Many of us can recall episodes from their youth or their childhood, when, quarrelling with a friend over trivial subjects, they started being obnoxious and using words like “loser” or “clown” while labelling the other as incompetent or stupid.
Indeed, kids can behave immature and their words can easily turn nasty.
Then we grow up and, sometimes with our surprise, we notice that things may not be changing a lot: even among adults and even when the stakes in the game are definitely high.
Some were puzzled by the recent exchange of rebuttals between Donald J. Trump and Mike Bloomberg: the first being a billionaire in the Forbes 400 list, now President of the USA preparing the ground for his re-election, while the second an even wealthier billionaire preparing to participate in the Democrats primaries to become the official challenger for the White House.
It might then be inappropriate for them to label each other “loser” or “clown”, unless it is part of their strategy, which would mean that the battle is already on and no holds are banned.
With his very direct style, Trump started on 13th February the political feud with Bloomberg retweeting a caricatural picture of Bloomberg, while naming him “Mini Mike” to mock his height, calling him a “LOSER”, attributing to him “zero presence” and finally belittling his doings for the black community, notably one of Bloomberg’s main arguments in the next presidential race.
Just a few minutes later, Trump relaunched with a second tweet, again calling Bloomberg Mini Mike and labelling him a “mass of dead energy”, while trying to ignite an internal confrontation between Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders.
The second post was immediately picked up by Bloomberg, who reacted throwing back at Trump his mockeries, calling him in turn a “carnival barking clown”, depicting him as the jester of the NY elites and adding that Trump’s habitual behaviour towards his own wealth is a mixture of stupidity and incompetence.
Then he stated his intention to defy and to beat Trump in the presidential race.
These tweets are clear signs of the post-modern campaigns.
Differently from the past decades, when the system was either dominated by the parties (pre-modern era) or by the broadcast media (i.e. television in the modern era), we are living now in a multi-medial and multi-channel environment, which offers a horizontal communication between leaders and voters, seemingly inviting these latter to participate.
Within these relationship focused dynamics, populist messages represent a shortcut for stirring up the people’s feelings and inspiring their involvement: fragmentation of audiences and interests makes it indeed much more expensive and ineffective to send broadcast messages to the general electorate, while disillusion pushes people even further away from their political leaders.
Parties are no longer compact strongholds for proud voters: leaders have to appeal directly to a “weak base” composed of switching voters who decide their participation and their belonging at each electoral round.
The disintermediation that the web 2.0 has made possible, besides opening up the possibility to address many niche publics, is – as a side effect – targeting the wider audiences lighting up endless fights between trolls and advocates.
The loss of any reference point is dramatic both for leaders, who have to continually negotiate their image considering themselves, their opponents and the public opinion, and for citizens, who must manage to frame the leaders and their topics through bite-size inputs, finding themselves ever more divorced from the context of politics.
Marketing is present in politics too, as in the retail business, but from the perspective of the voters the gains are much more uncertain and distant in time. This leads to decisions that are rarely taken upon knowledge of programs and shared cultural values, but rather on appreciation of a position or the care for one issue, sometimes in a specific moment in time.
Passion and instinct play a decisive role on voting days, while social media are amplifiers for both manifestos and trivial themes, which become more indistinguishable in the fuzzy political environment.
Marketing imposes that each leader creates his/her brand: a statement of values, ideas, deeds that should provide an anchoring to the voters.
In doing this, exactly as in the retail business, politicians-brands have to find a way to make themselves unique and desirable, just to sell their Value Proposition to the widest possible audience.
Storytelling has gradually assumed a shifting role emphasizing narrativity around the leader rather than pointing out the advantages and benefits of programs for the people.
Considering the above, it is much easier to understand the present case and to make some inference about the contenders’ intentions in face of the presidential race.
On one side, Donald Trump is benefiting of his position as incumbent, that opens him the way to a Rose Garden Strategy: he is benefiting of coverage and visibility due to his position, and can start his campaign much earlier, simply by boasting his achievements and taking advantage of his institutional role, which renders him in part immune from the electoral battle.
On the other side, all challengers must bring up the need for change and must assure the voters that they are the right person to perform it: of course a plain critique of the incumbent would not be enough, therefore new contents and topics should be relevant and possibly absent from the others’ agendas.
As mentioned, Bloomberg has yet to prove to be the Democrats’ candidate, being that the primaries are now beginning, and the first battle is exactly the one among fellow party members.
During the primaries, candidates should be very careful in emphasizing their pros without demonising the other nominees’ cons, which could be jeopardized and built upon by the opposing party, later on in the electoral race.
From this perspective, a president who is candidate for the re-election (incumbent) benefits of an additional advantage not having to face internal confrontations.
The direct attack by Donald Trump to Bloomberg proves a couple of things:
- Trump fears Bloomberg and is confident that this latter owes good chances to become the Democrats’ choice. For this reason, he has engineered to give hints to the other candidates on possible weaknesses, hoping that they will capitalise on them during the primaries. His mention of Sanders confirms this idea, proving that Sanders would make a much easier opponent for Trump to face.
- Trump sees in Bloomberg some of the characteristics, he used to ascribe to himself in the past, with the difference that Bloomberg seems much more endowed than him. These are namely: wealth, entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen. This puts the president in a very uncomfortable position: unable to stress his Unique Value Proposition, surpassed by Bloomberg, he risks that the vote will turn into a referendum on his present mandate.
Taking advantage of his position as the US President, Trump is then framing his statements with an aura of officiality, sure that the media will echo them adequately.
Additionally, his tactics of direct attacking, even with risks of banalisation, have been a mantra throughout his presidency tuning perfectly with his larger-than-life character.
In the last four years, opponents have often tended to let Trump’s attacks slide away by themselves.
In politics, however, this is not a wise move, but rather a risky one, especially if you are an opposing candidate with conflicting interests.
Ignoring arguments from the other side could let them escalate and get out of control, especially with the risk of fake news mounting on an unwanted story.
There are basically three main ways to respond to attacks from competing parties.
The first is to refute the allegations, which seems a very logical reaction.
However, in so doing, the respondent legitimizes the attacker’s accusations, which is particularly risky when these are unfounded or exaggerated, as it has often been the case with Trump.
Therefore Bloomberg, if refuting Trump’s accusation, would have implicitly stated that this latter was in an authoritative position for making those same accusations.
In fact, the Democrats’ runner did not choose this option.
The second way to reply is a relaunch: this consists in apparently accepting the remarks, but then increasing them in exaggeration.
This is a very effective way of demonising accusations and stating clearly their rhetorical nature, making clear to the voters their distance from reality.
This strategy must fit with the candidate’s image and features: i.e. one candidate prone to relaunch, conveys his/her intention to play the game of irony and hyperbolic statements, typical of today’s shouted politics.
However, this is not the case of Bloomberg who, as mentioned, is a self-made entrepreneur, who made a pillar of his hard working, always maintaining a low public profile.
Finally, the third strategy is the most daunting one and consists in attacking the attacker, a message signalling the intention to enter a head-to-head feud with the attacker.
This is the strategy that Bloomberg chose with an admirable timing: his tweet stands for a clear position statement, i.e. Trump can expect an immediate reaction when attacking Bloomberg, which puts at risk his own image, because of the will and ability of Bloomberg to degrade the president.
Bloomberg wisely seizes the occasion to make a further statement about his commitment (“I have the record & the resources to defeat you. And I will.”): this sentence stands not only as a warning for Trump, who has now to adjust his strategy for the future in order to avoid any other faux pas, but also serves as an assurance on Bloomberg’s readiness for voters and politicians on the Democratic side.
In the end, Trump’s accusation was turned into a formal endorsement thanks to the twist that Bloomberg created through his reply: being the most feared Democrats’ opponent by the President, he is accepting the nomination and committing to win the challenge.
Bloomberg’s Twitter profile contributes to his brand-building through a presidential-style background picture, which is shortening the distance with Trump from a visual point of view, and the assertive motto “We will get it done.” which is creating a connection with the people (remember Obama’s “Yes, we can”?) and setting a measurable goal (to get done).
The US presidential campaign has hardly started: however, the role played by social media looks already pivotal.
All candidates strongly rely on their social profiles to build their brand-persona for the audiences and the media, to present their programs, to bring into the agenda relevant issues, and finally to attack competitors and to respond to their attacks.
Just stay tuned and follow for keeping updated.
Then retweet, if you like it…