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.
1/ I didn't write at about parallels between Trump and Duterte, but here are a few thoughts: First, It's hard to compare Trump and Duterte.— Adrian Chen (@Adrian Chen)1479146230.0
2/ The political context of the philippines is different than the U.S. It's way more dysfunctional and fractious. (Thanks, colonialism).— Adrian Chen (@Adrian Chen)1479146240.0
3/ Then there are their records: Duterte is a skilled and experienced politician. Trump is a political novice.— Adrian Chen (@Adrian Chen)1479146258.0
5/ The Trump-Duterte comparison holds up in their style of communication. Both are crude and uncensored and delight in scandalizing elites.— Adrian Chen (@Adrian Chen)1479146282.0
7/ While journalists pick out the most outrageous (i.e. newsworthy) bits, anyone can see the source material.— Adrian Chen (@Adrian Chen)1479146313.0
9/ So social media diehards--crucial to both Duterte Trump--are mobilized by a constant freaking out about "dishonest media."— Adrian Chen (@Adrian Chen)1479146338.0
11/ And because it's never clear what they mean, exactly, the unhinged populist can "test out" extreme positions in real time.— Adrian Chen (@Adrian Chen)1479146361.0
13/ But I don't think it's helpful to get so hung up on the literal meaning of his words that you lose sight of the game he is playing.— Adrian Chen (@Adrian Chen)1479146392.0
15/ He gets power from that misunderstanding--the more people fight over what he says, the less people fight about what he does.— Adrian Chen (@Adrian Chen)1479146440.0
17/ In a way that doesn't excuse or rationalize it, but totally destroys its bullshit power.— Adrian Chen (@Adrian Chen)1479146495.0
18/ Good luck to all of us!— Adrian Chen (@Adrian Chen)1479146507.0