What can Chief Executive candidates learn from Trump and Brexit?



In 2016, the world bore witness to two shocking events in global politics: the Brexit referendum and the victory of Donald Trump.[1] Both Trump and the Leave campaign used similar tactics[2] that were surprisingly effective at garnering public support.[3] Although the political and economic context in Hong Kong is dissimilar to that of the United States and the United Kingdom, it can be argued that four key strategies employed by Trump and the Leave campaign might someday be used in a Chief Executive election. Popularisation of these tactics will likely aggravate societal tensions and diminish the quality of political discourse.

Strategy 1: Appeal to emotion rather than stability

One of the most defining features of the Trump and Leave campaigns is the fact that both movements relied less on appeals to stability and more on emotional arguments centred on fairness and control. For example, Trump has praised Brexit voters for “taking back control of their economy and borders” while calling on Americans to “take back their future”.[4]

An analysis conducted by the Independent of the top 10 words used by the Leave and Remain campaigns on Facebook and Twitter from February 20, 2016 to April 20, 2016 found striking differences.[5] As Table 1 shows, the top three words for Remain were “jobs”, “trade” and “businesses”, while the top three words for Leave were “control,” “NHS” (short for National Health Service) and “money”. According to Dr. Simon Usherwood, senior politics lecturer at the University of Surrey, this shows that Remain focused on the economic benefits of European Union (EU) membership, while Leave focused more on sentimental arguments such as the unfairness for the EU to have control over the United Kingdom.

The importance of the word “control” in a political campaign

Eric Beinhocker, Director for the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School, believes that Brexit occurred because many voters felt that their country had lost control of its borders, with immigrants being given preferential treatment in terms of benefits and public services.[6] For this reason voters were willing to accept the economic instability that Brexit could create if this meant they could “regain control” from immigrants and domestic institutions such as banks which were seen as profiting off of globalisation.

During the 2016 Legislative Council (LegCo) election in Hong Kong, many “localist” candidates emphasised the importance of the word “control” and the concepts of fairness and autonomy instead of other factors such as economic stability.[7] Other candidates expressed support for Hong Kong to have some degree of “self-determination” over its future. [8] Several of these candidates were successfully elected to the LegCo, which suggests that at least some voters in Hong Kong found these arguments appealing.

Strategy 2: Use simple words and controversial language

Donald Trump is widely known for his unconventional use of language in the political arena. In March 2016, a Carnegie Mellon University study found that Donald Trump used more simplistic rhetoric than his main rivals in the Republican Primary, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, as well as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.[9] As Table 2 shows, Trump’s vocabulary is at an American 6th grade level while his grammar is at a 4th grade level. The Economist notes that Trump frequently repeats slogans, insults, and brief statements in short, punchy sentences, while giving speeches in a casual rather than scripted and deliberate manner.[10]

Mark Thompson, CEO of the New York Times, believes that Trump tends to use short sentences in a way that “emphasises certainty and determination”.[11] This is a rhetorical style known as “parataxis”. Parataxis was also used in a post-Brexit speech given by prominent Leave supporter Nigel Farage to the European Parliament: “They [British voters] rejected the multinationals, they rejected the merchant banks, they rejected big politics and said… we want our country back, we want our fishing waters back, we want our borders back”.[12]

Thompson also argues that by embracing controversial language along with spontaneous off-the-cuff remarks, Trump is able to persuade voters who distrust mainstream politicians and public institutions that he “speaks their language”. It is probable that the appeal of his provocative speech is enhanced by the high levels of dissatisfaction amongst the American public toward “establishment” politicians. According to Gallup, only 9% of Americans in 2016 had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress.[13] This could explain why Trump was elected in spite of his bombastic rhetoric and complete lack of political experience.[14]

Strategy 3: Exploit the fears of the voters

Both Trump and the Brexit campaigners focused on stoking the fears of the public to win their support. In Trump’s case, after accepting the nomination from the Republican Party at the Republican convention, he declared that the nation was in a “moment of crisis”.[15] The Economist argues that Trump embraces a “dark” and “pessimistic” view of America’s role in the world, in stark contrast to more optimistic presidents such as Ronald Reagan.[16]

Some elements of the Leave campaign were also clearly focused on stirring up fear in the United Kingdom rather than making arguments based on statistics. This is particularly the case with regards to immigration.[17] Most notably, Nigel Farage promoted a heavily criticised poster featuring a long line of non-white migrants and the phrase “Breaking Point”.[18]

Fear and the Elaboration Model of Persuasion

According to the “Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion,” developed by psychologists Richard Petty and John Cacioppo, humans make decisions using two methods: peripheral processing, which focuses on superficial details, or central processing, which involves the weighing of evidence and logic.[19] This model of persuasion resembles the “System 1 and System 2” theory which was later proposed by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman.[20]

Petty and Cacioppo believe that we rarely engage in both types of decision-making at once, and the likelihood of engaging in central processing can be diminished by several factors, such as having less prior knowledge or interest in a given topic. Julia Shaw, a senior lecturer in psychology at London South Bank University, believes that Trump and the Leave campaign tried to arouse fear in the public so that voters would be too distracted by their state of anxiety to use central processing instead of peripheral processing.[21]

During the 2016 LegCo election, candidates from both the pro-establishment[22] and the localist blocs[23] occasionally used hyperbole to highlight various negative issues in Hong Kong society. While these politicians were not all discussing the same problems or issues, the common emphasis on negative aspects of Hong Kong society in some campaign messages is arguably intended to evoke emotions of fear and anger by depicting Hong Kong as a place in a moment of crisis. Thus, it is possible that these messages induced their supporters to use “peripheral processing” rather than “central processing” in casting their ballots.

Strategy 4: Discredit the media and experts

Depicting the media, “experts” and academics as being untrustworthy may be critical for an anti-establishment campaign that relies on fear tactics. This is because undermining the credibility of institutions that are typically asked to provide objective data and analysis can prevent such institutions from effectively criticising candidates who make false claims.

Trump and the Brexit supporters have both attacked journalists and academics. Michael Gove, a Brexit proponent, argued that “people in this country have had enough of experts,” and he claimed to be “glad” that most economists opposed Brexit.[24] Meanwhile, Trump has alleged that the election was “rigged by the media, in a coordinated effort with the Clinton campaign, by putting stories that never happened into news”.[25] Indeed, Trump and the Leave campaign’s distrust and scepticism of mainstream media sources in their campaigns helped to popularise the term “post-truth,” recently named the 2016 Oxford Dictionary word of the year, which is defined as “denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.[26]

According to the Economist, the rise of “post-truth politics” across the world may erode the importance of evidence and fact-based arguments in elections.[27] The tendency for post-truth politicians like Trump to oversimplify complex problems such as globalisation can also discourage attempts to hold serious policy debates on complicated issues. Moreover, once voters lose faith in facts, political systems can become “dysfunctional,” with the inevitable failures arising from misguided policies simply feeding “the alienation and lack of trust in institutions” that enabled post-truth politicians to ascend to power in the first place.

Ironically, though Trump criticised the media for publishing inaccurate articles about his campaign, the spread of “fake news” on social media[28] may have actually contributed to Trump’s upset victory by persuading some voters to support Trump through misleading news stories. Additionally, President Obama’s political director David Simas believes that Facebook and Twitter allowed Trump to bypass traditional parameters of acceptable political discourse set by religious institutions, academia and media, to his advantage.[29]

Trust in media has declined to extreme levels in the United States. A Gallup poll conducted in September 2016 found that only 32% of Americans trust the media’s ability to report the news fully, accurately and fairly, the lowest figure since Gallup started the poll in 1972.[30] In an interview with the New Yorker magazine after the election, President Obama asserted that we exist in a new media ecosystem where “everything is true, and nothing is true”.[31]

As for the Brexit vote, YouGov found that over 66% of Leave supporters believed it was wrong to rely too much on “experts”.[33] The net score of “trust” minus “don’t trust” in academics was at a negative 28% among Leave supporters, and a negative 73% for politicians. Both Leave and Remain supporters had negative 65% trust in journalists.

Trust in local news media is falling

The Public Opinion Programme at the University of Hong Kong (HKU POP) released a report in October 2016 showing that the general credibility of local news media dropped over the past five months to 5.66 out of 10, the lowest rating since October 2006.[36] Net satisfaction with the performance of the news media plunged by 16 percentage points from mid-2016, and now stands at a positive 23 percentage points, representing a new low since the survey began in September 1993. Thirty-five percent of the respondents consider the media to be irresponsible in their reporting, while 49% believe that news media practiced self-censorship. The report did not offer any reasons to explain why trust in the local media appeared to diminish.

In spite of these statistics, there is no evidence to suggest that trust in academics or economists in general has diminished in Hong Kong. Yet the poll on trust in the media may be a cause for concern. If the news media continues to lose credibility, a Trump-like Chief Executive candidate could one day find an opening to spout hateful rhetoric or outright falsehoods without fear of being corrected by credible news sources or analysts.

Could this happen in Hong Kong?

There are many differences between the United States, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong which make it difficult to compare elections in these regions. Nonetheless, a few strategies used by Trump and Brexit are already being applied in Hong Kong. For example, both pro-establishment and localist candidates in the 2016 LegCo election occasionally depicted Hong Kong as a place in “crisis” which may have created a sense of panic in the electorate.

If the “Elaboration model” of persuasion applies to local elections, these strategies could be particularly appealing to voters who lack prior knowledge about relevant political issues. This may help to explain why American voters without college degrees supported Trump by a 6% margin while college graduates supported Clinton by a 4% margin, based on exit polls.[37]

Of course, the four strategies discussed in this article cannot account for the Trump phenomenon by themselves. Many Trump and Brexit supporters were influenced by serious concerns over the worsening economic conditions in their regions.[38] President Obama acknowledged in an editorial for The Economist that Trump’s popularity is partially rooted in “legitimate concerns about long-term economic forces”, such as declining productivity growth and rising inequality.[39] Moreover, populist leaders resembling Trump and the Leave campaign have become increasingly powerful in many countries across the world.[40]

Thus, while political issues are very important in Hong Kong, local politicians should pay close attention to economic factors such as the wealth gap in society as well. This is especially the case because the income disparity between the top 10% and bottom 10% of Hongkongers continued to increase in 2016.[41] If the situation deteriorates much further, this could lead voters to become more susceptible to Trump-like tactics designed to inflame societal tensions and heighten the need for “non-traditional” politicians to save the day.[42]

To avoid this potential outcome, it may be helpful for the Government to promote more informed political discussion and deliberation in society. If voters were more knowledgeable about relevant issues, they may be more likely to resist populist arguments. It would also be helpful if trust in the news media was somehow improved. Finally, the Government would do well to find ways to close the wealth gap in Hong Kong society.

Anti-establishment sentiment is growing across the globe and Hong Kong is no exception. It may seem somewhat unlikely to imagine a populist leader rising to power as the new Chief Executive, but it would be unwise to dismiss this possibility out of hand. As Donald Trump and Brexit have shown, governments tend to ignore such movements at their own peril.

1 Déjà vu all over again, The Economist, November 12, 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/business-and-finance/21709933-markets-may-be-volatile-while-after-latest-upset-trumps-victory
2 Ronald F. Inglehart, Trump, Brexit and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash, Harvard Kennedy School, August 2016, https://research.hks.harvard.edu/publications/getFile.aspx?Id=1401
3 Adam Gabbatt, Trump and Brexit: parallel campaigns built on fear, anger and charisma, The Guardian, June 25, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jun/25/donald-trump-nigel-farage-us-election-brexit
4 Ruth Sherlock, Donald Trump calls for America to follow Britain’s lead in ‘taking back control’ of its economy, Telegraph, June 28, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/28/donald-trump-calls-for-america-to-follow-britains-lead-in-taking/
5 Jasmin Lavoie, EU referendum: the words used most by Brexit and Remain camps- and what they say about the campaigns, The Independent, May 31, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/eu-referendum-brexit-remain-camps-britain-stronger-in-europe-vote-leave-a7057826.html
6 Eric Beinhocker, The Psychology of Voting to Leave the EU, The Atlantic Magazine, June 29, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/06/brexit-voters-self-interest/489350/
7 Although it is not completely appropriate to compare LegCo elections with foreign elections, because of the proportional representation system that is used to select LegCo members, LegCo elections are still the best possible comparison in Hong Kong to foreign elections because they are the most high-profile races in Hong Kong in which ordinary members of the public can vote.
8 Introduction to Candidates, Electoral Affairs Commission, http://www.elections.gov.hk/legco2016/pdf/intro_to_can/LC4_20.pdf
9 Eliot Schumacher and Maxine Eskenazi, A Readability Analysis of Campaign Speeches from the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign, Carnegie Mellon University, March 18, 2016, https://arxiv.org/abs/1603.05739
10 Double-plus effective, The Economist, June 18, 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21700610-why-donald-trumps-rhetoricwith-apologies-orwellworks-so-well-double-plus-effective
11 Mark Thompson, From Trump to Brexit rhetoric: how today’s politicians have got away with words, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/27/from-trump-to-brexit-rhetoric-how-todays-politicians-have-got-away-with-words
12 Jon Stone, Nigel Farage delivers first post-Brexit speech to the European Parliament, The Independent, June 28, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/nigel-farage-brexit-speech-european-parliament-full-transcript-text-a7107036.html
13 Jim Norman, Americans’ Confidence in Institutions Stays Low, Gallup, June 13, 2016, http://www.gallup.com/poll/192581/americans-confidence-institutions-stays-low.aspx
14 Clare Malone, Americans don’t trust their institutions anymore, FiveThirtyEight, November 16, 2016, http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/americans-dont-trust-their-institutions-anymore/
15 Patrick Healy, His Tone Dark, Donald Trump Takes G.O.P. Mantle, New York Times, July 21, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/22/us/politics/donald-trump-rnc-speech.html
16 The new nationalism, The Economist, November 19, 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21710249-his-call-put-america-first-donald-trump-latest-recruit-dangerous
17 Alan Travis, Fear of immigration drove the leave victory- not immigration itself, The Guardian, June 24, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/24/voting-details-show-immigration-fears-were-paradoxical-but-decisive
18 Heather Stewart and Rowena Mason, Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster reported to police, The Guardian, June 16, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/16/nigel-farage-defends-ukip-breaking-point-poster-queue-of-migrants
19 Richard Petty and John Cacioppo, The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 1984, https://www.uni-muenster.de/imperia/md/content/psyifp/aeechterhoff/wintersemester2011-12/vorlesungkommperskonflikt/petty_cacioppo_elm_advaexpsocpsy_buchkapitel1986.pdf
20 Galen Strawson, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman- review, The Guardian, December 13, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/dec/13/thinking-fast-slow-daniel-kahneman
21 Julia Shaw, Brexit and Trump: When Fear Triumphs Over Evidence, Scientific American, June 27, 2016, http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/brexit-and-trump-when-fear-triumphs-over-evidence/
22 Introduction to Candidates, Electoral Affairs Commission, http://www.elections.gov.hk/legco2016/pdf/intro_to_can/LC5_10_ENG.html
23 Words from Nathan, Demosisto, https://www.demosisto.hk/nathan?lang=en
24 Michael Deacon, EU Referendum: who needs experts when we’ve got Michael Gove? The Daily Telegraph, June 6, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/06/eu-referendum-who-needs-experts-when-weve-got-michael-gove/
25 David Smith, Trump warns of ‘rigged’ election as Giuliani makes racially charged claims, The Guardian, October 16, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/16/donald-trump-rigged-election-poll-giuliani-gingrich-pence
26 Alison Flood, ‘Post-truth’ named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries, The Guardian, November 15, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/15/post-truth-named-word-of-the-year-by-oxford-dictionaries
27 Art of the lie, The Economist, September 10, 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21706525-politicians-have-always-lied-does-it-matter-if-they-leave-truth-behind-entirely-art
28 Nick Wingfield, Google and Facebook take aim at fake news sites, New York Times, November 14, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/15/technology/google-will-ban-websites-that-host-fake-news-from-using-its-ad-service.html
29 David Remnick, Obama reckons with a Trump presidency, The New Yorker, November 28, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/11/28/obama-reckons-with-a-trump-presidency?mbid=social_twitter
30 Art Swift, Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low, Gallup, September 14, 2016, http://www.gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx
31 David Remnick, Obama reckons with a Trump presidency, The New Yorker, November 28, 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/11/28/obama-reckons-with-a-trump-presidency?mbid=social_twitter
32 “Trust” here is measured by the percentage of people from each party who have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in mass media as reported by the Gallup poll.
33 YouGov/Today Programme Survey Results, YouGov, June 22, 2016, http://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/x4iynd1mn7/TodayResults_160614_EUReferendum_W.pdf
34 “Net Trust” was defined as the percentage of respondents who stated that they trusted a particular institution minus the percentage of respondents who stated that they did not trust that institution.
35 YouGov/Today Programme Survey Results, YouGov, June 22, 2016, http://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/x4iynd1mn7/TodayResults_160614_EUReferendum_W.pdf
36 HKU POP releases people’s appraisal of local news media, The University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme, October 4, 2016, https://www.hkupop.hku.hk/english/release/release1398.html
37 Jon Huang, Election 2016: Exit Polls, Washington Post, November 8, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/11/08/us/politics/election-exit-polls.html
38 Ronald F. Inglehart, Trump, Brexit and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash, Harvard Kennedy School, August 2016, https://research.hks.harvard.edu/publications/getFile.aspx?Id=1401
39 Barack Obama, The Way Ahead, The Economist, October 8, 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21708216-americas-president-writes-us-about-four-crucial-areas-unfinished-business-economic
40 League of Nationalists, The Economist, November 19, 2016, http://www.economist.com/news/international/21710276-all-around-world-nationalists-are-gaining-ground-why-league-nationalists
41 Jeffie Lam and Raymond Yeung, Hong Kong’s richest earn 29 times of what poorest get paid despite government efforts to fight poverty: report, South China Morning Post, October 11, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/economy/article/2027090/hong-kongs-richest-earn-29-times-more-poorest-despite
42 Yonden Lhatoo, Hong Kong’s appalling wealth gap is a burning fuse for revolution, South China Morning Post, October 13, 2016,http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2027778/hong-kongs-appalling-wealth-gap-burning-fuse-revolution