Thursday, November 10, 2016

Random thoughts on why Trump won the election

The first and only Presidential election I was ever heavily invested in was in my overly idealistic youth (which should not be confused with my overly idealistic adulthood or my overly idealistic senior citizen status). In 1964, during the first Presidential election in which I was eligible to vote, I worked tirelessly to elect Lyndon Baines Johnson. And it wasn’t because he was a Texan — I didn’t even live in Texas in 1964 — I did it because I really, truly believed him when he solemnly swore "I’m not going to send American boys to fight in an Asian war."

I’m still pulling the knives out of my back more than a half-century later, but that experience taught me a number of valuable lessons. Chief among them was a candidate for political office will say or do anything it takes to get elected and those of us in the political diaspora should not believe a single word a political candidate — most especially a Presidential candidate — says during the election campaign. It also taught me I could live a lot less painful life by not getting personally invested in the process and for that reason I have never volunteered to work in a political campaign again (I have worked in many as a "hired gun") and I have never again voted for a Presidential candidate nominated by either the Democrat or Republican party since 1964. If I can’t trust any of them, if I already know I can’t believe anything they promise me, how do they expect me to vote for them?

But this attitude helped me significantly in what became my career choice – journalism. It gave me the sense of objectivity, the tenet of fairness, I needed to succeed in this profession. In other words, it taught me to be equally nasty to everyone, but that’s fairness because it’s treating everyone you come in contact with exactly the same way.

And from this objective vantage point, in which I neither favored nor supported either Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton my overall observation is that Trump was a terribly flawed candidate who ran a brilliant, focused campaign and that Clinton was an equally flawed candidate who didn’t. Trump’s overarching message throughout the campaign was "Make America Great Again," which, in my inbred cynicism resulting from the ‘64 campaign, I translated into "Make America White Again." Clinton’s overarching message throughout the campaign was … well, come to think of it, I have no idea what it was. It might have been something like "Happy Together" or "Forward Together" or something along those lines that would serve as an inspiration to absolutely no one. Frankly, I have no idea.

For many years I was a partner in a political/media consulting firm alongside two of the most brilliant strategically political minds I have ever known — the late Ken Fairchild and Lisa LeMaster, who, as far as I know, is still spinning political magic from her Dallas base of operations. One of the first and perhaps the most important lesson I learned from them is that the side in a campaign that establishes the agenda wins the election. Now the other side may argue your agenda is all wrong, it’s terrible for the entire human race — and as long as we have that precious freedom of speech in this country, the other side has every right to make those arguments. But if that does, in fact, becomes what the other side focuses on as its argument, the debate centers on your point of view and you win. One of the most brilliant tactics Trump pulled off in this campaign was he made the agenda in this Presidential campaign — right from the moment he rode down that elevator in Trump Tower to announce his candidacy — Donald Trump. The two sides of the debate were between those who supported Trump and those who absolutely detested him. But as soon as Donald Trump — what he said, what he said, even what he grabbed — became the most debated topic in this campaign, Trump was on his way to victory. He knew it, he successful exploited it and he let it carry him, no matter how flawed he might be, all the way to the White House.

One of the other lessons I learned from Ken Fairchild and Lisa LeMaster was to identify your "target audience" and then "persuade the persuadables." They showed the political landscape could be represented on a piece of paper by a straight line divided into three parts: (1) Those who were firmly on your side, (2) Those who were firmly on the opposite side and (3) Those you were not sure of." And the purpose of any political campaign was to concentrate on persuading those in the third group and comforting/reassuring those in the first one, but definitely not to waste a bit of time talking to the second group since, by definition, you’re not going to be able to change their minds anyway. Trump was also brilliant following this tactic; Clinton, not so much. Why she spent so much time preaching in Republican strongholds will forever be a mystery to me (even though, having worked closely with Clinton on other issues involving working conditions and undue political influence in Northwest Arkansas I know her core political beliefs are far more Eisenhower Republican than Warren Democrat. So that might have been one reason; she felt more comfortable talking to them even if she knew she was never going to harvest any votes from that group). But Trump inherently knew he was never going to convince that person who regarded him, possibly quite accurately, as a bigoted, sexist, no-nothing misogynist who wasn’t qualified to be President, to come around after listening to him and say "You know, Donald, I’ve been wrong all this time and you’re right." It was never going to happen and Trump did not waste any time trying to make it happen.

Yet another lesson Fairchild and LeMaster imparted was, of course, KISS — "Keep It Simple, Stupid." Trump successfully adhered to that. While Clinton was all over the map talking about the high costs of a college education, pay equity, LBGT equality, criminal justice reform, women’s rights — all worthy discussion topics to have on a policy level — they don’t comprise a focused, target campaign message. Trump, on the other hand, had one overall topic: Jobs. He decided his target audience was white working class Americans, regardless of party affiliation (exit polls revealed he convinced many white working class voters who supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 to vote for him this time around; i.e., he "persuaded the persuadables") and he convinced them he was going to bring back the jobs they lost when our economy moved from an industrial/manufacturing-based one to a service/technology-oriented one or he was going to provide better paying jobs to the under-employed. His outlandish promises to build a wall along the border, to deport all illegal immigrants, to ban other immigrants from entering the country could be translated into "I know that your good-paying manufacturing jobs have been replaced by jobs in fast food restaurants and at the local Wal-Mart and all those are taken by illegal immigrants because they are not only willing but even anxious to work at these ridiculously low wages, but, don’t worry, I have a plan to get those jobs back for you." His anti free-trade tirades all revolve around jobs that used to be located here and are now located in other countries because they can pay lower wages.

So these became the alternatives for many blue- and white-collar working class Americans —like I said earlier, many of whom supported both of President Obama’s candidacies: "Let’s see, I can either vote to put a roof over my head and food on the table for me and my family or I can vote for cheaper college education, LBGT rights, women’s rights, etc." It became an easy decision and it was one based, as it should be, more on the message and less on the messenger.

He even went so far as to explain how he was going to create those jobs. He’s absolutely correct when he says our infrastructure is crumbling. Try flying into LaGuardia Airport and then try to convince anyone it was a pleasant experience. How’s Amtrak working for you? Do you feel absolutely safe and perfectly secure every time you cross that bridge over the Mississippi, the Missouri, or the Hudson River. How about those over the Rio Grande? Jeez, how about those over the Colorado or the Trinity? A massive investment in replacing, repairing and upgrading this infrastructure will unquestionably create millions of well paying white-collar as well as blue-collar jobs. And the attractiveness of the possibility of all those jobs, combined with the fact that Clinton failed to inspire her support base, her Group One (as evidenced by the fact that Trump won even though he received fewer votes than John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012 and that Clinton received around seven million fewer votes than Obama) , is what carried Trump to victory.

And his final piece of strategic political brilliance was spending all his time and energy in the last days of the campaign delivering that message where it had the most impact -- in Pennsylvania, in Michigan, in Ohio, in Wisconsin -- states Clinton took for granted because she figured they were safely behind her "Big Blue Wall," a decision, as it turned out, that proved to be fatal to her Presidential aspirations.

But this brings me back to my original premise. Can you believe him when he says he will create these jobs. Like I said, I’ve never believed in the promises of a major party Presidential candidate for the last 52 years and I have no reason to start now.

What’s unique this time around, however, is the major pushback Trump will receive will come from his own party. Because of their overtly conservative fiscal philosophies Republicans don’t believe in investing in infrastructure. That, to them, is simply another example of a big government spending program. That money should be spent on defense projects and fighting wars in far off lands. And House and Senate Republicans have successfully thwarted all attempts at achieving any form of comprehensive immigration reform.

But the other thing I learned from my disastrous experience in 1964 is, that when it comes to politics — especially presidential politics — it’s all about the winning, not necessarily the governing.

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