Should we all talk like Trump?

On 30th September last year, Theresa May was interviewed on the Andrew Marr show. What follows is a brief exchange, taken from the transcript of their discussion.

Marr: If we leave without a deal you cannot guarantee that there isn’t a hard border in Ireland, can you?

May: We are working to make sure that we leave with a good deal. That’s what my focus is on.

This is a classic example of a ‘politician’s answer’. Faced with a difficult line of questioning, which could not be answered fully without angering someone she relies on for support, the Prime Minister simply chose to respond to an entirely different question to the one she had been asked.

Such techniques are commonly used by politicians. Worried about committing themselves to something they may later have to disown, and fearful of being the subject of ridicule by the media, they often try to say as little as possible, qualifying their messages and speaking in the abstract.

As Barton Swaim, the speechwriter-turned-commentator, put it in a 2015 Washington Post article:

“Whether used well or poorly, however, the language of a typical modern politician has a distinctive sound to it. It sounds complex and careful -- sometimes sophisticated, sometimes emotive, sometimes artificial or over-scripted, but always circumspect and inevitably disingenuous.”

Too often, Swaim’s analysis could also be applied to planning communications, where materials for public engagement can occasionally read like a government minister’s evasive answer to a difficult question posed by Andrew Marr. For example, take the following (hypothetical) sentences:

The site is allocated for 200 new homes in the Local Plan. As well as the delivery of houses for private sale, we hope to include 35% affordable homes, subject to the completion of a viability assessment.

Although a fictional example, the phrasing and tone of the text will be familiar to anyone who has participated in planning consultations. The ambiguity and qualifications in the text may be superficially attractive, but they fail to effectively manage expectations and appear evasive. For instance, any interested reader will spot that the number of homes proposed is not stated, only the amount allocated in policy. This immediately creates an impression that the developer is trying to mislead the reader. Equally, the qualified language associated with affordable housing negates any advantage of quoting the 35% figure.

Such phrasing is far removed from the short, punchy phrases we have come to associate with Donald J Trump. Particularly when speaking off-the-cuff, Trump’s language tends towards the use of monosyllabic words, put together to form messaging with little nuance or room for interpretation. Slogans such as “Build the wall”, “Fake news”, and “Drain the swamp” have all become familiar to us. That familiarity is testament to their power and effectiveness. What’s more, they sound entirely different from everything we expect to hear from a conventional politician.

So, given the lack of trust in conventional political language, and the rise of populist politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, should we be ripping up the conventional playbook, instead promising to “Make Development Great Again”?

The answer is almost certainly no. Although “Drain the Swamp” might be a powerful slogan for winning the White House, it doesn’t quite communicate the complex benefits of a modern SuDS strategy.

The president’s unique communications style, so distinct from the political language we are used to, was crucial to establishing his ‘outsider’ image which appealed to voters in 2016. However, it would be a mistake to assume that this is the only, or best, method of trying to connect with people’s concerns and aspirations.

Trump’s abrasive messaging, which often has an arms-length relationship with fact, has contributed to huge polarisation. His base of supporters are fanatical in their approval of his presidency, but an unusually high number of voters have also decided they are “definitely not” voting for him in 2020. Leaving aside any ethical considerations of the president’s style and conduct, this is a poor model for the housing and planning sector. The job of any planning communications professional is not simply about encouraging support for development plans. Addressing and mitigating consultees’ concerns is at least as important. Polarisation of an audience should not be the outcome of any planning consultation, as it will likely stir up more active opposition than support.

Although imitating Trump would be a terrible idea for a planning promotion strategy, it would be unwise to conclude that there are no lessons we can learn from the president’s ascent to high office. Trump’s success should act as a cautionary tale to those who, through overly risk-averse language, fail to convince audiences of their honesty and credibility. In a time where the public are familiar with, and tired of, the abstract and qualified language used by many politicians, we in the housing and planning sector should beware of mimicking the linguistic style of one of the least trusted professions in the country. And the risks of this approach can be seen in both planning and politics.

Donald Trump’s political career bears some similarities to an archetypal anti-development ‘NIMBY’ campaign. Both seek to exploit a lack of trust in established sources of information, and often seek to diminish or reject the views of ‘experts’, instead offering their own narratives based on anecdote and exaggeration. Both, at least to some degree, have been successful.

In an environment where politicians are disliked and distrusted, attempts to mitigate risk by using ‘political’ language can have unintended and undesirable consequences, making space for objectors to propagate their own narratives. Instead, campaigns should be vigilant when constructing messaging, avoiding ambiguity for its own sake, prizing directness and clarity, and resisting the temptation to lapse into noncommittal phrases and evasive answers. Doing this won’t win round every resident who is sceptical of the benefits of development. But it will help establish relationships with communities built on honesty and trust and minimise the scope for opponents to destabilise a scheme by filling a vacuum with ‘alternative facts’.

Richard Parry - Associate Director