As we move into the 2020 election season in the US, I thought it might be useful to point out some things that Donald Trump gets right. This is not because I want to convince you to vote Republican, but because I think it’s important for the Democrats to understand the challenges they face in persuading many Americans not to vote for him.
Before I begin, I need to make clear that, in this particular piece, I am talking as much about positioning and perception as I am about reality. For example, we could have a long debate about how well our US economy is really doing, and how much credit should go to Trump for what seems to be going right today. But that’s not what this piece is about. It’s about how our politicians choose to present themselves to the public.
So let’s get started. If you’re concerned about electability, then please pay attention to how your candidates navigate their ways through these seven minefields.
1. The Economy
Let’s begin with a big one: The Economy.
I once criticized Bruce Springsteen because his song “The River” uses the following words:
I got a job working construction
For the Johnstown company.
But lately there ain’t been much work,
On account of the economy.
My criticism was based on his presenting us with a protagonist so lacking in creativity that he could blame his failures on something as remote and abstract as “The Economy.”
But I was wrong, and Springsteen was right.
Because the average American really only knows three things about our economy.
- It’s fragile and unpredictable;
- No one really knows how to keep it happy;
- When it runs amok, it causes untold misery for all of us.
So it’s basically like living with a dragon in a cave next to your village, never knowing what may set it off and cause it go on a rampage, destroying everything and everyone in its path.
In this sort of scenario, any shaman who demonstrates some ability to tame the beast is going to be worshipped, and even if some of his other practices turn out to be a bit questionable, the villagers are not going to be in any hurry to send him packing.
So right now, of course, many of the traditional indicators of our economic health are looking pretty good in the US. Unemployment is down. Our trade deficit is down. GDP is up. The dollar is strong. The stock market is up. We’re finally starting to see some respectable wage growth. And even if people wish things were a bit better, few people are brave enough to poke the dragon, for fear that doing so will make things a whole lot worse.
Of course, there are other economic indicators that are not nearly so positive.
Our annual budget deficit has increased, and our national debt is increasing at a faster rate.
Income and wealth inequality in the US has been increasing over the last several decades, and was only worsened by the tax reforms passed under Trump.
But unless the economy suddenly tanks this year, the Democrats need to be careful about putting forth plans that will be perceived as poking the dragon.
2. We Need People Who Can Get Things Done
Unfortunately, the recent debacle on display at the Iowa caucuses is a great example of why people mistrust the Democrats so deeply. The Dems are great at being inclusive and they’re very concerned about ethics. But can they actually organize effectively and get anything done? Can they stop squabbling among themselves long enough to actually work together towards a common goal? Can they give up their passioniate support of egalitarianism long enough to actually follow the lead of someone in charge without stopping to question them every five minutes?
This is why the Democrats need to be careful when they’re attacking Business. Yes, there are lots of problems surrounding business organizations that need to be resolved. But most of the hard, complex work being done around the world today is being done by businesses of one kind or another, and they have to do it while still balancing their budgets and making money for their owners.
This is why so many voters shudder when they hear the Democrats attacking Business without showing any signs that they know how to actually run a moderately complex organization themselves.
3. Show Concern for Actual Americans, and Not Just American Values
Democrats are good at talking about upholding American values, and supporting those values around the world.
But what about actual American people? Flesh-and-blood Americans? People who were born and raised here, people who have demonstrated their willingness to work hard when jobs are available?
If Democrats appear to be abandoning these people, as they did with Hillary in 2016, then all their fine talk about values will not not do anyone much good when 2021 gets here.
4. Borders Are Still Important
National borders are important. State borders are important. When we start talking as if immigration were a right — as if we needed to celebrate every person who has ever migrated to America, and open our arms to every person trying to migrate today, or thinking about migrating tomorrow — you’re back on this slippery slope of celebrating American values without showing any concern for Americans already here.
This is why Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is sometimes used as a sort of anthem by Republicans. And why one more piece written by a pointy-headed liberal about how these dummies are missing the irony in the song is irrelevant. The essential point to be observed here is that many Americans are seeking a champion who will look out for the interests of Americans born and raised here. If the Democrats are unwilling to provide such a person, then the other party will happily step up to the plate.
It’s wonderful to be inclusive. Democrats get this. What they often miss is that, when you are running for president of the United States, you cannot afford for your inclusion to be so broad that you are including everyone in the world, and you cannot afford to minimize the importance of the borders that literally define the country you say you want to lead.
What Democrats also miss is that, even though a belief in American exceptionalism may offend some people, when you are trying to persuade voters to elect you, it’s not a particularly good time to tell them you don’t see any essential difference between your country and others around the globe, or even to point out that in some ways your country may be inferior to others. This is a bit like trying to get elected as team captain for the Michigan Wolverines by saying that, you know, those Buckeyes to the south are really a lot of fine fellows, and they have a lot of great players, so maybe we should just try to be more like them. No matter where your allegiance lies, no one wants to hear this.
5. Globalization Is A Con Game
Let’s face it. For a long time our political leaders tried to sell the American people a sort of laissez-faire globalization as a win-win proposition for everyone.
As we watched this play out, though, we noticed a few things:
- Living standards in other countries were on the rise, while ours in the US seemed to be on the decline.
- Cheaper goods from overseas didn’t do US workers any good if they couldn’t find jobs.
- Lots of things in the US, like healthcare and education and housing, were getting more expensive, not less.
- The people who were selling us all of this globalization — let’s just call them the global elites — seemed to be getting fat and happy even though their only occupation seemed to be sitting back and passively watching all of this globalization take place.
- Other countries, like China and Russia, were competing ruthlessly on the international playing field for power and influence and money and resources, while US leaders seemed to be acting like a bunch of drunken referees.
- Being named the Leader of the Free World is actually a consolation prize that brings with it a fine-sounding title, but not much in the way of ready cash. You can be the Leader of the Free World and still not be able to afford a cup of coffee.
6. Predictability is Not Generally Prized in Leaders
Yes, I understand that, when you are President of the United States, you have a long and complicated playbook you are supposed to follow, starting with the Constitution, and proceeding through all sorts of established laws and procedures and norms that have been laid down before you ever arrived on the scene.
Democrats get this.
On the other hand, no one selects or long supports leaders who are boringly predictable followers. This is not what leadership is about. Succeeding at political leadership is a bit like writing a hit song: the song needs to sound familiar enough that listeners can relate to it, but contain enough novelty that they want to hear that particular song again.
Similarly, a leader needs to satisfy certain common expectations, but also needs to demonstrate their ability to think and act outside of the box.
7. The National Stage is Different
It doesn’t make any difference what sort of political background you have, it probably doesn’t adequately prepare you to serve as leader of our entire nation.
The US is a tremendously diverse country. Travel from Seattle to Texas, and in many ways it’s like being in a different world. (Heck, travel from Seattle to Eastern Washington and it’s a different world.) But at least you know where you are, and can immediately see and feel and hear some of the differences, and orient yourself towards them.
But when you are running to hold national office, to represent all of our citizens — no matter whether they live in Texas or Seattle or some other place with its own distinctive characteristics — you can’t really orient yourself geographically or culturally. You need to find words and issues and concerns that will appeal to all of our US citizens, or at least to a majority of them, while not alienating too many of them.
This is why all citizens within the European Union do not get to vote to elect the president of the European Council. Getting elected president of such a large, diverse geopolitical entity is really tough, and none of the lower level governance positions — whether as mayor, state governor, or state senator — really prepares you for a national stage.
There you have it: seven areas that might well make the difference in terms of whether we have a Democrat in the White House next year, or have to face another four years of Trump and his cronies.
And please note that none of these areas require Democrats to sacrifice any of their core progressive values. Nor do they require the Dems to carve up the electorate along any sort of demographic lines, appealing to one group while alienating another. Trump and the Republicans have tended to use these issues in harshly divisive ways, but Democrats don’t need to employ them in this same manner.
Trump won in 2016 because he knew two things better than his opponents.
- All you have to do to become President is get people to vote for you.
- When you’re competing for votes — as in any competition — it’s to your advantage to ruthlessly exploit your opponents’ weaknesses.
My hope is that we can field a presidential candidate this year who is acutely aware of these seven minefields, and can navigate us through them towards victory in November.