Why would a president ever label news “fake”? And is there a good reason to declare that all misfortune is caused by another country? (Did someone say “China”?)

When presidents talk this way, they’re doing a lot more than just assigning blame. They’re using one of the oldest tricks in a leader’s book: creating an enemy. Defining an enemy also serves to paint a clear picture of “us”; it brings people of a feather together.

Of course, it’s not just presidents who use antagonists to form a team; other expert communicators use this technique all the time. Constructing an enemy is the most-used tool in a cult leader’s toolbox, and marketers too discovered it quite a while ago.

When Apple launched its “Think Different” campaign in the 90s, it was to drive a wedge between computer enthusiasts. “I’m a Mac, you’re a PC” was designed to make people pick a side. Apple’s enemy is the boring computer that only geeks use.

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Fighting against something is emotionally more powerful than fighting for a cause. Supporting a cause is a wish without a deadline. But an unpredictable enemy? That’s an imminent threat that someone needs to deal with, right now!

Harley Davidson said that their bikes were about freedom and adventure. This message was a declaration of war on Japanese bike makers and their customers, who saw motorcycles as being about speed and power.

The search engine DuckDuckGo has multiple layers of enemies, starting with every other search provider that’s tracking people. Google is their enemy and so is Microsoft’s Bing, and so is every advertiser and ad network preying on user data.

Do some people still prefer Google’s customized search results? Of course they do. A good antagonist needs to polarize and cause a debate. When you’re building a brand, it needs to evoke strong opinions; otherwise it won’t have customers who care.

What’s in it for vegetarians and presidents?

Enemies provide clarity and focus. Once someone decides that meat is an enemy, their choices become simpler. Shopping is quicker, and they can ignore half the menu at most restaurants. Vegetarians’ friends even have an easier time buying gifts for them.

As soon as the name of the antagonist is out there, people start forming teams. This is what presidents are addicted to. All they need to do is to find a popular topic with the potential to divide people, and the rest will sort itself out. News can’t tell people what to think, but it can tell them what to think about.

There are plenty of good reasons for using the enemy technique. 

  1. Defining the enemy defines the community itself, clarifying both its values and its boundaries. It strengthens the group by taking the focus away from internal conflicts, and smokes out those with conflicted preferences.
  2. An enemy simplifies choices. Today’s world is complicated, and navigating it can mean making difficult decisions. Simple messages are sticky, because they satisfy the very human desire for absolute answers.
  3. For a president, an enemy is a convenient scapegoat. It can channel a population’s fear, hatred and frustration into a socially approved outlet. People at the bottom of the social pyramid suddenly have someone to look down on.

How to find a good enemy?

It’s clear that coming up with an antagonist can be an invaluable tool for communicators and leaders. But how de we go about finding one?

To find an enemy, we can take a page from a marketer’s playbook. In marketing, the goal is to define how your brand is radically different from everything else out there. Marketers need to find ideas that their competitors disagree with, because those have the potential to polarize people.

  1. Enemies have to be well known and familiar, so that people can connect to them right away.
  2. It’s a good idea to choose something that’s not beloved. The enemy of my enemy is a friend, so it’s important to pick a side carefully.
  3. Enemies should be broad enough so that everyone can visualize their own manifestations of it. All vegetarians can have different reasons not to eat meat.

The enemy technique works exactly because the world is complex. People from all corners of the globe can form groups, based on only a few of their specific preferences.

Picking sides can often feel like choosing between right and wrong, but in reality, most of the divisions are arbitrary. To break the spell (to keep calm and carry on being responsible), it’s good to remind ourselves of what Niels Bohr wrote: “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

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