“Not”, “never”, “no way”… the words that helped “The Donald” become the President.
What is fascinating about Trump is that he defines himself, not by what he stands for, but what he stands against. And this was very specifically targeted at working class voters.
“Make America Great Again” drove his campaign and sense of purpose. After all, who wouldn’t want something to be great? But Trump (and his team) understood that empathy is built not just by defining yourself and what you stand for, but also by defining what you stand against.
Trump won the day by defining himself in terms of what he was NOT. In psychological terms, he used what we call “notness” language. And the notness he chose always matched the underlying anxiety of his target voters.
Notness is a powerful thing. It’s often clearer, more relevant and more differentiating than establishing what you are. In fact, reflecting people’s pain points and pet peeves is an art in itself.
By understanding what seemingly disparate groups are reacting against, you can quickly gauge the psychological connection between them to establish what we call “conversation cohorts”. And when you know what unites and differentiates these cohorts, and what they can at least agree upon hating, you can begin to pattern-match them in very sophisticated ways: “Don’t worry, I’m a businessman NOT a politician”, “I’m an entrepreneur NOT a bureaucrat”, and so on.
Notness is Trump’s secret verbal weapon. He used it to reframe the competition as negative by their very definition: he’s “NOT establishment”, “NOT a Clinton”, “NOT a liberal”, “NOT an experienced politician”. And by simply standing in opposition to something else, he managed to avoid having to define his own plans and solutions beyond the (re)assurance that they would be “great”.
It gets really interesting when we measure the ripple effect of his tweets: who was retweeting, what particular content, using what language and repurposing to what effect?
I looked at Trump’s last 100 tweets (from 5 to 19 January) and pulled out some of the recurring patterns. The dual tension between purpose and pain points was very apparent. He struck a near-equal balance with 45 out of 100 coded as “positive” in sentiment and 41 as “negative”, with just 14 falling somewhere in between. He managed to find the “Golden Mean” – the ideal moderate position between two extremes, in this case between differentiation and unspecific vision. Perhaps that’s the perfect score for a modern politician.
Trump also harnessed an us vs them language tension. “Those intelligence chiefs” and “Crooked opponents who try to belittle our victory”. His language was overtly binary, “with us or against us”, which enhanced the status of Trump supporters as the in-group. Again, this was all linked to notness language.
Then there’s his use of conspiratorial framing: “wrong” and “lie” featured repeatedly as well as inclusive leading questions: “What is going on?” and overt references to alleged chicanery: “released by ‘intelligence’ even knowing there is no proof, and never will be”, “My people will have a full report on hacking within 90 days!”. “Fake news” and “biased media” also featured in over a third of his last 100 tweets.
Finally, there’s a tendency for HYPERBOLE (and capitals), as well as exaggeration. This was not simply a lexical consistency, but also evident within his sentence construction – which was used for emphasis or effect: “Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”
Trump revealed himself to be one of the best salesmen of our time. He knows how to differentiate himself from the competition (notness) and also define a future vision without unhelpful accountability (great). And all the while he pattern-matched the anger and disaffection of his audience using emotive language to create drama and resonance.
Alex van Gestel is the CEO of Verbalisation
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