Promising the Impossible

“Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.” I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carrol

The tactic we are going to look at, in this, the first chapter of the populist’s playbook is “Promising the Impossible”. We’re starting here because it’s one of the most outrageous, the most frustrating , and the most fascinating of techniques!

The Impossible. 

It can be so blatant. it can make you stop, like Alice, and wonder. How do people believe these impossible things? All politicians make campaign promises, some of them even intend and try to keep them. What sets apart the populist though is the audacity of promising the impossible. Promising things not only that they won’t deliver, but that they can’t possibly deliver, and what can then be almost fanatical levels of belief from supporters. 

So we’re going to look at the practice, look at some recent examples – how they were made, WHY they were made, what happened next and what we can do about it. 

A Promise By Any Other Name?

A couple of quick definitions – Following the practice of recent academic political studies we will define a promise as an explicit commitment to a specific action, rather than a mere statement of policy. 

  • “Read my lips – no new taxes” is a promise. 
  • “I’m against the idea of raising taxes” is merely a position. 

What we mean by ‘impossible’ is also fairly straight forward. Things that are either

Literally impossible: either in themselves or in conflict with other promises, and

Virtually impossible: Promises- that might in the wildest fantasy be physically possible, but the candidate has no means of being able to deliver even if they win. 

Is promising the impossible a weakness or a strength? 

In a rational situation – Promising the impossible should be a weak chink in the populists’ armor. If you can show what someone is saying is impossible, it should hurt their credibility. Right?

Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. It seems impossible promises can hurt their credibility – just not necessarily with the people who matter, and not at the time that counts.  We’re going to look at three different examples of populists promising the impossible, all from the past ten years:  

  • Donald Trump’s 2016 promise to “Build the wall” along the US’s southern border, and have Mexico pay for it. 
  • The Scottish Nationalist Party’s whitepaper commitments about a currency union, and control of economic levers.And, finally,
  • The promises made during the Brexit Referendum – that we could leave and have the ‘exact same benefits’ as staying – among other things. 


‘I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.’ 

Donald Trump

Donald Trump has, possibly, promised more unbelievable things than any other modern politician. Trump has this to say on the impossible – 

“The more people tell you it’s not possible, that it can’t be done, the more you should be absolutely determined to prove them wrong. Treat the word ‘impossible’ as nothing more than motivation.”

Donald Trump

Neither his self-belief nor ego is constrained by political reality or the laws of physics. The wall was a key campaign promise that resonated with his base- we’ll come back to chants of “build the wall, build the wall”, in our chapter on emotional oratory. 

Now, Walls are possible – there’s already a wall or fence along some of the border. So was this, really, an impossible promise? Yes. What Trump promised was impossible for several reasons. 

1. The Cost

First – The cost and funding! Trump estimated it would cost between Four and ten billion dollars. Other estimates vary, depending on the scale and type of barrier. Still, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in their Technology Review “Bad Math Props Up Trump’s Border Wall,” estimated that a 1,600-km steel and concrete wall would cost forty billion U.S. dollars. 

2. Billing Mexico

Secondly – when Trump dismissed the cost as irrelevant saying Mexico would pay for it. Mexico ruled out paying for it, and Trump has no legal means to coerce them. Possibly Trump meant to seize money Mexican immigrants sent home – that would still only be a fraction of the estimated cost, and would soon dry up if targeted. He’s also claimed to get the money from a great trade deal, but the numbers don’t stack up.

3. The Power

The third impossibility is. Trump overstated, or over estimated, The Executive Power to do it. Whatever he likes to think, Trump’s power as president is limited. For example – after he was elected couldn’t allocate new funds to the project, he could only redirect some limited existing funds. That’s not to say he didn’t do his damnedest . When trying to secure $5.6 billion in funding for the wall – only a fraction of the estimated $40 billion cost – it led to the longest shut down of the federal government in US history, and the declaration of a state of emergency. 

4. The Nature of the border

Fourth – There is simply the nature of the border, that makes a wall practically impossible, and even counter-productive. Much of the border is on the river the Rio Grande. Neither the US nor Mexico is allowed to divert water or build anything that interferes with flood management. Much of the land along either side of the border is privately owned – there would be decades of hundreds of legal battles and challenges just to get the rights to get started, all driving up the cost. 

Some of the most impenetrable parts of the border are in the Arizona desert. Stretches are practically impassible because they are so wild. Building a concrete wall would involve laying thousands of miles of roads and infrastructure into the desert to move the materials – infrastructure that could then make crossing the border at those points more attractive.That could make building the wall counterproductive to the claim it will make border crossings harder.  

5. The Design of the Wall

Fifth – the physical nature of the wall. Trump is supposedly a real-estate businessman, but some of the comments Trump made about the wall on the campaign trail sound more like a kids cartoon drawing of a castle. He described nearly 2,000 miles of 50ft high, reinforced concrete barrier, along the whole border. He wanted it simultaneously painted black, adding several million dollars to the costs and upkeep, AND for it to be transparent, “so we can see the Mexicans with their bags of drugs”. Just for hyperbole, he added to the visualisation a water-filled moat, filled with snakes, alligators, spikes and electric fences. 

So why did he do it? 

A key plank of Trump’s platform was his anti-immigration rhetoric- we will come to that later in the series in the chapter on fearmongering. 

It was what his target audience wanted to hear

A Morning Consult poll released during the campaign said 47 per cent of voters support building a wall, that rose to a large majority of Republican voters.

While many people knew Trump as a reality TV star, his ‘official’ occupation is as a real-estate developer. It was a connection between Trump’s key anti-immigration policy, and what he was known for as a real estate developer.  

It had Ethos

He was in the building trade, he should know about walls. 

It had Pathos

Fear-mongering; Mexicans are coming, the caravan is coming, there’s terrorists, there’s drugs, there’s rapists.

It had Logos

There was, in a gross-oversimplification way, a crude logic. If you want to close the border, build a big wall. 

It was a promise his core supporters wanted to hear. In a practical sense, it didn’t matter that it was impossible – because building it was to solve an imaginary overhyped problem. 

We’re coming up to Trump’s end of term. What’s his position now on the wall? What do his voters think, what does he claim? What has he delivered?  

To be fair – Trump has tried to build the wall. It’s possible he didn’t realise, or care,  just how absurd his Impossible promise was. He even shut down the US government and threatened to veto any spending plans that didn’t include $5.6 billion for the wall.  He signed executive orders. He moved budget from projects such as building schools for the children of the military. 

What has he delivered?  

Aside from polarising the country, redirecting billions of funds, declaring national emergencies and souring relationships with Mexico – As of late 2019, he has built about 100 miles of fencing, of which 95 miles was a replacement for fence already there. 

He has managed to purchase 3 miles of private property along the border. 

How is he reacting when challenged on it? 

Challenged on the promise that Mexico will pay for it, the first tactic is to backtrack. Trump could not have been clearer that Mexico was going to pay for the wall – he said it loud, repeatedly, and the crowd loved it.  

While he was vague about how, exactly, mexico would pay – he did say in one released memo that Mexico would make a one off payment of between $5 billion and $10 billion dollars. 

Compare this to what he later stated – 

“When during the campaign, I would say ‘Mexico is going to pay for it,’ obviously, I never said this, and I never meant they’re gonna write out a check, I said they’re going to pay for it. They are. Mexico is paying for the wall indirectly”

Donald Trump

He just claims that he’s kept the promise and doubled down on it – a Whitehouse declaration 3 years into his term still claimed “We will get the job done.” 

LEGISLATIVE WINS: President Trump secured a number of significant legislative victories in the Homeland Security appropriations bill that further his effort to secure the Southern Border ” 

On the 14th February 2020, a statement in politico magazine Jared Kushner said 

“The project will substantially be done by the end of the year or early next year,…That was a promise and it’s important that it’s now being accomplished.”

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, said in an interview Friday with POLITICO

So being generous, Trump has spent a lot of energy failing to build the wall, this is before we even get into the little expected impact, and the flaws in the design. 

He can speak to his base, and say he is delivering the impossible – maybe he just needs another term, or another unconstitutional several terms, to deliver it. 

“As we speak, a long, tall, and very powerful wall is being built,” 

Donald Trump

Or try – as we speak some sections of existing fence are being replaced. 

Whatever he ends up delivering it won’t be the impossible campaign promise for a full border, 50ft, concrete wall with a moat full of alligators, snakes and electric fencing.

Build the wall, finish the wall?

Our next two examples are from the United kingdom. 

The UK has had two major constitutional referendums in the past decade. 

In 2014, a referendum was held in Scotland asking

“Should Scotland be an Independent Country?”

2014 referendum question

Scotland voted by 55% to remain in the United Kingdom, on a turnout of 84.6%.  

Two years later, in 2016 came the UK-wide 2016 referendum on the continued membership of the EU – the UK voted 51% to leave, on a turnout of 72%, with the question

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

2016 referendum question

Both those votes were preceded by some of the most engaging, divisive and disputed campaigns seen in a modern liberal democracy. Claim and counter-claim, social media advertising, foreign interference, unlikely bedfellows, and different interpretations of reality divided, and in Scotland quartered, opinions causing rifts that are still a long way from healing. 

Scottish opinion hasn’t been divided by our referendums; it’s been quartered.

Bingo Demagogue

We are going to come across the Independence campaigns, and the Brexit campaigns a few times in the populist’s playbook, so it’s worth taking a moment to compare them. 

There were many differences between the two campaigns.

A core element of the Brexit campaign was its anti-immigration stance, which was much closer to Donald Trump’s Wall than to Scotlands position. Others would say the campaign to leave the EU was more right-wing, and the drive to leave the UK was more left-wing. 

But while some might resent the comparison, It’s also possible to see many more similarities.

They were both constitutional plebiscites making a nationalist case to separate a country from flawed, but inherently beneficial, social, political and economic union. 

Both cases to leave the respective unions relied heavily on many of the 12 techniques of the populist’s playbook, which is why will come across them again later in the series. 

For promises made during the independence campaign, we can look primarily at “The White Paper”. The whitepaper was a controversial document from the start – titled “Scotland’s Future” it was published as a Scottish government white paper on 26 November 2013 by the Scottish Government under First Minister Alex Salmond.

The whitepaper was the keystone document setting out the Nationalist campaign and had approval at the highest level. Salmond described it as the

“This whitepaper is the most comprehensive blueprint for an independent country ever published”

Alex Salmond
At the launch of the controversial Whitepaper

“The document is a comprehensive guide to an independent Scotland.” 

Nicola Sturgeon

Across more than 170,000 words on some 670 pages, many promises were made. 

  • Some were, admittedly, attractive.
  • Many were merely implausible. 
  • Several were, literally, impossible. 

The economy and specifically the currency an independent Scotland would use, was a topic of heated debate. The position of the Yes campaign was that Scotland would enter into an official currency union with the rest of the UK, and keep GBP. 

This promise was made repeatedly throughout the campaign and explicitly several times in the whitepaper – 

“The pound is Scotland’s currency”…” We will, therefore, retain the pound in an independent Scotland.”

Scotland’s Future page 27

“Scotland will continue to use the pound, just as we do today.”

Scotland’s Future page 46

“Scotland will continue to use the pound, providing continuity and certainty for individuals and businesses in Scotland and the rest of the UK.”

page 105

 “the pound Sterling will continue to be the currency of an independent Scotland…” and “The current Scottish Government is clear that Sterling should continue to be the currency of an independent Scotland. “

Scotland’s Future page 398

Those are just some of the multiple examples. 

The UK conservative chancellor, His opposition labour shadow chancellor, the lib dems and the governor of the bank of England, almost immediately, ruled out a formal currency union. For the reasons that the UK 

“would bear most of the liquidity and solvency risk”, would have to “bail out Scotland in the event of a financial or fiscal crisis” and that “separate fiscal policy would bring about economic divergence putting pressure on the monetary union.” 

Despite that, the SNP campaign doubled down on the promise. Over the next year in the run-up to the vote, they refused to commit to an alternative ‘plan-B’. Even when all three main national UK parties ruled it out, Nicola Sturgeon still insisted that after a yes vote things would be different. 

This formal currency union, taken on its own, was only virtually an impossible promise.

An independent Scotland could promise a currency union with the rest of the UK in the same way that Trump could promise Mexico will pay for his wall; a popular promise, with little to zero chance of success, that is not in their power to make. 

Why this qualifies as a literally promising the impossible is that it is mutually exclusive with another commitment. That an independent Scotland would have full control of economic levers.  

This ‘taking back of control’ to borrow a phrase from the Brexit campaign, was a keystone economic argument for Independence. It’s repeatedly, explicitly, made in the whitepaper. 

“Independence would make the Scottish Parliament and Government responsible for the full range of economic powers. Decisions on taxation and other economic levers, as well as employment law and all aspects of economic regulation, would be taken in Scotland” 

“responsibility for all economic levers in Scotland”

‘Independence will ‘… ‘provide access to the key economic levers'”

Scotlands Future page 43

“With independence, the Scottish Government and Parliament will have control over the full suite of economic levers.” 

Scotland’s Future

So what are these economic levers, and what is the problem?  

“The two main tools of economic policy are fiscal policy and monetary policy, A country’s currency arrangement,… affect(s) the degree of freedom that central banks and governments have in their monetary and fiscal policies.” 

The Financial Scrutiny Unit Briefing, published in March 2014 on the Scottish Parliament site.

In all of the currency scenarios where Scotland kept the pound, on a formal, informal or pegged basis, all monetary policies economic levers of – Interest Rates, Quantitative Easing, Forex influence, Lending of last resort – Scotland would have control of none of them.

Scotland could use the British pound, Scotland could have full control of economic levers – Scotland could not do both. That promise was impossible. 

So why did they do it? 

In a 640 page document, it would be more surprising not to find some inconsistencies, but the currency is such a fundamental building block of a new country, and the economic levers so central to the “take back control” narrative, this surely must have come under some serious discussion. 

However – looking back to the reasons Trump made the promise on the wall – it was a way to make a connection on a topic about which the target audience already had strong feelings. It played to Trump’s history as a real estate developer and connected it to his key immigration policy. It was a way he could rally the troops and get the vote out. 

Before entering politics, Salmond was a banker, and still had close connections to international finance. If the pathos of the independence campaign was a cry of ‘Freedom’, the Ethos was meant to be the SNP’s economic competence under Salmond. Yet the commitment to the Pound Sterling was a u-turn for the SNP and Alex Salmond in particular. 

Around a decade earlier, Alex Salmond, speaking to The Centre for European Policy Studies, described the pound as “a millstone round Scotland’s neck” and was calling for an independent Scotland to join the Euro. 

What changed between that and the whitepaper being written was the Eurozone crisis and the 2008 recession. Setting aside the question of if an independent Scotland would meet the criteria to join the Euro, polling in Scotland suggested that both the Euro and a New Scottish currency were seen as extremely high risk. 

The biggest stumbling block to selling Independence was offsetting the real or percieved economic risk, and voters with mortgages, pensions, wages and debts in GBP did not want to move to a new currency or the Euro. The SNP needed to commit to the pound, or have no chance of winning. 

A large factor of this risk aversion was due to the Euro crisis and the view of how it had impacted Greece, Spain, Italy & Portugal compared to Northern Europe Eurozone countries such as France and Germany.

Ironically, what had made the Eurozone crisis so hard to manage, and so damaging to Southern Europe, is that there was currency union, without full economic and political union. And this is the very scenario that the SNP tried to duplicate. 

This must have caused some cognitive dissonance – The repeated formulaic calls for “full control of economic levers” was one of separation from the UK economy. The “us and them” narrative is one of the most potent stories of nationalism. 

But in their research paper “Lessons from historical monetary unions” John Ryan and John Loughlin find that they require… 

“A unified fiscal policy in order to withstand external shocks” and that “continuing national rivalries can undermine any monetary union.”

Lessons from historical monetary unions

This is just one of many impossible promises that were made, others included – thaqt the UK would continue to take, process and store the nuclear waste from Scotland’t two reactors, about removing nuclear weapons from the Clyde while still being a member of NATO – there were many – but we will come to these in our chapter on emotional oratory

Lessons learned from the failure of the 2014 Scottish nationalist campaign influenced the tactics of the 2016 British nationalist campaign.  

The Brexit campaign, where we go next, learnt from the Scottish campaign, where the SNP had committed to a plan in black and white, which could then be picked apart in detail and used as a stick to beat them when flaws, inconsistencies and impossibilities were found. 

Who are they and what was the background?

The leave campaign on the Brexit Referendum had observed the Scottish Referendum closely, and learned from it, especially with regards to social media, targeting and strategy. 

The Yes campaign for independence spawned several different campaigning groups which were supposed, for financial reporting purposes, to be independent of the SNP. But the arguments for independence were mainly created, shaped and delivered by the SNP Scottish government or closely aligned proxy organisations. 

By the end of the referendum campaign, the Scottish whitepaper had become a stick to beat the yes side with. The impossibilities had been exposed. It was an official prospectus promising things already comprehensively ruled out in the ten months between it’s publication and the public vote. 

The vote leave campaign did not publish a detailed prospectus. But they did make promises. We could look at impossible promises from UKIP and the UKIP leader Nigel Farage, or, but we will look at Vote Leave – which the electoral commission designated the ‘official’ leave campaign. 

The three central figures of the Vote Leave campaign are still at the centre of the British government – Boris Johnston, Micheal Gove and Dominic Cummings. 

Nick Cohen, writing in the Guardian two days after the vote said: 

“Between them, they promised to spend £111bn on the NHS, cuts to VAT and council tax, higher pensions, a better transport system and replacements for the EU subsidies to the arts, science, farmers and deprived regions.”

Nick Cohen – The Guardian

What’s, perhaps astonishing, is just how quickly after the result the promises were being rolled back. 

“On Thursday, they won by promising cuts in immigration. On Friday, Johnson …said that in all probability the number of foreigners coming here won’t fall. On Thursday, they promised the economy would boom. By Friday, the pound was at a 30-year low. On Thursday, they promised £350m extra a week for the NHS. On Friday, it turns out there are “no guarantees”.”

Nick Cohen , The Guardian

Perhaps the most treacherous promise was David Davis 

“What we have come up with … is the idea of a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have.”

David Davis

To suggest that we could leave the European Union, yet retain the same benefits, was clearly an impossible promise. It’s ruled out by the nature of the union. 

This wasn’t the only promise made. Open Britain have compiled a “Government Contract” outlining the key promises that were made;

Click to read the full contract

The motivations for making impossible promises ahead of the EU referendum need to be taken in context. 

After the SNP lost the independence referendum, the pivoted that into unprecedented electoral success. Under 50% of the popular support is enough to give a large majority victory with the UK’s ‘First past the post’ voting system. 

Building on a 45% yes vote being a losing % in the Referendum in September 2014, the SNP was able to take 49% of the vote but gain 95% of the Scottish MPs. 

Looking at the core Brexit architects of Gove and Johnson, I’d suggest that this is what they wanted to emulate. It was noted from their shocked and muted reaction, and lack of a plan, they had not seemed to intend or want to win. 

It did not matter to them if they made impossible promises during the Brexit campaign, because if – as polls suggested, the UK voted to remain, they would be in a powerful narrative position. 

Following the SNP model, They could build on that frustrated large minority who had just missed out on their referendum win, and pivot it into first past the post electoral success – while not having to deliver on the impossible promises they had made. 

This could be seen as one distinct difference between the Brexit and independence referendums. The Scottish nationalists who didn’t want to lose, the conservative Brexiteers didn’t want to win, and both were disappointed. 

How can we spot them, and what can we do about it? 

Looking at these three examples, how can we protect ourselves from impossible promises? How do we spot them, and what can we do when we see one? 

The first red flag is remit. If you do what the populist asks – vote for them in a presidential or Referendum election, will that give them the power to deliver? Often they are making promises based on what third parties will do – 

  • Vote for us; They’ll pay for the wall, whatever they say now. 
  • Vote for us; They’ll enter a formal currency union, whatever they say now.
  • Vote for us; They’ll give us all the same benefits, whatever they say now.
  • It’s possible to improve border security, but the wall 50ft cartoon wall, paid for by Mexico, that Donald Trump promised was never going to happen. It was promising the impossible.
  • An independent Scotland could not have used the pound and had full control of economic . Promising both was promising the impossible.
  • There’s nothing to suggest that the UK leaving the EU would keep all the benefits of being a member, or by any calculation that we could spend £350million a week on the NHS. That was promising the impossible

We might also be able to judge our populists by the company they keep. The three examples we have looked at might seem to come from very different places – Trump’s evangelical white-supremacist American nationalism, Alex Salmond’s left of centre civic nationalism, and David Davis’s eurosceptic nostalgic nationalism. 

Of course, those with longer memories will recognise – before they fell out, Alex Salmond Courted Donald Trump controversial investment in Scotland – controversial because Alex Salmond’s government gave permission to develop his golf course over a protected wildlife site – sand dunes that have now been destroyed. 

Alex Salmond and Donald Trump

There have also been questions raised about Scottish public money being used to Subsidise Trumps use of Prestwick airport. David Davis, while looking at post Brexit Trade deals, courted Trump’s government with a view to lowering British food standards to open markets to US producers.

To complete the triangle, David Davis remains Alex Salmond’s closest non-Scottish friend from his years at Westminster. They remain close, and indeed Davis was the opening guest at Salmond’s edinburgh fringe show. 

close friends David Davis and Alex Salmond

It’s tempting to seek the simplest explanation, they are telling a target audience what they want, or need, to hear, to cement strong support, and it’s just a means to an end. Get the vote over the line, and once it’s too late, who cares if the promises can be delivered.

But they may believe the impossible themselves;

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance.”

Martin Luther King

That may apply to the followers too: In her research paper “The strategy of Campaign Promises” Dr. Tabitha Bonilla the Research Assistant Professor at the Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University suggests that promises are a signal that’s stronger than policy. 

 “promises might act as a mechanism that alters the strength of the signal candidates transmit to voters…in varying the strength of commitment candidates attach to a position, they alter voter expectations around policies, and can potentially increase support among constituents who are similarly interested in specific policies.”

“The strategy of Campaign Promises” Dr.T Bonilla

Her research shows that “promises work to polarise voter opinions on a candidate.” voters who do not already agree, may be antagonised. In terms of the populist then, promises play better to the dynamic of the highly engaged base, the rally, the crowd, on the issues that are important to that individual. 

Dr.Bonilla’s research also shows that most Americans don’t believe that candidates will keep their promises once in office anyway. 

It’s a short term strategy, but populists see the risks as low. The research indicates that the punishment for breaking the promise in the future may be worth it for credibility and engagement now. Once votes are final, they may have no intention of delivering, as with the Brexit assurances on getting all the same benefits of membership. 

If they lose the vote, the promise is never put to the test.

If an impossible promise comes back to haunt them, they can spin that they are in the process of delivering it, progress towards the impossible is being made, and it’s important to vote again to get the job done, or to use another technique – that a scapegoat is stopping them from delivering. 

Voters may prefer a candidate who signals with a promise they agree with them strongly on an issue then breaks the promise, over a candidate who delivers on a policy position but isn’t as committed to it.  

“If candidates promise on an issue where there is an overwhelming majority of the population that shares the same position, the candidate stands to gain more support than she might lose from voters that disagree with her.”

“Research in marketing psychology provides intriguing insights into why broken campaign promises “hurt so bad.” The effect is known as “negative expectancy disconfirmation” This suggests that consumers, or voters, who feel a promise has been broken are angrier than if they are happy when a promise is kept.”

Psychology Today Dr. Susan Krause

Trumps “build the wall” helped get him elected, but it could harm his chances of re-election as previous supporters turn against him –

North Carolina congressman Mark Meadows, previously a Trump supporter, said: “He campaigned on the wall.” It was the centre of his campaign. The American people’s patience is running out.”

Right-wing columnist Ann Coulter – who wrote” In Trump We Trust” – has predicted that failing to deliver his impossible promise means he will not be re-elected.

Without a wall, he will only be remembered as a small cartoon figure who briefly inflamed and amused the rabble,”

Ann Coulter

The Scottish nationalist Party’s impossible promises in the Whitepaper received some criticism at the time, but nothing like the scrutiny that would have happened with a win. Unlike the Trump or Brexit campaigns, they have not had to deliver on any of their impossible promises.

Their voters have not won, …but neither have they been disappointed. 

So – if the base don’t care if it’s impossible, the populists don’t care if they can deliver it, and the voters might not even care if they don’t after it’s too late- what can we do? 

There is an opportunity – If a voter is undecided or leaning to the populist generally but is ambivalent to the specific issue them demonstrating how, or why, the promise is impossible may weaken the appeal. 

There is a counter-intuitive strategy

There is a possible strategy – counter-intuitive to speaking to voters about what they care about most, perhaps we can reduce the credibility of populists with voters, by pointing out the impossible promises on the issues that aren’t as important to the person you are speaking with. 

For example – if your MAGA supporting Grandfather is hell-bent on reducing the perceived number of mexicans, he’s going to double down when you tell him the wall is impossible. 

But if he is ambivalent about the Coal industry, you could possibly damage Trump’s credibility with him by exposing the impossible promises made on bringing back the coal jobs. ( Coal productivity has increased through technology. One machine operator can now do the work of 10 miners. Those coal jobs aren’t coming back) That and other examples may be more likely to bring him round to questioning the credibility. 

If someone believes as a matter of faith that an independent Scotland will keep the pound, but isn’t fussed either way about nuclear disarmament, then point out another impossible promise made in the Whitepaper. The Whitepaper promised to remove nuclear weapons from the Clyde but also promised non-Nuclear NATO membership on a Denmark model. Under the proposal, any nuclear-armed NATO ship, including rUK Submarines, would have full access to Scottish ports and waters on a ‘don’t ask don’t tell basis. 

You can promise to remove nuclear weapons from the Clyde. You can promise to be a member of NATO. They are mutually exclusive. Promising both is impossible. 

However, be warned – if the target market is invested in wanting the promise to be true, if they have felt a connection to the populist due to the promise, then the backfire effect might come into play. Correcting information will make partisan individuals cling more strongly to their views! 

For a great explanation of the backfire effect check out this comic from the Oatmeal.

If you come across a claim, a promise you know is impossible, and let’s face it; it’s probably going to be on social media – our advice would be- put together your counter-argument in one place. Or search for someone who has already pulled it together, and keep a library of these links. 

Whether that’s a post you can share, a paragraph you cut and paste, a video you can link to, or a simple statement of fact, that shows it’s untrue. Then when you come across the claim, you can quickly share that without needing to be endlessly repeating yourself. 

There may be a reaction to that – argument, insults, as people find their faith in the impossible is challenged. That’s OK. Remember for every vocal supporter of the populist reacting badly; there might be ten others reading the exchange who will then see the impossible promise for what it is. It’s crucial that the impossible promises are challenged. 

There are no quick, easy answers. But in the name of rational progress, we must keep challenging the impossible where we find it!  

Populism thrives on division, the narrative is “Us and them”, often from outside the support – at the rallies, online, can seem like an almost cult-like faith-based devotion. 

Populists use Pathos – it’s an emotional decision, to bridge the leap of faith, and make their supporters believe the impossible. Despite the belief, we are rational creatures; logical reason can be weak against an invested belief. To voters with strong beliefs – the promise being made is more important than the promise being kept. They may not even expect the promise will be kept. In that situation, proving the promise to be impossible is irrelevant to changing the opinion – sound familiar? 

It creates a dichotomy – those who believe the impossible, and those who don’t. That’s what makes this technique so dangerous – if the populist can get you to believe one impossible thing, they can get you to believe six impossible things before breakfast.  

“Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed”. 


It creates a dichotomy. The believers, us and them. Its dangerous. If the Populist can make you believe one impossible thing, they can make you believe 6 impossible things before brexit.


Published by Bingo Demagogue

Twitter - @BingoDemagogue

2 thoughts on “Promising the Impossible

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