Farage’s Trump card: constructing political persona and social media campaigning


Bethany Usher

Principal Lecturer in Journalism and Digital Communication at Teesside University and a journalist, having primarily worked for national newspapers.

Her research focuses on the relationships between news media, celebrity, persona construction and identity. Recent journalistic practice includes comment pieces on Brexit for national newspapers and digital campaigning, crowd-sourcing to support child refugees in Lesbos.

Her twitter is @bethanyusher


US2016 - Section 7

Section 7: Pop Culture and Populism

Three days after the election, The Telegraph declared Nigel Farage would be Britain’s “unofficial ambassador” to the Trump administration, suggesting the former UKIP leader would have greater political visibility and potential power than few could have imagined just two years ago.

The Sun’s former editor Stig Abell describes Farage as the most successful British politician of the last 30 years (Twitter, November 9, 2016). His focused approach – particularly in terms of using social media to further his core message – has helped achieve some of the greatest political upsets of the 21st Century.

Farage and UKIP’s influence on Trump’s social media campaign should not be overlooked. Trump, of course, had a long established self-brand as a celebrity entrepreneur. However, his social media campaign also built on Farage’s methods during the 2015 election to develop a new, political persona. 

UKIP’s campaign used the increased visibility of the short campaign period as a first step towards achieving Brexit the following year, centred on Farage as the voice of the “UK” or “Britain”, often directly in opposition to the “EU” and “immigration”. This self-narrative had at its core a distrust of establishment institutions – particularly political parties and the BBC – viewed as the enemy of him, an “everyday British bloke”, longing to escape globalised multi-cultural society. This narrative went on to underpin the “Vote Leave” campaign approach for the EU Referendum the following year.

The connections between this and Trump’s “self-brand” during the presidential campaign are, of course, easily identifiable. They both harnessed the power of digital communication within the contemporary cultural conditions of promotionalism. They used techniques of “digital dog-whistling”, nationalistic and anti-immigrant discourse linked to a central pledge that they will “Make Britain/America Great Again”.

For Farage, this approach resonated with Facebook audiences particularly. His page ‘likes’ during the 2015 short campaign were almost triple those of David Cameron and the number of people talking about him on the site was often more than all of other smaller party leaders combined. 

Similarly, throughout the American Presidential Campaign, success in terms of reach, share, likes and follows was evident on Donald Trump’s Facebook and Twitter pages. He regularly achieved 40 times as many retweets and shares than Hillary Clinton for social media posts on the same day. 

The way public figures use social media to construct personas for a strategic aim is a growing area of academic study and its implications for political communication and culture are significant.

P. David Marshall, who recently launched the Persona Studies journal, argues that a new cultural politics has emerged through presentational media –presentation of the self in digital space –which is quite different to that supported by traditional representational media, such as journalism, TV and film. Studying persona is categorized as the exploration of intentional presentation of specific identities with purpose.

This approach offers insights into how Trump and Farage’s social media campaigns helped them achieve their political aims. Digital and personalised storytelling techniques and representational media construction patterns are re-shaped, offering ever-new models of persona construction for strategic gain. 

Farage and Trump are the first in British and US politics to have fully harnessed the power of persona creation on SNS as a deliberate political communication tool. They use both SNS and mainstream media to build a persona created specifically to enable public consumption of their political message. Using individualism and self-promotion, they generate what Alison Hearn (2013: 27) in relation to reality TV stars, has described as “rhetorically persuasive packaging” and a “promotional skin” through which they can embody both the discontent of members of the electorate and ideas of alternative.

Trump and Farage’s personas colonize the lived experience of their followers and encourage them to actively display their mutuality of stance on SNS in order to perpetuate message. It is a new kind of political labour; highly stylized and mediatized self-construction, aimed at drawing the audience around a central bonfire and then directing them to specific action – first online and then in the voting booth. 

In this world, the political party is of decreasing significance and success can be far better judged by clicks, shares and likes than by opinion polls. Analytics mean successful messages are repeated and while this new electioneering is still of course often group activity –also performed by campaign managers and social media teams – at its core it is a personalised “Me” “You” and “Us” conversation. This approach enables campaign teams to produce content that allows instant identification rather than prolonged thought, communicating easily within the scroll of a social media timeline.

Farage and Trump’s approaches to political persona construction reflect its increased significance across both digital and mainstream media and particularly how it has reshaped celebrity culture. But that’s not to say we should see this as an entirely new phenomena without any historical basis.

Considering how the far-right have successfully used developing media forms, nationalistic rhetoric and celebrity promotionalism in the past, means we may better understand the significance of mediatised persona construction to political communication. Through this we can begin to conceptualise this latest surge in populist politics, its societal implications and how its techniques may be channelled towards a different course.

Bethany Usher’s article ‘You, Me and Us: Constructing Political Persona During the 2015 UK General Election Short Campaign’ is published in a special ‘Political Persona’ edition of Persona Studies later this month.