Almost four years ago, Donald Trump’s presidency began with a small, silly lie about the size of his inauguration crowd. On Nov. 7, as Joe Biden’s lead in the vote count became insurmountable, the Trump presidency effectively ended with a big, dangerous lie — as the president claimed that he had won but been cheated by fraud.
Both lies flew in the face of all evidence. In 2016, however, we were only just starting to grasp the way political narratives and social media filter bubbles converged, allowing people to believe what a Trump adviser coined “alternative facts.” In 2020, we are unsurprised when such lies emerge, and we know more about how conspiracy theories are spread, deceiving millions into believing them.
One thing has not changed: we are vulnerable. As the transgressive satirist Sacha Baron Cohen shrewdly observed, “democracy depends on shared truths; autocracy depends on shared lies.” Our lack of shared truth presents a huge threat to humanity — imperilling social cohesion, confidence in democracy, compliance with public health guidelines, racial equality, respect for the rule of law, and our ability to act collectively against climate change.
The week after the 2016 election, I wrote that Trump’s victory merited study by ethical communicators, because “only by understanding how communication can be used for division can we aspire to see communication used more often for hope, healing and harmony.”
Is Biden’s decisive victory a repudiation not just of Trump, but of Trump’s divisive and dangerous approach to leadership communication? No, but there are glimmers of hope. What fresh lessons can we learn today about the role of communication in achieving mutual understanding?
A defeat for hubris, not a victory for truth
Trump proved to be fallible. His surprise 2016 victory created an illusion of the president as a political and communications mastermind – skilled in gaslighting, media intimidation and misdirection.
While still a potent politician, the Trump of 2020 proved unable to adapt his message or follow a disciplined strategy to target swing voters. The narrative of grievance was ineffective from an incumbent. The call to action – “Keep America Great” – flew in the face of observable reality. He blew his best chance to reset the campaign with an erratic performance in the first presidential debate. And while Trump’s inner circle had better instincts, they harmed their chances by indulging his whims and obsessions – such as attacking mail-in voting, holding ego-boosting rallies during a pandemic, and wasting scarce advertising dollars on Washington cable shows the president likes to watch.
Would Biden still have won had Trump not shown such hubris? Since so few minds changed in the summer and fall, perhaps. Biden’s core messages were certainly sharper (“Battle for the soul of the nation” and “Build back better”). However, the Trump campaign’s success in convincing many Latino voters that Biden was a Castro- or Chavez-style socialist (an ironic claim, given Trump’s similarities to the latter) was a grim reminder of the weakness of current defences against dishonesty.
The campaign did, however, reveal more about the best defences against these dark arts.
Investing in smarter media — both news and social
In the 2016 campaign, the mainstream media were too often co-opted into complicity with Trump’s narrative. His allegations of bias made them bend over backwards to devote comparable coverage to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and Trump’s much more serious misbehaviours — including misuse of charitable funds, the promotion of racist “birther” conspiracy theories against former president Barack Obama, and multiple allegations of sexual assault.
By 2020, news media outlets and social platforms alike had reconsidered their responsibilities and developed policies and practices to prevent obvious falsehoods from standing unchallenged. In the recent U.S. campaign, many professional journalists refused to be manipulated:
- Public-interest journalism played pivotal roles in the campaign at key moments, including moderator Savannah Guthrie’s refusal to let Trump evade questions during the NBC town hall, and the New York Times’ investigation into the president’s tax avoidance.
- The Trump campaign’s attempts to claim – without evidence – that Biden profited from his son’s business dealings were given little credence, including by the GOP-friendly Wall Street Journal and Fox News. The statement by NPR’s public editor was particularly memorable.
- On both election night and during the dramatic days of the count, several networks interrupted, cut away or swiftly corrected Trump’s remarks when he clearly said things that were untrue. On November 10, Fox News cut away from Trump’s spokesperson for the same reason. With less oxygen, the flame of manufactured controversy burned more dimly.
And finally, even social media networks – such as the president’s preferred medium of Twitter – have begun to understand the need to flag misleading content – even from (and perhaps especially from) such an influential source.
Could such actions reinforce the false narrative of a “rigged media?” That is a risk – but one worth running. Investments in professional journalism, social media fact-checking and citizen media literacy are essential. The common goal must be a consistent demand for evidence over opinion.
Turning crises into educational opportunities
After Trump’s election, my greatest fear was that he would follow in the footsteps of the authoritarian leaders he admires, creating or fomenting crises and then responding by limiting civil rights and shredding democratic norms. He certainly tried — from the Muslim travel ban in his first year to the manipulation of pandemic information in his last. Often, however, America’s courts, national security agencies and scientists held his worst excesses in check.
What I did not fully appreciate was how effectively a crisis can expose falsehood and ineptitude – provided that the truth is sufficiently discernible for all to see. Crises are inherently resistant to narratives, and to attempts to spin the facts to one’s advantage.
One of the campaign’s early turning points came in June, when Trump built up expectations for a packed Oklahoma rally, only to speak to a half-empty arena. As the New York Times reported, the president “had not been able to will public opinion away from fears about the spread of the coronavirus in an indoor space.”
Making empathy a superpower
One lesson leaders can learn from Biden’s success is the power of empathy. While he lacks the persuasive power of a Kennedy, Reagan or Obama, he excels at demonstrating empathy, both on the podium and in small human interactions.
The power of empathy is that it runs both ways: when you give it, you receive it. The vicious defamation that Trump had used successfully against Hillary Clinton was largely inert when tried on Biden, as the president’s daughter-in-law discovered when she mocked his stutter, and Trump himself found out during the first debate when he mocked Hunter Biden’s struggle with addiction. If anything, such attacks increased empathy for the Democratic candidate.
While Trump is not known for empathy, it is essential to note that he understood and articulated the frustration and rage of large segments of society who felt left behind by educated, urban America. Seventy-one million people voted for him. Dismissing them all would be dangerous; Biden made a good start by pledging to govern for them, too. He must make good on that promise.
The key for ethical leaders and communicators is to turn empathy into a superpower by both demonstrating it and having the agility to act on it. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern has it in spades. This is partly about communication: consider how ads like this one might be more effective than angry speeches. It is, however, ultimately about turning empathy into meaningful action. The National Basketball Association’s powerful embrace of racial equity – followed by action to help turn out black voters – is a good example.
Developing ethical leaders — and rewarding them
The greatest bulwark against the dark side of communication is the most obvious: ethical leadership.
The real test of leadership is not standing for truth, justice and civility when it’s easy, but when it’s hard. History will remember the corporate leaders who distanced themselves from the president, upending traditional wisdom about never mixing business and politics.
In every country, politics is troublingly tribal – and that is why some of the most powerful ethical voices were the Republicans who risked the ostracization from their peers in exchange for only limited praise from their opponents. These included former GOP presidential candidates such as Senator Mitt Romney and former Ohio governor John Kasich; a coalition of more than 130 former GOP national security officials; and the former senior Trump administration staffer, Miles Taylor.
Late in the campaign, I was struck by an article quoting Trump’s former chief of staff, John Kelly, referring to the transactional nature of all the president’s relationships. This proved to be a fatal flaw for Trump. Wise leaders will work with public relations advisers to enhance their listening and communication skills, their public engagement processes, and their strategies to build and nurture deep relationships with their public and stakeholders, based on shared values.
While Trump will soon leave office, new Trumps will surely emerge in the world’s major democracies. This is why government, business and civil society leaders must act together to support public-interest journalism, citizen media literacy and effective crisis and science communication. This is also why organizations must invest in recruiting and developing leaders with both ethics and empathy, and ensuring they have both the authority and the agility to act on what they learn. If we can summon this type of collective will, the light of shared truth can shine more brightly.