How To Beat Trump
A political campaign is a competition of narratives, and you need a better story than the other guy to win.
As the 2020 Presidential campaign gets underway in earnest in Iowa, national polls show Trump losing to all of the Democratic front runners, in some cases by a comfortable margin of 13 points.
Don’t believe the hype.
Democratic primary candidates are spending their time before Iowa caucus goers attacking Trump rather than putting forward a real alternative to the anger, resentment, and fear he rode like a castrated pony into office. As they do, my own fear and anxiety of a Presidential election eve just like the last one only grows.
Please, God, no.
“What about Elizabeth Warren?,” you say, referring to the former professor who “has a plan for that” no matter which underlying root cause you attribute to red America’s 2016 electoral temper tantrum. If campaigns were fought on policy I might be reassured by the Senator from Massachusetts, but — here in the real world — they are not. Presidential campaigns aren’t fought on resumé, or work effort, or even money in the modern age… and if you doubt that just set a spell with President Clinton on her porch in Chappaqua.
No. The Presidential campaign of 2020 will be a contest of narratives — just like all the campaigns that preceded it — and right now the Democrats are ignoring that fact at their (and frankly, the world’s) peril.
I’ve written before about how Trump won the 2016 election, but it boils down to this:
Trump understood that if you want to change what someone does, you need to change what they feel, and not just what they think.
Trump mines the fear and anxiety millions of Americans feel as the country they love seems poised to leave them behind. To them, the fealty of coastal elites to some abstract global order has destroyed their communities and their prospects, leaving behind epidemic levels of unemployment, poor health, and addiction. They blame free trade agreements and authentically historic levels of immigration as the culprits in the unfolding tragedy of their daily lives, along with a political class of social justice warriors focused on jumping every black, brown, yellow, Jewish, Buddhist, Mexican, gay, lesbian, transexual into the line ahead of them. These people — whose parents and children fought and died in America’s wars for an American dream that now seems hopelessly out of reach — feel the contempt of blue state hypocrites toward their values and their religion in a daily drip, through the liberal media they also blame for leading them astray.
And now they have their guy.
Make America Great Again. Say what you want about his hair and his taste and his lies and his morals, but that is one hell of a story. And in the immortal words of the guy left out of the Song of Ice & Fire:
“What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? … Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.” — Tyrion Lannister
So what are the Democrats to do? Well, one approach is to play the critic… to spend the next 18 months pointing at the ways this story and the man telling it so effectively since 2015 actually suck; why the message is built on a foundation of lies, and why the messenger is so plainly unfit to occupy the office at the top of the free world. Democrats have been deploying this strategy since the election, in fact, with the cumulative effect of driving the President’s approval rating down from a heady 44.3 to a dismal 43.9.
You’ll forgive me for lacking confidence this approach will succeed, particularly through the twists and turns of a campaign sure to be equal parts Twitter fight and media circus, against a man deeply at home in either context.
What the Democrats need to win is a candidate who can formulate, road-harden, and authentically deliver a simple, dramatic story that re-frames the negative emotions we’re all feeling into a passionate narrative that points the way toward a brighter tomorrow.
Where are we as a country, right now? Don’t tell me things are great, and that Trump is the problem. The plain truth is they aren’t, and he isn’t. So why are we here? How did we get here? Who is to blame? And what is the way forward, in the face of forces already spinning so far beyond our control that the whole world sometimes feels like the upside-down.
“Great, Mike,” you might say. “Does a story like that even exist?”
Here’s what I’d like to hear someone say from the stump somewhere on a windy Iowa plain, just to show it can be done:
Thank you for coming today.
America is a special place. Seeing that led me to service as a younger man, and that service helped me understand just what it is that makes America special.
Unlike every nation before it, America is built on ideas. Our borders were not shaped by the territories of feudal lords, or by the ancient boundaries of one ethnicity to another. We are not united by blood, or by soil, or even by belief in the precise nature and specific practice of the God we choose to worship.
America was born in the Age of Enlightenment, created by men who believed in revolutionary ideas: That we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That we have rights to freedom of speech, and of the press; to bear arms, to due process, and to impartial justice. We have the right to a say in our own governance, and to assemble together in the pursuit of that say, as we have today.
Foremost among the ideas that created America is that “all men are created equal.” All men are created equal. Now, this was an idea so BIG, it’s taken us a few hundred years to figure out what it meant. And even today, we struggle to live up to its standard.
“All” was the first problem. “All” meant white when it was first written, and it took 620,000 American dead and decades of sometimes nonviolent and sometimes violent struggle to make “All” mean all. Next up was “Men.” In the memory of living Americans is an America where “Men” meant males. Decades of work and sacrifice helped us see that “Men” had to mean mankind for us to fulfill our promise as a nation. The remarkable people of color and extraordinary women I’ve served with are testament to our progress on the still expanding frontier of inclusion in the American idea.
Which brings us to “Created Equal.”
Created Equal. Think for a moment how revolutionary that idea was when they first wrote it down. Literally. The subjects of a far-off monarch, with the courage and the conviction to declare the lowliest among themselves born equal with the man able to dispatch the most powerful army and navy on Earth against them at the stroke a pen.
Created Equal was an idea that cast off the legacy of European patriarchy. It said no man — no person — shall be held above others according to the circumstances of their birth; by virtue of their family name, or their ancestral blood. Created Equal recognized the intrinsic value of every human life. It was a call to basic fairness at the birth of a new nation; a nation where anyone willing to accept the responsibilities of citizenship could access its full privileges; where anyone willing to work hard to better the circumstances of their family could achieve that success over time.
Created Equal, my friends, is where America has lost its way. Our nation today is one where the circumstances of your birth too often dictate the opportunities of your lifetime. At both the top and the bottom of the economic ladder, the social mobility at the heart of the American dream now lags behind that of nations who once embraced our example. For too many in this country, the “American dream” is exactly that… a dream, a mirage at the same distance no matter how hard they run toward it. For others, the opposite is true. Born to wealth and raised in gated communities, with private transportation to private schools, the top rung of the American ladder has never offered more secure footing to the children of privilege.
The fact is that in America today, we are not Created Equal.
So… what do we do? Well, for decades now, we have been told the best solution to the problem is growth… specifically the growth enabled by free trade among nations. Now I know globalism has fallen out of favor, but I truly fear we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, simply for the lack of courage to face the truth.
And the truth is this…. By the admission of even its most ardent detractors, the global regime of free market capitalism enabled by the generosity and leadership of the United States after World War II changed the world for the better… especially for those at the bottom of poor countries, and — it turns out — at the top of rich ones. Even as more billionaires have been created, though, billions of people have been lifted from poverty since the middle of the 20th century. If our progress as a species is measured not in the concentration of wealth, but in the reduction of human suffering, we now live in what can only be called a golden age of mankind.
The real problem is that we have failed to distribute the fruits of free trade fairly right here in America, where its benefits have been hoarded by a few at the top, and its costs have been borne almost entirely by the middle-class American worker.
Uncontrolled free trade has caused hardship for hard-working Americans, particularly across the heartland of our nation. But the solution to this problem, my friends, is not a war on free trade. It is the pursuit of a new model of fair trade that explicitly dedicates a more meaningful share of the benefits of global commerce to the infrastructure of social mobility, right here at home.
We need a new approach to trade that delivers fewer private jets, and more public good.
We need a new covenant to channel more of our successes in the global marketplace into investments in the early education we know works to create new possibilities for American children… especially those stranded at the bottom of our socioeconomic ladder. We need to make our best universities accessible to our best students, based not on who their parents are, but on what their potential is. And — just as important — we need to elevate our skilled trade schools and junior colleges, to power the growth of small business that is the bedrock of local economies, right here at home, extending the quiet dignity of a day’s work well done to more of the Americans willing to earn it.
We need to expand the reach of affordable broadband Internet further into the countryside that is America’s heartland. We need to improve public transportation into the cities that are the engines of our forward progress. And we need to modernize both our industrial age electrical grid, and the infrastructure of roads, bridges, and public works that connect us all, in a system we have neglected for far too long.
Finally, we need a new spirit of national service in this country, a shared experience to draw each of us out of our micro-targeted fake news bunkers, and into common contact with those with whom have common cause in the real world. For a generation the military served this function, bringing Americans from every corner of this country together in service not just to a nation, but to the ideas that nation represents. In the military — as in other forms of national service from AmeriCorps to SeniorCorps to Teach for America — it doesn’t matter where you come from, or who your daddy is, or what color you are, or who you worship, or who you love. What matters is the mission, and what comes from serving that mission together is not just a better understanding of what makes America special, but a better understanding of each other, and — if you’re as lucky as I’ve been — the bonds of friendship and love that will last a lifetime.
These are my priorities… that we re-tool to restore the American dream for the 21st century, through targeted investments in Education, Transportation, and Cooperation. I’m running a campaign focused on these three things, a campaign focused on restoring access to the American dream, and meaning to the uniquely American idea that we are all created equal.
Join me, and together, we will do just that.
Look… your mileage may vary. There may be 50 ways that story is flawed, and at least as many opportunities for something better, more dramatic, or more compelling. So let’s hear them. Somebody needs to get to work, improving a story the only way you can… by telling it, watching how people respond, and refining your message.
Right now I’m just looking for a candidate who can tell a better story than Make America Great Again, because that’s the candidate who can win. Electability isn’t about gender, age, experience, or labels. It’s about this. And if enough of us believe that, and enough of us say so, I really hope someone already in this field will hear us, and do what the best storytellers are so often called upon to do: Lead.