How brand Trump galvanised a nation

Emily Pritchard

Emily Pritchard on the record voter turnout for the US mid-term elections

07 November 2018 11:34

113 million. 113 million decisions, 113 million ballot cards marked*. Every pen marking not a scratch of ink, but a signal. A baseball cap raised, else a protest card, that says, ‘Trump; I am with you, or I am against you.’

This year marked the biggest voter turnout in a mid-term election since 1966. By the time the sun had bathed Texas in weak autumnal light on Sunday 4th November, the number of early votes cast had already superseded total turnout in the state in 2014. Such, we presume, is the theatre of politics today. Brexit, Trump; interests piqued, judgements made. It’s the era of the previously dispassionate ignited. But why? Why have people made the decision to vote, not Republican or Democrat, but at all?

In recent years, less than two-fifths of the nation has bothered to vote in mid-terms. This year, it is predicted that 49 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots. Graphically, the surge reads like a cortisol spike; fight or flight. Behavioural psychologists argue that there are four levers which, in various combinations, can be employed to prompt humans to change their behaviour. A good example is trying to coerce the public to quit smoking. The first lever, control, works in this case – you raise taxes, you introduce a smoking ban, you outlaw it altogether. But for voting? It’s the law in Australia and Ecuador, but there seems to be little sign of introducing a similar policy either in the US, or here. Second, design – that’s advertising. That’s the cancerous throat on the cigarette packet, the rotting jaw, dark against teeth and bone. The third and fourth levers, persuasion and education, are usually used in tandem; think a Public Health England campaign citing a non-smoker’s improved lung capacity, life expectancy or finances. Politicians have tried for years to perfect the equilibrium between the two, to push the voter just enough to leave the house, to cast their vote, but without ‘nannying’. Isn’t it ironic that Trump, who is arguably, to quote Hillary Clinton’s running mate Ted Kaine, ‘someone who doesn’t mind going after the pillars of our democracy,’ seems to be the politician to have finally nailed it? How? By design.

Why have people made the decision to vote, not Republican or Democrat, but at all?

Trump is a brand. A red-faced, blustering, racist, misogynistic, Twitter-happy brand, one seemingly incapable of holding a press conference more than fifty yards away from the jets of Air Force One. Every comment he makes, every policy he proposes, every pussy he grabs, reinforces this brand, and it sticks in the minds of the population in the same way as the decaying throat on the fag packet.

The midterms don’t usually pull voters in; they’re boring; they don’t really matter; they’re pointless. But Trump has stoked and stuck in the minds of the politically apathetic in the way that Brexit stoked UK citizens in 2016. ‘Take Back Control’; ‘Make America Great Again’. It’s all design. Design that sparks the idea of giving power back to those who feel powerless, to those who are more interested in exercising that power than the outcome for the society on which their constitution – or equivalent – is based. What Trump seems to have cracked is the ability to inspire enthusiasm and hatred in a way that, this year, made the mid-terms matter.

Analyses will be made on the proportion of women voters, black voters, Hispanic voters. Were they with Trump, or against him – the Christians, the single parents, the high-school shooting survivors? The Democrats lead in winning back the house looks hopeful – but in this instance, facing an America that is looking perhaps nearer, today, to the democracy on which its values are supposedly based, let’s reflect not on the individuals, but the sheer, solid weight of that number. 113 million; a punchbag, a sheer lumpen mass of voices, each vote an all-American grain of sand.

*As estimated by Edison Research.