Note: This article was originally published on The Hill.
Donald Trump will be America’s next president. This has shocked a lot of people, who don’t understand how such a thing could happen. But I do. At the end of the day, Trump is a PR genius and Hillary Clinton is not.
Trump broke his campaign down into its most basic parts, turning this election into a war between populism and elitism. He then took every issue that came at him and shunted it into that framework. Trump branded himself as a blue-collar billionaire, an image that appealed to a lot of voters who had been feeling overlooked for a long time.
And Trump was able to get this message out cheaply because he understands media. At every juncture, he was able to dominate the national conversation through media. He gave interviews constantly — whether by calling in to television stories or speaking to the press in person — and ensured that, through the things he said, the media was always discussing him. He floored his campaign by generating earned media — good or bad.
With expert media manipulation, Trump earned himself approximately $5 billion worth of media attention for free, according to figures reported by Reuters. By comparison, Clinton garnered less than half that.
Due to his years on reality television, Trump understands the medium of television better than perhaps anyone else in our nation’s political history.
It is a commonly held belief that Richard Nixon lost the 1960 presidential race partially because he had a poor television presence during the debates, as he stumbled over words and sweated profusely, at least compared to John F. Kennedy. Trump knows how to avoid such pitfalls and how to use television to promote himself.
And while Clinton was working to win votes from a variety of groups, Trump focused on his main constituency, white males who have been feeling that their country is no longer their own. Trump knew his demographic and he never swayed from them, never tried to court votes from other sectors. Because of this, he was seen as having a strong and inviolable message.
He ran a shockwave through not just America, but through his own political party. It can be argued that the Republican Party was on the precipice of obliteration for being archaic and out-of-touch. Trump eschewed typical politics and ran his campaign based on a simple, human message: I stand for those of you who have been feeling less and less represented over the years.
In the past decade or so, Americans have lost their faith in institutions once held indomitable. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll, only 19 percent of Americans feel they can trust the U.S. government.
Americans no longer trust the men and women sworn to protect them in the face of highly publicized police brutality cases. And they no longer trust the media, which they see as putting a bias on all reporting and even manipulating what is reported to earn money. A September 2016 Gallup poll shows that only 32 percent of Americans feel they can trust the media.
Again, Trump turned this election into populism vs. elitism, with elitism standing for the establishment. While Clinton garnered more than 95 percent of the newspaper endorsements, Trump was able to use that to his advantage, using this as further evidence of the groundwork he had set to propel Americans to see the media as pro-establishment, biased and elitist.
He also put all issues of globalism into this framework, making globalism synonymous with elitism — the establishment spending your money on people who don’t live here — and protectionism a rallying cry for populism.
When Americans felt that illegal immigration had gotten out of hand, Trump kept his message simple and direct.
According to him, he is going to build a wall and keep them out. He stayed away from the complexities of the situation and delivered sound bites. As Americans continued to worry about the slowly recovering economy and outsourcing, Trump attacked the North American Free Trade Agreement, blaming the agreement signed in 1993 for today’s current economic and job industry issues.
Essentially, each of Trump’s foreign policy opinions came down to putting America first, even if it is at the expense of the rest of the world. He again and again made it clear that he was not going to do what he felt needed to be done and he would not negotiate. The establishment negotiates; Clinton negotiates. Trump set himself apart.
And, using his maverick PR skills, Trump was consistently able to play up the differences between himself and Clinton. Not only did he allow Clinton to paint herself as the expert, he tacitly encouraged her to do so, because that made him one of the people. Like a shark smelling blood in the water, Trump was able to zero in on each of Clinton’s shortcomings and manipulate earned media to air them.
Trump managed to clump Clinton, political parties, the government and the media into the role of establishment, while taking the mantle of anti-establishment on his shoulders alone. The American people hungered for something different and Trump is as different as they come.
Nass is a public relations executive based in NYC, specializing in crisis communications and reputation management.