Christopher Jackson hears from leaders in the reputation management industry
to uncover the secrets behind the US president’s surprising resilience
Harvey Weinstein. Kevin Spacey. Charlie Rose. It is a grim and extending list united by a single narrative: the dramatic fall. We inhabit a world where, once exposed, the tragic flaw leads – often rightly – to rage and to careers in tatters. But there is one exception to this rule: the 45th president of the United States.
Here’s a recap of Donald Trump’s greatest hits. There was the ‘birther’ controversy, where Trump questioned his half-Kenyan predecessor’s right to the presidency; his not necessarily feminist nature (‘Ariana Huffington is unattractive, both inside and out’); his cheerful mocking of the disabled; his characterisation of Mexicans as ‘rapists’; his airing of incestuous thoughts (‘If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her’); his recent retweeting of far-right anti-Muslim videos; and, most alarmingly, his taped admissions of sexual assault.
Given all this, and more, it is astonishing that the following facts hold true: in November 2016, Donald Trump was elected president by 304-227 votes in the Electoral College. At time of writing, RealClearPolitics shows the president with a 39.6 per cent average approval rating. To put that in perspective, George W Bush left office with an equivalent figure of 29. Nor is it that much lower than the low-forties ratings Barack Obama endured for most of 2013 and 2014 (admittedly the low point of his presidency).
Is Trump really such an anomaly? Gerrard Tyrrell, the Queen’s reputation management solicitor, says: ‘I take the view that it doesn’t matter who you are – your reputation can be damaged, quite severely, just by events or a certain drip-drip. And Trump hasn’t been a drip-drip but a cataract.’ If that’s the case, why are the president’s approval ratings not lower? ‘Two reasons,’ says Tyrrell. ‘One is the American political system; the second is the way in which the media approaches Trump.’
Those two issues feel symbiotic. The American political system is more polarised than ever – partly because of the polarised condition of the media. Tyrrell was in the US for the 2016 election and reflects on the coverage he witnessed: ‘It was astonishing. If you turned to one programme, it was all [Trump] cheerleading; but others were vehemently against him. What seemed to be lacking was a BBC in the middle.’
That’s something Trump has in his arsenal that a disgraced celebrity doesn’t: active supporters. His utterances might be idiotic, or cruel, but in a charged political environment his buffoonery will be perceived differently in red and blue states. ‘Trump’s got a core constituency of people who like what he says,’ explains Stuart Leach, the founding partner of Pagefield Global Counsel. ‘Kevin Spacey has no one.’
In that regard, Trump is in a similar position to Richard Nixon – until Trump, the best example of how not to conduct a presidency. The tale of Nixon, full of attempts to dodge the truth though it is, is also that of a man who came up in the end against an objective reality: with Watergate he had done something wrong, and his resignation showed him backed into a corner. Trump operates in a different climate: one of drastic bifurcation along two lines of interpretation where the sheer emotion of the times can, according to preference, make the false true – and the true false.
This brings us on to the phrase of our times: ‘fake news’. Gideon Benaim, a partner at Simkins and a long-term adviser to JK Rowling, is adamant: ‘I know Donald Trump claims to have invented [the phrase] “fake news”, but we’ve had false information out there all the time… it’s the same as ever.’ Tyrrell agrees, but adds: ‘The fake news we’re talking about is slightly different: created and run on social media in a way which causes someone to go, “I’m going to vote in a different way.” We’re more open to manipulation than ever before.’
All this raises deep, even Orwellian questions. Trump’s success might have shifted the nature of reporting, but it was itself dependent on that shift: this paradox in turn was dependent on the rising-up of a set of emotions and attitudes that it is difficult to dissociate from the far right. And, of course, that political development occurred within a specific set of circumstances – the 2016 presidential election.
When I ask Andrew Grant, the founder of PR agency Tulchan, about the specifics of what led to Trump’s election, he is both indignant and bemused: ‘If it had been anyone else but Hillary, he wouldn’t have got in… The tragedy is America has such talented people… and these were the best two.’
As well as inheriting the instruments of the presidency and the interest it generates, Trump retained his Twitter account – his contemporary equivalent of Roosevelt’s fireside chats. Grant is quick to point out that an actor or corporation under fire cannot change the subject as Trump can. ‘The world has got a short attention span,’ notes Leach. ‘You see a president who moves from resigning issue to resigning issue, but nothing sticks around enough for him to resign.’
Charlie Methven, founding partner of Dragon Advisory, offers a down-to-earth explanation: ‘Donald Trump is the beneficiary of something that on Fleet Street we used to call the “Steve Norris syndrome”,’ he says, referring to the transport minister during the scandal-hit Major government, who despite numerous affairs was curiously immune to criticism. ‘Norris never pretended to be a faithful family guy, so it wasn’t a problem when he was caught having affairs.’
Nor has Trump ever pretended to be un-Trumplike: his great pride in who he is, and the concomitant vacuum where one might expect shame to be, have shielded him from the usual media attacks. The public will forgive much – but they will not forgive having been duped. Whatever else he may have done, Trump has never practised this deception.
All this feeds into one of Trump’s strengths: the directness of his speech, which for all its unpredictability at least eschews the banality of soundbite. Indeed, it is noteworthy that the more popular politicians of recent times are able to find humour and originality in their public utterances: Obama’s high rhetoric, Boris Johnson’s clowning, or the throaty rage of Bernie Sanders. In his way, Trump fits this pattern.
But the suspicion remains that Trump must come up eventually against the terrific fact of reality: the things he has said and done are tied to a historical moment which must cede, like all epochs, to the next thing. And how will he look then? Nigel Tait, managing partner at Carter-Ruck, who obtained the famous Supreme Court injunction in PJS v News Group Newspapers, is unequivocal: ‘He’s bruised and bashed and hasn’t achieved anything: he’ll go down as one of the worst presidents in history.’
Perhaps Trump won’t in the end quite tweet his way out of what he is, and if he wishes to be a two-term president he must face at least one more election – not to mention the conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into his ties with Russia. How he comes out the other side of all that will be the real test of his reputation, and where it matters most – in history.
Christopher Jackson is deputy editor at Spear's
To buy a copy of Spear’s head to selected news agents or WH Smith travel stores or subscribe here:https://www.spearswms.com/subscribe/