The Communications Clinic
The Communications Clinic
October 5, 2020

Originally published in The Irish Examiner

Long before he became ill, US president Donald Trump lost the ability to smile. He did that closed-mouth, one-sided conspiratorial smirk when in front of a crowd. But the overwhelming majority of pictures taken of him in the last year portray him as furious, sneering, or grim.

I earned my living for a while as a ‘stringer’ press photographer for an English newspaper, and when photographing famous people, in common with the other snappers, always looked for three shots: The Smiley. The Serious. 

And the Holy Shit! That last one was where you captured a troubled business executive or politician beneath a light that made them look like Lucifer or beside a sign advising the picking up of dogs’ pooh. 

Failing to get that killer shot, you still wanted to give your Art Editor a choice between happy and serious pictures, because you didn’t always know what was being written about the subject. 

In summary, then, it isn’t that everybody in mainstream and social media is conspiring to exclude, delete, or prevent sunny pictures of the president. It is that he’s not presenting them anymore.

The pictures of President Trump’s wobbly descent of a ramp or two-handed lifting of a cup appeared — the pictures were sending out to America a message of bitterness, resentment, and hopelessness

The fact is pictures matter. We can all sing the high-minded song that first impressions should not count, that someone’s weight, spotted on first meeting, should not influence how we think about them, and how we shouldn’t even notice that the guy in front of us is wearing a suit which suggests he’s been sleeping in it,  or a toupee that’s the offspring of a peat briquette. 

Virtually all research conducted into this area for the last half-century contradicts that high-minded stance. 

It shows reactions to first impressions to be largely beyond our control, so that people who would claim and indeed believe themselves to be colour-blind, nonetheless have a deep prejudice against Blacks revealed by the involuntary movements of the iris of their eyes.

The reason pictures particularly matter in politics, is arguably best exemplified by a story from Ronald Reagan’s time, when a report on a disastrous drop in housing starts came out. 

The White House surprised TV news by indicating the president would do a photo opportunity on a building site that day. Photographers flocked there. That night, on the prime time news slot on the CBS network, the voice-over commentary was dire for the president. 

After it aired, the newsroom staff were unsurprised to be told the White House Press Office was on the line. They rolled their eyes at each other as reporter Leslie Stahl took up the phone, braced for a battering. 

Instead, the press officer thanked her profusely. Baffled, she pointed out that the report had been hugely negative. Didn’t matter, the caller told her. That was just the words. The words didn’t matter. 

All that viewers would retain would be the pictures of the president with a hard hat on him, having the best of gas with those working on the building site. Which, she later admitted in her autobiography, proved dispiritingly prescient.

The smile and the smirk captured by foam sculpture depictions of President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden. Picture: Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

So pictures matter, and — even before the shots of President Trump’s wobbly descent of a ramp or two-handed lifting of a cup appeared — the pictures were sending out to America a message of bitterness, resentment, and hopelessness. No floating voter has ever been attracted by any of these. 

Voters want candidates who look like they’re enjoying what they do. In my experience, the first sign of the upcoming end of a political career is when the politician clearly no longer enjoys the business of politics. 

It always shows, and it always registers, even subliminally. For the voter, it’s like having your food flung at you by a rude waiter.

That loss of political joie de vivre is frequently, although not always, associated with age. In this instance, Joe Biden is the exception that proves the rule. 

Biden loves what he’s doing. He just loves it in the most infectious delighted way. He has a ready and delighted smile that breaks through even in the most disgraceful chaotic “debate” ever staged as part of a presidential election.

Now that the contest has been given a fundamental shake by the illness of the president, the Democrats had better stand back and capture what Biden has done right so far, and make sure he keeps doing it. Starting with the joyful zest. 

Of course, he can and did announce that he was praying for the president’s recovery, but the danger is that the president’s illness could hang a cloud of gravitas over Biden, giving the impression of a worshipper at the shrine of a man he needs the American voters to reject.

Pulling his commercials where they were hostile to the president was a smart and very Democrat move that will, like much of what Trump did before he found himself in hospital, greatly please the core vote, while not attracting floaters. 

If you’re expected to act like a fundamentally decent grown-up, a head-smacking epiphany doesn’t happen when you live up to those expectations. 

Biden’s new ads will be forced to break the rules laid down back in Nixon’s time and terrifyingly reinforced by social media, which hold that negative is the only way to go, and that the more precise and personal your negativity, the better. (In this regard, although the reasons are unclear, The Lincoln Project’s online ads have radically fallen off in their impact in recent weeks, at precisely the time they should have been most powerful.) 

While not being able to attack Trump sounds like a disadvantage, it nonetheless presents Biden with the opportunity to present himself as the man who can bring America back together again, create a country where Blacks and minorities are glad to describe themselves as Americans because they are citizens of a country that protects and values them, where America sets out to be the best in the world at the things that matter.

That said, another debate taking place on Zoom would present Biden a dangerous gift. On the one hand, it would prevent interruption and heckling by the president. 

On the other, it would empower Biden to do what has sunk so many previous Democrat presidential hopefuls: preach in long sentences using abstruse language. 

The chaotic first debate suited him, to the extent that it reduced him to clever, quotable, t-shirtable one-liners. It worked. Commentators directly after the debate tended to hedge their bets about who won or lost, but the voters didn’t. 

Every major opinion poll taken in the aftermath of that disgraceful episode showed a majority believing Joe Biden had won it. 

Accordingly, Biden must come to the next debate having, with his team, done the nearly impossible: crystallized vast, subtle, complex concepts into one-liners he can easily access and tellingly deliver.

While that preparation is arduous, it has precedent. In the form of a British prime minister who crystallized the largely hidden transformation of geopolitical realities in a marvelous line ending “An Iron Curtain has come down over Europe.”