he must supply them. He must find out what people wish to see and hear in a story, then he must be that story.
The clearest recent example from Trump was his interview with the New York Times on Tuesday. Judged by the standards of a quick, bright fox, it was a disgrace. A mish-mash of half-remembered details and rambling statements. Issues raised by the editors and reporters of one of the United States’ most storied newspapers, all viewed through his own personal prism.
On his realization that the country is deeply divided: “All of a sudden people are booing me.” What if Republican legislators didn’t support his plans to improve infrastructure? “Let’s see if I get it done. Right now they’re in love with me. O.K.?”
On a potential conflict of interests between his companies and his presidency: “I understand why the president can’t have a conflict of interest now because everything a president does in some ways is like a conflict of interest, but I have, I’ve built a very great company and it’s a big company and it’s all over the world. But I have to say, the partners come in, they’re very, very successful people. They come in, they’d say, they said, ‘Would it be possible to have a picture?’ … I think it’s wonderful to take a picture. I’m fine with a picture. But if it were up to some people, I would never, ever see my daughter Ivanka again.”
The former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, whose many parallels with Trump have been much noted, once said to a close associate: “Don't you understand? If something is not on television it does not exist!” Berlusconi owned or controlled almost all the main TV channels during his three terms as prime minister. He understood that control over people’s attention was the key which, when turned, would usually open the door to power.
As both the Italian and the American hedgehogs know, public attention is often fitful, imperfectly formed, ignorant of the science or reasoning behind policies and projects -- and increasingly suspicious of authority. Among the audience receiving Trump at the New York Times was its CEO, Mark Thompson, the former director general of the BBC, whose book, “Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics?” excoriates just the kind of rhetoric Trump deployed. Thompson believes that that what he calls “rhetorical rationalism” – the language of statements underpinned by reason, proofs and argument – is now being chased from political speech in favor of that of emotion and personality.
Thompson asked Trump whether he was committed to the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech, religion and the press. Trump put himself squarely into the frame once more: “Actually, somebody said to me on that, they said, ‘You know, it’s a great idea, softening up those laws, but you may get sued a lot more.’ I said, ‘You know, you’re right, I never thought about that.’ I said, ‘You know, I have to start thinking about that.’ So, I, I think you’ll be O.K. I think you’re going to be fine.”
In his command of the story, Trump seems to be on the same page with a lengthening list of world figures, most of these authoritarian. Russian President Vladimir Putin knows the same big thing as he does: the Russia expert Arkady Ostrovsky illuminates the effectiveness of a nightly show of the threats to Russia overcome by the doughty Putin, who enjoys 80 percent-plus ratings in spite of the Russian recession. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan knows it, and has suppressed most of the news organizations that criticize him. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines knows it, and trades on his people’s fear of crime to unleash his police on alleged drug traders and takers. More than 3,000 of these suspects are now dead.
The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez knew it too, starring in his own “Alo Presidente!” live TV show that featured him talking for anything up to eight hours on topics of his choice. His “You’re fired” style catchphrase: “Expropriate it.” The revolution of which he was the founder, core and symbol is now ending in poverty and looming civil war.
Trump will govern a country which – contrary to the view of some fearful liberals – will not permit authoritarian rule. It may elect in heat, but will only be governed with cool reason. He must cease to be in thrall to his “it’s-all-about me” narrative. He must grapple with the policies that his despised Democratic rival Clinton spent her life mastering. Perhaps above all, he must put statesmanship over showmanship.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.