Words by Michael Winnick, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons
Slams at Hamilton and SNL. Fights with Mexico and Ford. Calls with Taiwan. A steady stream of incendiary messages, 4 a.m. rants, and BOLD STATEMENTS.
How is the American electorate processing these seemingly random and off-the-cuff media binges from our president? As we've been tracking the thoughts and opinions of American voters across the country, we expected to watch voter sentiment as it evolved over time. What we got was a front-row seat to the unfolding of a flashpoint presidency.
Since Washington retired to Mount Vernon, presidential transitions have been marked by continuity and calm. The orderly, peaceful transition of power, from a gracious outgoer to an enthusiastic newcomer, is a hallmark of American democracy. While this transition certainly remains quite orderly, we're seeing a different approach. Trump doesn’t shy away from drama. He loves it. He’s a reality TV star who knows that conflict commands attention and has long believed that “bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all.”
"I can go bing bing bing . . . and they put it on. and as soon as I tweet it out — this morning on television, FOX — ‘Donald Trump, we have breaking news.'” Donald Trump, Times of London interview, January 16, 2017
It’s clear in our research that Donald Trump has a vehicle for making that on-demand publicity happen: flashpoints. Since the election, scout entries and videos clustered around a steady drumbeat of mini-conflicts that kept the electorate engaged, fired up and polarized. Our researchers noticed this pattern as they combed through and meticulously tagged nearly 1,000 entries and many hours of video. At the same time, our friends at Quid, makers of a pioneering data modeling platform, analyzed our data using AI. Their visualizations corroborated what we found.
Either way, the typical media playbook strategies have been replaced. Obama may have been the first candidate to go digital in his election strategy, but Trump and Jared Kushner growth-hacked it.
The flashpoint presidency playbook
Throughout our study, scouts have responded to Trump’s flashpoints in three ways that demonstrate their consistency and power. First, flashpoints have pointed and maintained voter attention towards certain topics. Equally as important, some scouts believed their attention had been intentionally diverted away from other news events, noting, for example, the timing of the Hamilton controversy alongside Trump’s $25 million lawsuit settlement.
Flashpoints also both galvanize Trump’s supporters and enrage his detractors, keeping everyone emotionally charged and invested. Take the reactions to Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe speech, for example:
"Trump tweeting about Meryl Streep early this morning was absolutely outrageous. I disagree with it wholeheartedly. I'm disappointed he's thin-skinned. He really doesn't need to be our president if he can't handle criticism.” Crysta G. 46 | Alhambra, CA
"I guess I used to be a Meryl Streep fan. But after watching the Golden Globes last night, I am just done....I'm just so done with Hollywood ... people are a bunch of babies." Bridget B. 48 | Ballwin, MO
Lastly, flashpoints work as a strategy to undermine rivals, placing them on the defense and on the political ground of Trump’s choosing. The battle with John Lewis, who announced his boycott of the inauguration, is a recent example.
In our analysis, we’ve categorized the flashpoints our scouts mentioned in their entries according to both their content and the reactions they created with our participants. While his strategies are similar to age-old rhetorical strategies, their straight-to-the-public use in social media, their timing, and their content all serve to heighten their power.
Flashpoint type 1: Picking a fight
In a typical presidential transition, the incomer crafts sound bites around policy and legislation. Trump, on the other hand, shares anecdotes, calls out individuals and organizations (such as the CIA and Congress), and starts arguments--particularly in the corporate realm. Traditional press conferences outlining policy were conspicuously absent.
Scout mentions spiked, for example, when Trump tweeted that he compelled a single company, Carrier, to keep a relatively small number of domestic jobs. He followed up with tweets about Lockheed Martin, GM, and Toyota for the same reason.
"This week, I feel like Donald Trump has been pretty active. I know he's been on Twitter. I know he's been doing a lot of things with companies.... I think that's tremendous…. I think he's doing a great job already, and he's not even officially in office yet." John K. 39 | Clay, NY
"Using bribes to get Carrier to leave 800 out of 2,000 or 3,000 jobs in Indiana.... all these things show what a ridiculous person Donald Trump is, and how horrible of a presidency he's going to have, and what a disaster and a shit show our country is going to be in store for the next four years." William C. 40 | Denver, CO
"Without even already being President of the U.S., Trump is saving jobs in America and keeping companies here. So I think that so far, things are going great, and America is going to get better." Jennifer B. 34 | Aliso Viejo, CA
"I do wonder if this is the type of government that we should be engaged in. Does the President really have time to call company after company and do this, and what is he offering them? It almost feels like it's some kind of ransom." Kelly S. 41 | Los Angeles, CA
Flashpoint type 2: Stirring the pot
Stirring the pot, on the literal side, takes something mostly stable and destabilizes it. Give that ladle a quick swirl, and who knows how the soup’s going to turn out. Instability, of course, creates a favorable starting point for negotiation. Leverage.
In this category, scouts reacted when Trump stirred up domestic issues: he admonished Congress for aiming to weaken the Congressional Ethics Office and proposed jail time or loss of citizenship as a penalty for burning the American flag. Scouts cited international issues as well: the Wall, the Israeli embassy, and breaking precedent by accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president.
"He's just showing a total disregard for his recklessness, in terms of how he's dealing with world politics, and an arrogance that just he can do whatever he wants." Amy C. 44 | Chicago, IL
“It doesn’t matter whether it was intentional or unintentional... it was, it was just, NO.” Jennifer M. 47 | Lewisburg, TN
“I like the fact that he has come out in full force talking about the whole phone call with the president of Taiwan. I believe it was breaking pretty much a decades-old protocol.” Sean W. 37 | Lansdale, PA
Flashpoint type 3: Voicing injury
The best defense is a good... offense? Criticizing your opponent is a standard strategy to delegitimize their attacks. In this, Trump’s Twitter feed has been active since long before the election. Of late, his favorite retorts have targeted Meryl Streep, Saturday Night Live, Alec Baldwin and the Media.
And then, of course, there was Hamilton. After audience members booed the vice president, a member of the Hamilton cast announced, “There's nothing to boo here, we're all here sharing a story of love.” He proceeded to ask Mike Pence to work on their behalf, but Trump was having none of it.
"It's disappointing that this continues to go on. The special interest groups, gay and lesbians, want equal rights, and minorities want equal rights. We can go on and on with that. But you know, when you don't see it their way, they are upset. They throw a fit.” Andrew S. 40 | UT
“What I find astounding is that in the name of diversity, the cast of Hamilton [and] the producers did not want any Anglos. They did not want anybody who was a white actor." Michael T. 50 | Medford, OR
“It's just disgusting. I mean, I don't understand his issue. He claims they harass them and how the theater is a safe and special place. And yet he's calling them out for respectfully asking Pence and his administration to keep them in mind." Armando G. 35 | Vancouver, WA
"The whole Hamilton thing over the weekend was absolutely ridiculous. And of course [it was] timed with the 25 million dollar settlement. And so it just is more of the same.” Vito A. 55 | Charlotte, NC
Flashpoint type 4: Stiff arming
When confronted with key issues and controversy, a common tactic in full-contact football and politics is to create distance--forcefully. Minimization of an issue helps, too. Trump’s perceived conflicts of interest, potential nepotism, and questions around Russian hacking are the most obvious examples.
Of course, not all post-election conflicts and controversies were initiated by President Trump. Stiff arming as a response, however, is one tactic to re-assert the legitimacy of his position. For example, claims that Russian intelligence holds compromising information on Trump have been met by an uncharacteristic disinterest from traditional news media (fake or otherwise).
"Despite all of the evidence and the findings from the intelligence agencies, I think his way of just minimizing and dismissing it is very frightening, as well as the news stories that are starting to emerge around his potential influence from foreign governments and individuals, based on his business holdings." Joel M. 51 | Santa Monica, CA
“It's highly annoying, the dismissals by Trump about possible cyber hacking and cyber attacking, from Russia…. When these other reports [are] coming in about Russia, he is kind of trying to put them to the side, and his supporters are doing the same, acting like it's not a big deal.” Edward H. 41 | Brooklyn, NY
“Right now, I'm quite pleased with the way Donald Trump is handling the allegations about Russian involvement in the election. It's just so ludicrous. I find it ridiculous that people think that Russia had anything to do with the whole election process. He's handling it quite well, saying, you know, it's not a big deal, especially about his businesses. He's a businessman.” Lisa M. 43 | Warwick, RI
"I'm just hoping that all of the haters and all of the people who feel like Russia had something to do with the election would go away. Just be quiet, and let the man do his job, and give him a chance to make America great." Tiffany B. 37 | Athens, GA
Social is the medium
That Silicon Valley is upset about Trump is thick with irony. A flashpoint presidency couldn’t exist without social media. Trump is to social media as FDR was to radio or Reagan was to TV. He is an expert of the medium, far outdistancing his rivals.
64% of our scouts felt that social media was more influential than traditional media during the campaign. 94% of scouts agreed that social media has irrevocably changed the electoral process, agreeing with the statement, "Campaigns will never be the same. Social media has fundamentally altered the political landscape." The social media genie is out of the political bottle.
Trump knows that pablum and policy don’t trend on social. Fights trend. Controversy trends. And he knows that trending is what matters. Why did he meet with Kanye? Perhaps to discuss the fine points of social media strategy.
Another thing that trends is “authenticity.” To make people feel like they are getting the real deal, even if it is the carefully produced work of an expert social media team. The famous boardroom scenes in The Apprentice were ten minutes of TV, but each took three hours to produce. Hollywood stars spend big $$$ for social media teams that make them look like they are just hangin’ out and being real. Taylor Swift isn’t just personally dropping by a fan’s house on Christmas to give him a concert. Her team makes that happen with mercenary efficiency.
Hillary used social with decorum, but Trump used it like a reality TV star. He dropped Twitter bombs, he trolled, and he let partisans hash out the aftermath. Mainstream media merely responded to what had already appeared on social. Hillary was running a conventional, 20th-century presidential candidacy against a rival who was playing a different game--flashpoint driven and guerilla style.
Will the ratings hold up?
In our ten weeks of research, we’ve seen steady partisan sentiment, maintained by flashpoints that expertly hold and direct attention.
Hillary voters’ sentiment has been negative and stable. Trump voters’ has been positive and stable until last week, when for the first time, Trump sentiment started to dip. Consistent with recent polling, we’re hearing more supporters voice concerns about his behavior. But overall, they're still behind his tweeting: 64% of Trump-supporting scouts somewhat or strongly believed he should continue to tweet and share his opinions directly with the American people, while 63% of scouts in the Hillary camp strongly disagreed with the practice.
To this point, we’ve all been drawn into the show, cheering or jeering at every post. Many of our scouts thought/hoped that President Trump would tone it down after the election and become a more moderating force. Recent headlines make it clear that’s not happening. The real question is, will the American people lose interest? After all, viewership of The Apprentice did peak in Season 1.
About the dscout methodology
As people nerds, dscout’s researchers are always curious about what people are thinking and how that may change over time. Using our qualitative research platform, we help researchers dig into the “why” of people’s thoughts, behaviors and activities in the moments that matter, which are hard to gather with other qual methods.
We asked 96 Democratic, Republican, and Independent voters from our pool of over 100,000 research participants to participate in a longitudinal diary study, checking in every two weeks between the election and the inauguration, via our mobile app. The participants—we call them “scouts”—shared moments via video, photos, and open- and closed-ended questions. We then analyzed, tagged, synthesized, and exported the qualitative data with a suite of tools in the platform.
Quid is a dedicated group of engineers, scientists, designers, and entrepreneurs who make software that can read text data at scale (including news, surveys, and company profiles). We power human intuition with machine intelligence, enabling organizations to make decisions that matter.
Michael Winnick is the CEO and founder of dscout. Since the platform's founding, research leaders have tapped Michael’s personal passion for harnessing context-rich, human insight to drive innovation.
Michael previously served as gravitytank’s managing partner, steering the innovation consultancy through continuous growth for nearly a decade, prior to its acquisition by Salesforce. He’s led product development at Bay Area start-ups and media companies, including WIRED.
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