Catchphrases and Top Trumps

The reliable power of a political phrase in recent elections

‘Make America Great Again’.

Emblazoned on caps, waved on placards, repeated again and again by Donald Trump, it was a message that was at the heart of the political earthquake that has shaken the United States. The president-elect skilfully used nicknames, pithy refrains and stadium chants to hammer home his mantras throughout the campaign. And when it comes to election day, these things tend to stick in people’s minds.

When Trump discussed his nearest Republican challenger in the primary process, he called him ‘Lyin’ Ted Cruz. It worked — the name caught on in the public consciousness and media space and Cruz’s campaign was dismissed and dismantled. Trump named the defeated Democratic presidential nominee ‘Crooked Hillary’ and on the campaign trail town halls rang to the deafening refrains of ‘Lock her up’ (on calls for Mrs Clinton to face trial over her use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State — the FBI’s most recent investigation found no case to answer on this).

Mr Trump had two other core chants with which he whipped up his supporters: ‘Build the wall’ (about his now-altered plan for a barrier on the border with Mexico) and ‘Drain the swamp’ (on his stated desire to sweep Washington clean of corruption).

Trump’s election victory compares to the Brexit vote in the UK in June. The similarities clearly exist in the punishment both votes dished out to the establishment candidates and the political elites.

The Trump and the Vote Leave campaigns promised an unclear future but one that would be undeniably different, fresh and changed from a picture they painted of a tired, entrenched system that was not working for the masses. And both campaigns enjoyed a willingness on the part of voters to see past questionable economic claims (in the Vote Leave case) and inflammatory and often racist comments (espoused by Mr Trump). The people overlooked issues like those because there was a greater dream at stake — the drive to rock the Westminster and Washington boats forever.

Furthermore, like the Trump campaign, in the UK, Vote Leave activists made successful use of the pithy remark. The phrases ‘Take back control’ and ‘We want our country back’ — whether these remain truthfully obtainable aims for the Brexiteers or not — carry a message of patriotic optimism with an undercurrent of achievable change. They embody the Vote Leave ambition of wresting the governance of the UK back from Brussels and they hark back to what they see as a golden era of how their country ‘used to be’.

This was a similar flavour to Trump’s ‘Make America great again’. The president-elect’s chant was denounced by opponents as a fallacy but for millions of his voters it was a positive message that could one day be realised. It painted a triumphant image of the superpower’s history but it was also a message where we saw the electorate willingly put on some rose-tinted spectacles to envisage that new ‘old’ America.

And the man that Donald Trump is replacing in the Oval Office knows the power of a good catchphrase.

‘Yes we can’ was the central message for Barack Obama and his team in 2008. An unquestionably positive phrase, it laid the basis for the hope that an African-American president could be elected, and that a new, more mindful politics could be introduced. The fact that the phrase was written and spoken regularly in several languages demonstrated its inclusiveness: any voter could take the phrase and apply it to their personal ambitions.

Slogans that are seen as optimistic and aspirational were also employed by the former British Chancellor, George Osborne, who regularly used the words ‘Long-term economic plan’ throughout his time in the Treasury.

The opposition Labour party would groan and jeer when he uttered it for the umpteenth time in a budget speech. But when it came to the general election in the UK last year, the idea of a ‘long-term economic plan’ struck a chord with the electorate and offered them the chance to be associated with what they saw as an aspirational message. Osborne also used the words ‘hard-working families’ and together the two refrains gave support to the desires and aims of millions of so-called ‘shy Tories’ who propelled Osborne’s party to a majority in May 2015.

Whether or not a phrase is entirely true or can actually be carried out is not of top importance. What matters is how readily the electorate take to the message. Hillary Clinton is unlikely to be ‘locked up’ but frequent hollering of this demand by Trump supporters re-affirmed the fear that millions of Americans had that there was something not wholly truthful about the former first lady’s conduct.

The negotiations to extract the UK from the European Union are going to be difficult and detailed and the terms of the exit are nowhere near set in stone. We do not know whether the country will ever ‘take back control’ but it was the power of what the message meant to voters during the referendum campaign that mattered.

What these phrases also do is convince the electorate that now is the one and only opportunity in history to effect the change behind the refrain.

The millions of Americans who voted Republican last week saw this election as their chance to ‘make America great again’. Those Britons opting to leave the EU saw the referendum as a unique opening to change the course of the country’s future. And those voting for Barack Obama in 2008 dreamt that this was the chosen hour; this was their time to effect the hopeful message of ‘Yes we can’.

Political slogans come and go in elections across the globe, but their iteration can become like a daily prayer for the believers.

What did the Tories say they’ll do in 2015? ‘Well they’ve got a long-term economic plan for hard-working families’. What was Obama’s main promise in 2008? ‘He says ‘Yes we can’ and we believe in him’. Can you name any of Donald Trump’s policies? ‘He’s the man who’s going to make America great again’.

Whether they are correct or not, once a certain rallying cry has been put out there, it is adopted by the faithful and repeated in discourse, online and in print. Catchphrases are useful methods to harden the resolve of your core voting constituency and they are an easy way to promote your policies, as voters take them up and repeat them for you out in the public sphere.

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