Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump finally faced off this past Monday in the first Presidential Debate. I left it feeling like I’d just watched a roast; no real sense of who the candidates are on a personal level, what motivates their actions, and what informs their philosophies. Maybe some mild appreciation for a few good jabs. Human touch and relatability have always been a deciding factor in choosing a president—like in 2000 when George Bush won the presidency because people wanted to have a beer with him, or 8 years earlier, when Bill Clinton secured his nomination with a saxophone solo on the Arsenio Hall Show.
Both Clinton and Trump have tried to use every technology and social platform available to bridge the “human gap.” I’m skeptical that it will make any notable difference. As far as I can tell, here are the 4 most valiant attempts to connect with voters through technology and social media, by each candidate so far.
1. “Between Two Ferns” Appearance
“Between Two Ferns,” the no-budget online talk show hosted by Zach Galifianakis, has become somewhat of a human proving ground for politicians and controversial celebrities. It’s like having a roast in 6 minutes, showing the American people that the guest can take a joke. That’s about all it proved in Hillary’s case. She, like Obama, played the role of the cold and unamused professional, admonishing Zach’s silliness in the face of such looming…silliness.
Hillary, while being able to laugh off an email joke, seemed unwilling to take any cracks at herself or even allude to an inner ounce of jest or levity. The bar for humor is so low however, and Galifianakis is such a great comedian, that the stunt will likely help sway some voters—the YouTube video has over 11 million views, with a whopping 9:1 thumbs-up-to-thumbs-down ratio.
Galifianakis has also gone on record as saying he won’t have Donald Trump on the show, supposedly because of his “mental illness.” But it probably has a lot to do with the fact that shows like his can have a positive impact on a campaign. Just look at what SNL did for Sarah Palin, and later, for The Donald himself.
2. Generic Celebrity-Filled Video About Why This Moment Is So Important
Every Democratic candidate seems to get a video featuring some of the most loyal, left-leaning celebrities. In 2008, for instance, Stephen Spielberg directed a video where he encouraged celebrities to tell people “not to vote.” The actors acted annoyed, and that was that. This time around, it’s a new group of actors led by Robert Downey Jr., and they spend most of the video talking about who’s the most famous, and how silly celebrity testimonials are in general. How very “real” of them…
While it had some of the much needed self-deprecation that Clinton’s “Between Two Ferns” appearance was lacking, it felt unfocused and somewhat indulgent. There’s a joke in there about Mark Ruffalo getting naked in a movie if you vote. It didn’t really fit. As for emotion and meaning—all the stuff a good political video should have—we got a little bit of righteous indignation from Don Cheadle, who called Trump a “racist, abusive coward who could permanently damage the fabric of our society.” Hope has been replaced by Anger.
3. “I’m With Her” Hashtag
Trump outdoes every candidate when it comes to Twitter, but after Monday’s debate, Hillary had the most trending hashtag: #ImWithHer. This is a slogan she’s been using since 2011, but it has taken on more significance as Hillary supporters reluctantly come out of the closet. While it personifies the Presidential caricature and offers a gender alliance, I think it obscures Hillary’s actual personality more than it illuminates it. She’s no longer Hillary; she’s just, “her.”
What will happen to the world if the president of the United States is a bully?#ImWithHer
— Bex Taylor-Klaus (@IBexWeBex) September 29, 2016
The emphasis on gender’s priority over person (as character-limit-driven as it may be) seems a bit backwards at this stage in the game and I have to imagine exposes a chip on Hillary’s shoulder. Just imagine if Barack Obama’s most popular hashtag was: #I’mWithTheBlackGuy.
Obama tried to distance himself from any suggestion that people were voting for him simply because of his race. Clinton has puts her gender front and center right alongside her not-Trumpness. Elections are often lost, not won, but few candidates have embraced the anything-but narrative like Clinton has. The very slogan on her website is “Stop Donald Trump.”
4. Fact-checking Front Page
Trump is fast and loose with the facts; for him, emotion beats reason. He talks about walls, safety, bad guys, and how awesome it is to be rich. Hillary’s strategy, on the other hand, has been to double down on facts. That’s why she added to her website a live fact-checking feed called, Literally Trump, which she mentioned at the top of the debate—so people could call Trump’s bullshit in real time. It seems to have worked to some degree.
Almost 2 million people visited her site within an hour of her mentioning the fact-checking functionality. The company, Fastly found a spike of 3,000 percent in requests for fact checker websites after Clinton mentioned her own. By Wednesday morning, sketchy Trump “facts” had been shared on social media in the ballpark of 20,000 times. “I know you live in your own reality” was Clinton’s most mentioned comment on Twitter. Her emphasis on facts may not appeal to the lowest-common-denominator, but it was a way to create a caricature of Trump as the Mayor of Fantasy Land; a place not too many will openly admit they live.
Which brings us to the man himself…
1. “Stop and Frisk”
Hillary’s slogans, like “Trumped up, trickle down,” got her some mentions online. Trump got almost 3 times as much attention by coming out in favor of stop and frisk, a policing practice whereby police officers are able to search anyone at anytime. In the 1968 Terry v. Ohio Supreme Court case, it was deemed constitutional on any street, but it was recently deemed unconstitutional in New York, a fact that Trump denied.
Stop and frisk works. Instead of criticizing @NY_POLICE Chief Ray Kelly, New Yorkers should be thanking him for keeping NY safe.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 3, 2013
It surprised me at first to hear him come out in favor of such a controversial practice, since he wasn’t even asked about it in the first place, but that’s Trump’s M.O; he takes the worst piece of evidence against his ideas and frames it as evidence for them. It’s a remarkable bit of mental judo. Dilbert creator Scott Adams, a trained hypnotist, believes that Trump’s style of persuasion is itself a form of hypnosis powerful enough to secure the win. Repeating a false claim with confidence until it becomes true would fall into that category. If he can normalize the worst examples of his worldview (stop and frisk, walls in Mexico, corruption) he can sound reasonable in comparison when he’s discussing his best ideas (de-escalation of foreign wars, rebuilding of American cities).
2. Debate Night Snapchat Filter
Trump, like Clinton, is a Snapchat evangelist who clearly doesn’t use Snapchat. His new filter has probably gotten an undue amount of press, since it’s just a picture frame with the title: “Debate Day: Donald J. Trump vs. Crooked Hillary.” But it’s Trump doing it, and anything the man touches seems to be newsworthy. Also, not a whole lot makes a whole lot of sense on Snapchat anyway. But there’s a captive audience there.
Snapchat reaches a younger demographic than Twitter and Facebook, a demographic that will unlikely vote at the same rate they did in 2004 and 2008. They’re up for grabs, in other words, if you can convince them to leave their warm beds. Clinton herself has come out in support of Snapchat as her favorite platform. When she was on Jimmy Fallon’s show though, it looked like a tech savvy child explaining social media to his mom. So far it seems that both Trump and Clinton are Snapchatters in name only.
3. Actual Engagement on Facebook and Twitter
The Pew Research Center examined Twitter and Facebook earlier this year and found that Trump retweeted more frequently than any of the other candidates—78% of those retweets were of tweets from members of the general public. Trump also shared more stories that were written about him, rather than trying to control the dialogue. It creates an image that he is an open book, even if the book is fiction, or highly offensive.
Trump has demonstrated a willingness to say just about anything. Like his controversial support of stop and frisk, he has realized that “honest” engagement (or at least first person engagement), even when it’s people telling you how racist you are, is better than no engagement. He posts conspiracy theories, random thoughts about celebrities, and some of the most brutal insults ever delivered by a public person—like this reply to Arianna Huffington:
Holy shit. Attrition leads to engagement, I guess; 5,800 retweets of that insult, dished out by a Presidential candidate. Trump is happy to bully up the pulpit in the name of clicks. The worse he acts, the more attention he gets, and paradoxically, the more reasonable he looks when things calm down.
4. Not Giving a Fuck
When it comes to social media and public engagement, Trump seems to have one strategy and he’s riding it all the way home: not giving a fuck and never calculating his next move too much (if at all). It’s a quality many of us envy, even if we find Trump’s version of it deplorable. Why can Trump say anything online, while Hillary has to tip toe around everything? Plenty of people blame inherent sexism, and they’re certainly right to some degree. But Clinton also has a quality of desperation about her; a visible striving to be respected for her contributions. She seems to think that she’s earned her spot at the time, and is obviously annoyed that not all of us agree.
It’s a strange fact of human nature that the less someone appears to want something, the more people want to give it to them. Rich people get expensive gift baskets and people who don’t proposition sex always seem to get laid. We confuse “really wanting something” with “not being qualified to have it.” If you were qualified, wouldn’t you have it by now? Or so the false logic goes. Clinton has clearly been prepping herself for the presidency for decades, much like Mitt Romney, John Kerry, Al Gore, and other candidates who have fallen short. Unfortunately, to many, her level of preparation and “professionalism” feels inhumanly calculated.
Attention Isn’t the Same as Connection
Trump’s insane tweets, his controversial stances, and his ownership of every criticism, has convinced the republican base that he is above influence. To some, that is an appealing position for a President to be in. To others, it reeks of detachment (and given his history, likely some smoke and mirrors).
Hillary, meanwhile, is running out of chances to connect with the public, and a few Snapchats and hashtags probably aren’t going to change that. You can’t blame her for trying though. Back in 2008, she enjoyed a boost in the polls when she actually cried for the future of our country. This election, she hasn’t been as willing to reveal herself, preferring to focus on what’s wrong with Trump. At the end of the day, I’m with her on that, even if I’m not sure who “her” is. With the rest of the population, I’m not so sure.
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