While some commentators have mentioned Trump’s “defiant showmanship” and ability to weave an incredible story, others have been less complimentary. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticized the speech for having “no contact with reality whatsoever.” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) walked out of the address, writing on Twitter that “it’s like watching professional wrestling. It’s all fake.”
Trump’s showmanship was more strategic and consequential than it might appear at first. In researching nondemocratic regimes, I’ve found that when charismatic leaders make a public show of fulfilling wishes, as Trump’s speech did, they can have a significant effect on public opinion.
How was this State of the Union different?
Showmanship is an old story in the State of the Union. All presidents since Ronald Reagan have invited ordinary “heroes” to sit with the first lady during the address. But Trump took this approach one step further. Instead of simply mentioning special guests during his speech, Trump surprised audience members — both in the Capitol and at home — by resolving problems and granting special honors.
During a segment of his speech on school choice, Trump pointed out Janiyah Davis, a fourth-grader on the waiting list for a state scholarship. He then announced to applause that she had been awarded an opportunity scholarship to go to a school of her choice.
Later in his speech, Trump spoke to the family of a soldier in Afghanistan who were seated in the audience, and declared, “We have a very special surprise. I am thrilled to inform you that your husband is back from deployment. He is here with us tonight. And we couldn’t keep him waiting any longer.” The family was reunited on the spot.
In a more controversial moment, Trump awarded right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — and had first lady Melania Trump bestow it, hanging it around Limbaugh’s neck.
These moments, which have alternately delighted and horrified observers, were unprecedented for State of the Union addresses. But charismatic leaders around the world often use these tactics.
Charismatic leaders commonly use reality-show wish fulfillment to please citizens
While Trump may be drawing from his roots in reality television in his showmanship display, charismatic leaders frequently use this tool to influence public opinion.
Former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez employed this strategy throughout his presidency. In perhaps the most well-known example, Chavez hosted a weekly television program, “Alo Presidente,” where he would solve ordinary Venezuelans’ problems.
During the first episode of the program, for instance, Chavez heard from a mother whose son needed surgery. He surprised her by guaranteeing that her son would receive the necessary medical care. This approach proved successful: The show ran from 1999 until 2012 and inspired similar shows in Bolivia, El Salvador and Ecuador.
As I discussed earlier here at TMC, Russian President Vladimir Putin excels at injecting entertainment into politics. In one of his more notable strategies, Putin hosts an annual television call-in show, “The Direct Line With Vladimir Putin.” During this program, Putin surprises callers by solving their everyday problems.
Showcasing such wish fulfillment helps charismatic leaders present themselves as magical, caring leaders who are the only ones who can fix the nation’s problems. So does it actually sway public view of the leader?
Does it work?
Yes, according to my ongoing research. In 2016, I commissioned a nationally representative survey of 1,600 Russians with the Levada Analytical Center, Russia’s leading survey agency. The survey sought to gauge how much respondents approved of Putin.
Before asking about approval, I conducted an experiment in which respondents were read a short vignette that introduced a common issue: a hike in utility prices for a housing complex. Respondents were told Putin had heard about this price increase during the “Direct Line” broadcast. Half of respondents were then told he ensured prices were lowered for that complex; the other half were told the issue was not resolved.
This experiment mimics the type of wish fulfillment that Russians see in Putin’s “Direct Line” events and that was present in Trump’s State of the Union address. In both cases, the issues were isolated cases affecting only the intended recipient. In both cases, Trump and Putin are being presented as the savior capable of fulfilling those wishes.
In my experiment, when people were told that Putin had fixed the problem, they approved of Putin by 14 percentage points more than when told he had not. While such results may be as overwhelming in real-life situations, the takeaway is clear: Wish fulfillment improves citizens’ perceptions of their leaders.
While Trump did something new for the State of the Union address, his approach is familiar to citizens in many autocratic systems. Most important, it works.
Hannah S. Chapman (@Chapman_HannahS) is an assistant professor of political science and faculty associate in the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Her research focuses on information manipulation, media and public opinion in the former Soviet Union.