…we argued that asking why Hillary Clinton lost the election was an an all but pointless exercise. Clinton poses no threat to our Autumning Democracy/Republic/Empire, and unless, on December 19th, the Electoral College pulls off a miracle by actually performing the constitutional safeguard envisioned by our founders, she will not be our next president.
Let’s instead look at the man who will take the oath of office. On January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump will place his hand on a Bible and swear to uphold a constitution that he’s surely never read. Even some of America’s most reactionary imperialists are frightened of Trump. And while it is sort of fun watching George Will grab for the smelling salts, those of us who work for social justice have, for at least four years, a whole lot of work to do.
Albert Einstein once said that if he had an hour to figure out a problem, he’d spend fifty-five minutes trying to understand it, then use the remaining five to solve it. I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t alive in Europe during the 1930s, which means that I’ve never faced a problem like Donald Trump. So let’s take less than fifty-five minutes to figure out why and how this man won in 2016, and see what it teaches us about moving forward.
Trump Understands Media
Let’s put aside our liberal handwringing about “the mainstream media” and remark upon one aspect of The Apprentice star’s evil genius. It began long, long ago, years before Donald Trump even ran for president. Legend tells of a mighty Trump Tower where, in the dark and sinister hours of the night, long after Melania had gone to bed, a young(er) Donald Trump would secretly sign onto his Twitter account. Alone and free from inhibition, he horcruxed himself into America’s master baiter and switcher, seducing his dark followers with promises he’d never, ever keep. Pleasuring himself with the forbidden fantasies of fake birth certificates, Mexican rapists, Muslim infiltrators, and a media that just wouldn’t give a guy fair shake, Donald Trump learned how to make a tweet work the message of Sting’s message in a bottle. And soon, a hundred million bottles washed up on the shore. It seemed like Donald wasn’t alone in being alone.
Trump is the first successful presidential candidate to use Twitter as a primary media platform, but this obviously isn’t the extent of his astonishing media savvy. His infamous domination of cable news, his ability to create a story out of nothing, out of less than nothing, is the anti-Christ’s answer to turning water into wine. As of this writing, The Atlantic Daily Media Tracker clocks Trump at over a million news mentions; Clinton never cracked 650,000. The lesson for liberals and progressives? Don’t play it safe in 2018 or 2020. A candidate isn’t simply a job applicant and policy crafter. He or she is the symbol of and rallying point for America’s unmet needs. And it’s tough to rally around a candidate who can’t successfully manage Twitter or the 24-hour news cycle.
Trump is a Communicator
And make no mistake: he’s really, really good at it. And here’s what hurts: what I hate about Trump’s speaking style is the very thing that makes him so goddamn successful.
Back in January, 2016 Evan Puschak created a linguistic analysis of Donald Trump’s answer to Jimmy Kimmel’s question “Isn’t it un-American and wrong to discriminate against people based on their religion?” Here are the highlights of Puschak’s findings:
- When it comes to vocabulary and sentence structure, Trump speaks like a fourth-grader. Goddamnit, I knew I was smarter than Trump! But here’s the thing: I know brilliant people, lots of brilliant people, who can’t write worth a damn. Why? Because they don’t know how to take complicated ideas and make them understandable. And Donald Trump can, in part by lying his ass off. But simple word choices – even when used honestly – can be powerful tools for persuasion, which brings us to…
- Monosyllabic words comprise 78% of Trump’s answer. 17% of the words are two syllables long. Another sign of Trump’s stupidity? Before you rush to judgement, pause a moment and check out this little piece of oratory from a fellow by the name of Winston Churchill:
…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…
“We”. “Shall.” “Fight.” “Beaches.” “Grounds.” “Fields.” “Streets.” “Hills.” “Never.” Here then are the building blocks of Sir Winston’s famous rally against the evils of fascism. The only word here that exceeds two syllables in this passage is “surrender.” I don’t suggest that Trump is a statesman on par with Churchill – or that he’s even a statesman at all. But Trump is a salesman, and salesmen know how to talk. George Orwell would be horrified (and familiar) with the likes of Donald Trump. But 1984’s author would also be forced to concede that our president elect slavishly obeys Orwell’s 2nd rule of writing: “Never use a long word when a short one will do.” *
- Trump uses simple sentences. “We have a tremendous problem.” “There’s a hatred out there.” (Notice how those statements are a lot truer now than they were one year ago?) Sure, Trump’s improvisational-non-sequiturial-incoherent ramblings produce their share of run-ons. Some are sentences that might charitably be called “complex.” But you don’t have to go too deep into the Trump rhetorical haystack to find simplicity’s sharp and dangerous needle.
- Trump understands the power of repetition. When answering Kimmel, Trump uses the word “problem” six times in one minute. This may not have the same pleasing effect as Churchill’s anaphorical, “We shall fight,” but it certainly does the job. Trump counters Kimmel’s assertion that targeting Muslims is un-American and wrong by reminding us that there is a problem – one that demands an effective, albeit unsavory, solution.
- Trump knows how to end a sentence. Quoting directly from Puschak, he does this…
…with strong, punchy words. A lot of times he’ll rearrange the beginning of a sentence awkwardly so he can end strong. For example: here it would probably more natural to say, “You know, you can’t solve a problem until you find out what the root cause is.” But he brings the “is” forward so he can end on “root cause.” (You know, you can’t solve a problem until you find out what’s the root cause.”)
Pretty fancy linguistic strategizing for a guy with a mouth like a fourth-grader.
Now these rhetorical tricks that Trump uses are not the only ones available to aspiring political candidates. But look at a list of American presidential contests since 1980. With the possible exception of 2000 (when Al Gore not only won the popular vote, but had a legitimate claim to an Electoral College victory as well) the winner had better communication skills:
Year Winner Loser
1980 Ronald Reagan Jimmy Carter
1984 Ronald Reagan Walter Mondale
1988 George H.W. Bush Michael Dukakis
1992 Bill Clinton George H.W. Bush
1996 Bill Clinton Bob Dole
2000 George W. Bush Al Gore
2004 George W. Bush John Kerry
2008 Barack Obama John McCain
2012 Barack Obama Mitt Romney
2016 Donald Trump Hillary Clinton
It’s worth noting that there is one area of communication where Hillary Clinton consistently out-performed Trump: the debates. She totally kicked Trump’s ass. And the polls showed that Clinton’s popularity enjoyed some degree of bounce after every single face-off. But there were only three. Had Trump and Clinton been forced to debate every day for the last month of the election, its outcome might have been different.
It’s The Economy, Stupid
For me, the most chilling moment of the 2016 election – other than Donald Trump winning – happened on March 8. That’s the day Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton with an upset in the Michigan primary. FiveThirtyEight had been showing Clinton leading by about 21 points, but she didn’t prevail. I was a Sanders supporter myself, but I found his upset deeply ominous. Why? Because it meant that:
- It was possible for the polls to be very, very wrong.
- Clinton was in trouble in the Rust Belt.
Eight months later – to the very day – Clinton lost again in Michigan, only this time to Donald Trump. She also lost Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, states where she’d been the projected winner, and Ohio, which was no surprise but certainly didn’t help.
Why? As her husband’s campaign so eloquently put it back in 1992: “It’s The Economy, Stupid.” Hillary Clinton had more experience than Donald Trump, better economic policies than Donald Trump, and was better for working families than Donald Trump. But Trump won. How? With a simple, memorable economic promise to “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s ear was well attuned to the cries of those who’d been left behind by the Obama recovery – cries that were politely ignored by liberals, some of whom spent eight years blaming every decision Obama did or didn’t make on his predecessor, George W. Bush. That’s not to say that Clinton didn’t try. But pitching incrementalism to voters clamoring for change is a little bit like giving a Band-Aid to a man who needs a tourniquet. It’s better than nothing, but…
Tragically, Trump’s populist rhetoric was only that: rhetoric. His cabinet choices make it abundantly clear that his campaign was mere bait. It’s followed by a cruel switch to an oligarchic plutocracy, a New Gilded Age.
Yet Donald Trump is vulnerable. But he won’t defeat himself. It’s not enough to decry Trump’s soon-to-be-manifest economic outrages. Those of us who hate the fakery must embrace the real thing: an honest, economically empowering, non-xenophobic form of populism. Let’s start with the basics: single payer health care, free college tuition, and a $15 an hour minimum wage. This populism needs to rally behind inspiring, media savvy public leaders who are ready to slay this dragon. Then, and only then, will Donald Trump be fully exposed for what he is: a cynical, venal robber baron, America’s master baiter and switcher in chief.
December 16, 2016
* On the other hand, Trump is a serial violator of Orwell’s sixth and final dictum: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”