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Journalist Explains The Method To Trump’s Madness In 18 Tweets

His tactics are eerily similar to those of the Philippines’ current demagogue

Image via Flickr, Twitter

If there’s a blueprint to understanding how Donald Trump can flex such outsized power, a journalist covering populist demagoguery in the Philippines may just have helped us crack the code.


Reflecting on his recent investigation into Rodrigo Duterte’s turbulent term in office, The New Yorker’s Adrian Chen sketched out a pattern of rhetoric and rabble-rousing that lines up well with Trump’s—in some ways, yet not in others. “Duterte is a skilled and experienced politician. Trump is a political novice,” Chen allowed, “Duterte campaigned on mass murder and rejection of human rights, but even Trump hasn't endorsed extrajudicially killing immigrants.” But both, he noted, “are crude and uncensored and delight in scandalizing elites.”

The key is what that seeming affectation can accomplish politically, playing traditional and social media against one another. Traditional journalists have an overwhelming interest in reporting the most outrageous or “clicky” things an uncensored populist says. But his very spontaneity and lack of polish means “supporters can find evidence in the full text to support a more sympathetic interpretation.” The mainstream media looks dishonest, and the populist can “‘test out’ extreme positions in real time,” widening and exploiting a growing gulf between established opinion and the attitudes of his base. “He gets power from that misunderstanding,” Chen concludes, “the more people fight over what he says, the less people fight about what he does.”

One key for the reading public might be to stay on guard against getting emotionally caught up in wars of words conducted by far-off elites. Journalists who spend a lot of time in the established world of political and media elites will have to work overtime to fight the kind of misunderstanding sown by 21st century online populism. More than the next four years are at stake, too. Few saw Trump coming, and even fewer know what or who is coming next. We’re all apt to be well served in uncertain times by keeping lines of trust and communication open between producers of traditional media and consumers of social media.

Check out Chen’s full Twitter thread below for more details.

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