Trump Tore a Page out of 'Originals'

Convershaken Staff
January 2, 2017

In Originals, Wharton professor Adam Grant unearths insights about innovation and creativity from the stories of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., unsung suffragist Lucy Stone, Serbian revolutionary Srdja Popovic and other disruptive individuals. The next edition could easily feature Donald Trump.

Grant argues that leaders can inspire followers by painting a picture of a brighter future. But their first step should be to foster "dissatisfaction, frustration, or anger at the current state of affairs", as framing the current situation as a guaranteed loss makes people more likely to take risks to improve things. The best communicators establish what the status quo is, according to communication expert Nancy Duarte, then "compare that to what could be", making "that gap as big as possible." A key feature of the Trump campaign was its message that the US has fallen into disarray and decline, coupled with its slogan: "Make America Great Again".

Knowingly or not, Trump followed in the footsteps of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose inaugural address described the troubles of the Great Depression then turned to his hopes of returning the nation to prosperity, and Martin Luther King Jr., who railed against the unacceptable conditions for black Americans then shared his dream of an equal society during his iconic speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. 

During his campaign, the President-elect lamented that America "doesn't win anymore", published a book titled Crippled America, said black people were "living in hell" due to the amount of crime, poverty and unemployment in their neighbourhoods, and labelled President Obama as the founder of ISIS, the terrorist group. His focus on deriding the political establishment and bemoaning the nation's weakening position in the world, combined with his promises of 'bringing back jobs' from overseas, deporting millions of illegal immigrants and accelerating economic growth through tax cuts and deregulation, created a yawning gap between today and tomorrow in the minds of Americans, galvanising them to vote.

However, there are other characteristics of 'originals' that Trump hasn't displayed. Non-violent revolutionaries often discourage venting and lashing out, and focus their audiences' attention on the victims of the status quo - such as the dissidents, soldiers and journalists killed under a dictator's rule - to prevent anger and outrage translating into riots and civil war. In contrast, Trump encouraged supporters to chant "Lock her up" as he vowed to pursue a federal investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server, directed the ire of the crowds at his rallies towards journalists, and described how he'd like to punch protestors.

Trump also neglected to temper his radical ideas in order to avoid shocking and alienating the mainstream. When suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton partnered with a racist and a sexual freedom advocate, "members withdrew in large numbers" from their organisation. Similarly, revolution expert Srdja Popovic believes Occupy Wall Street's name, which endorsed the radical tactic of camping out, limited its mass appeal. Trump may have secured victory despite his most outrageous comments and stances, not because of them. Indeed, his supporters appear divided over his call for a nuclear arms race, ties to Steve Bannon - the executive chairman of far-right website Breitbart News, now his chief strategist - and continued endorsement of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump's election victory supports Grant's theory of how 'originals' galvanise supporters, but clashes with his ideas about mobilising support and channelling anger into productive action. Of course, being original means being different or unique, so there can be no flawless recipe for originality. Hopefully Grant will take a look at Trump's truly original campaign in the future.