Picasso...Trump? Trump's Presidential Campaign Through the Lens of Creativity

If there's discomfort in the room, creativity may have snuck in. A year ago, Donald Trump dragged millions of Americans kicking and screaming out of their cozy comfort zones into the freezing waters of change. While other candidates were following traditional political protocol and suggesting relatively modest and predictable changes, Trump was roaring about breaking the rules and upsetting a lot of people.

Setting aside Trump-the-President, what lessons might future candidates learn from his successful campaign? Trump may not seem especially creative in any normal sense of the word, but last Fall's election is a good example of creativity flipping tradition on its ear.

Voters thought, "Trump can't say and do such things and win the Presidency!" Political commentators in the press and elsewhere agreed and disparaged his performance. However, despite being horrified at his often vulgar and offensive behavior, enough voters chose to overlook these qualities and put a man they saw as a powerful game changer in the Oval Office. So, how did he win?

Human brains are wired to crave conformity and tradition and to believe that conventions and standards are set in stone, which makes us feel safe. Fear of failure and judgment can be powerful psychological shackles that keep most people, including traditional politicians, toeing the line. Cross that line, and you get Donald Trump.

As a campaigner, Trump distinguished himself for his apparent lack of concern for other people's judgement or ridicule. Trump's competitors, on the other hand, were working hard to get noticed within the restrictive confines of legacy political thinking and behavior. Many voters thought they had heard it all before and were desperate for better-or at least different-representation. Trump's precedent-breaking words and deeds offered hard evidence, not just rhetoric, that he was actually the one who would effect change. 

Creativity is the great shaker-upper of all that is predictable and common. Creative thinkers are rule breakers who march to their own tune, approach problems from non-traditional perspectives, take risks, and shrug their shoulders at the idea of failure. And they are not influenced by what others think, except when it suits them.

Trump ran a successful-more creative-campaign by turning everything upside down and doing the opposite of what the other candidates did. He was to political protocol what the Impressionists were to traditional realism in the arts: shocking, controversial, criticized, and ultimately alarming to the establishment as they grew in popularity. Trump not only didn't care what his critics said, he embraced the rage against him and turned it to his advantage by crafting a "them vs. us" strategy.

Perversely, Trump's manner and style were the perfect antidotes to the over-rehearsed jargon and insincerity of the other candidates. His supporters, right or wrong, thought he was genuinely empathetic, that he shared their values and felt their pain. It's doubtful that Trump was a brilliant strategist who chose to stand out to voters by being the "contrary" candidate, or that he was driven to change political tradition in some fundamental way. More likely, he was just incapable of being anything other than his provocative self, ignoring conventional political road signs and bulldozing his own path though the traditional electoral landscape.

Viewed through the lens of creativity, Trump the campaigner was not unlike an artist. Truly successful artists who shattered traditional art-world perceptions did so because they were on a personal mission, undistracted by mainstream contempt ("That's not art!"). Their motive was not to willfully disregard society's definition of art; they just couldn't do it any other way. Had they cared, they would have lost their uniqueness, conformed and disappeared into unavoidable obscurity like all copycats. Whether Trump is defined as a creative person or not is irrelevant. His controversial, never-before taken path to success worked and won him the prize, and that is creativity.

The foregoing observations are intended neither to praise Trump nor to vilify him. And they have little to do with his performance as the President, only as candidate. In that spirit, here are a few tips gleamed from Trump's campaign style for future presidential candidates:

  • Show voters who you are. Don't be formulaic and blindly spew institutional rhetoric or say what you think everyone expects. It's boring. Say it from the heart, directly. Tweet!
  • Don't be afraid. Lead. Voters like independent thinkers who speak their mind, but also listen carefully. Share your uniqueness.
  • Be honest and allow yourself to be wrong. If you make a mistake, say, "I made a mistake, I was wrong, I'm sorry." Then, move on. None of this, "I regret" evasion. 
  • Challenge assumptions. Predictability is boring, too. Be surprising and willing to take risks when you feel like doing something unconventional. 
  • View problems from various perspectives. Think of entirely new ideas that might actually solve a problem by framing it differently. How can you turn a positive into a negative?
  • Don't try to seem like a perfect human. They don't exist, and if they did, no one would like them. 
  • Get real. Politicians can seem plastic and mannequin-like. So, stop that stiff arm posturing. Plop on the sofa of America.
  • Show your empathy. Let voters know that you genuinely care about them and feel their pain. To do that, you must actually know them.
  • Speak plainly. Tell your story plainly. Seek common language and show that you understand the voters' stories. ''
  • Know thyself, and act accordingly. Share what you think makes you unique.  Don't be formulaic. It's boring.

By Karl Gude

Karl Gude teaches creativity and problem solving in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences at Michigan State University. He is on the faculty of the School of Journalism and the Director of Media Sandbox, a program that creates teams of students with different majors, skills and interests and gets them solving real-world problems.