by Stan Cutler
We’re in the early months of the 2018 political campaigns. Yes, it’s sad. The times when campaigns only lasted a few months are over. Seventeen months before the next election, I’m already thinking about the political wars to come. My hope is that Americans elect enough people to Congress to reverse the effects of Trump’s 2016 victory.
How should Democrats and sensible Republicans conduct the upcoming campaigns? They will have to win seats in districts wherein a substantial number of voters seem unshakably devoted to “their” president? How do you reason with people who resent reasoning? How do you persuade those who refuse to recognize the difference between a fact and an opinion? Are there campaign strategies available to anti-Trump candidates that could work? And did the 2016 campaign provide indications of how to win the next one?
Classical rhetoric is a venerable academic discipline that describes the problem space as a sort of Venn diagram with at least three overlapping domains: the speaker, the message and the audience. As the campaign progresses, I’ll be writing from a rhetorical perspective, as someone who analyzes public persuasion as communication. (I used to teach the discipline at Penn State.)
When I consider any audience, let’s say Trump voters, I imagine that each of the individuals in it has a hierarchical belief system. The foundation of the hierarchy is identity. A winning candidate is perceived by a majority of voters as a personification of group identity. This level is illogical – by definition it is impervious to reasoning. Trump’s appeals are pandering – their effect is to amplify the self worth of individuals as belonging to a just and powerful group – “the best” of all groups – good ol’ fashioned hard-working patriotic Americans. Trump does this by mocking and belittling The Others, those who “are not us”.
Part of the genius of the Trump phenomenon is recognition that his overbearing executive style, perfected over 14 seasons of “The Apprentice his macho shtick, his ethos, seems presidential. His supporters will stay in his camp for as long as they perceive him as a winning champion on their behalf. They dismiss his personality flaws as inconsequential. They cannot be dissuaded by a Chuck Schumer lecturing about the consequences of pending legislation. Why? Not because Schumer is illogical, but because he is perceived by Trumpites as challenging to deeper levels of their belief systems. If Trumpites were to agree with Schumer, no matter how logical his positions, it would constitute a betrayal of their identities.
I am, by no means, suggesting that candidates running in 2018 copy the Trump playbook. But they have to craft and deliver messages that seem as all-American as Trump’s, and they have to exude absolute certainty in their ability to succeed as the voters’ champion. This is not a new playbook, it is why any successful candidate wins an election.
So, assuming that candidates can come across as all-American and confident, how can they communicate sound ideas in ways that win elections in districts with many Trumpites? I think they have to simplify. They have to remember that they are not in classrooms or courtrooms. They have to be entertaining. They should glorify their vision for America and their districts. They should say what they are for in a loud, clear and dignified manner. They must make voters feel better about themselves for believing in them. And they must not present themselves as Trump antagonists.
Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders do it, but both are flawed. My sense is that Warren is too holier than thou, a teacher’s pet, a goody-two-shoes. Younger versions of Sanders could win. But both may be too left-wing for the right-leaning American electorate. We need American Emmanuel Macrons.
Macron is a highly-trained public servant with experience as a senior government official. It was certainly an advantage that he was 39 years old, articulate, accessible and physically attractive. In the French elections, Macron’s most powerful opponent was Marine Le Pen, the champion of the “true French” much as Trump is the champion of “true Americans”.
Many 2018 American candidates will be tempted to run against Trump. But Macron demonstrated that such a strategy would be ineffective, particularly in pro-Trump districts. Macron did not campaign against Le Pen, he did not present himself as a polar opposite, but rather as a pro-business centrist. We desperately need candidates who know that there are more votes in the moderate center than on the polar extremes.
Macron did not publish a Platform until a month before the first of the two Spring elections. And then he devoted only a single day of his campaign to defending it in a structured public forum. It is always better to describe problems afflicting the audience rather than specific solutions that are easily attacked as unworkable or unrealistic. On the campaign trail, he avoided the wonky weeds of policy. He did not exaggerate the problems, he did not try to scare people into voting for him. Rather, he emphasized goals – a vision. People voted for him because they wanted to make France great again. In 2018 American candidates would do well to follow his example.
Stan Cutler is a novelist and political writer who lives in Chestnut Hill. He blogs at stanleycutler.com