Six Lessons From Donald Trump's Political Campaign
Donald Trump's campaign broke every traditional rule of politics and he still won.
Now let me tell you how.
First, and most importantly, every political campaign is a storytelling contest and the person who tells the best story wins.
That's true in every election, but I think it's even more true in today's election cycle.
When I taught creative writing at Vanderbilt, one of the primary lessons I sought to instill in my students was the importance of getting to the essence of every story. What is the story in a sentence? It's a theory I first heard from a creative writing teacher of mine at George Washington. He'd come from LA and used TV Guide as an example, every TV show got a one sentence explanation in TV Guide. His thesis, which I believe is true, is that every great story has to have a concrete narrative foundation upon which the story is built. I now apply it everywhere, but it works particularly well in politics. Now the talents of the individual storyteller still matters, but if you break down every major candidate, they all have a story in a sentence.
Let's do the Democrat who lost first, Bernie Sanders.
Bernie Sanders's story in a sentence was this: "America has been broken by rich, powerful special interests and together we can fix it."
That's the essence of Bernie, right? His sentence is powerful and direct. It's a call to action that leads to fervent supporters, but its appeal wasn't enough to overcome Hillary's entrenched power.
How about the major Republican contenders:
Marco Rubio: "The American Dream is still alive no matter your race, religion or creed, and my life is proof of that fact."
John Kasich: "I'm a Republican, but I'm nice."
Ted Cruz: "Washington doesn't respect your values, but I do and I'll fight for you."
Ben Carson: "I fixed people and I can fix the country too."
Jeb Bush: "I know how the political system works and I'll make sure it works better for everyone."
All of these candidates lost to Donald Trump, whose story in a sentence was this:
"I'm not a pussy, and I'll make America great again."
Seriously, that was Trump's entire campaign.
Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination with this story in a sentence: "I'm the most prepared to be President."
Now that we're headed to the general election I suspect that Trump will maintain his same story in a sentence, but Hillary will adjust her message to this, "I'm the most prepared to be President, and unlike Donald Trump I'm not crazy."
This is why I think this race will end up being much closer than the experts think. Because Donald Trump's message produces a great deal of enthusiasm, while Hillary's message, competence, is pretty boring.
Indeed, the more time I spend contemplating this race, the more I think we've learned a great deal about political campaigns in the social media era. Donald Trump has broken virtually every rule in politics and still won. That's because the ordinary rules of politics don't apply any longer.
Here are six lessons from Donald Trump's nomination.
1. Being hated doesn't matter anymore.
Eight of the last nine presidential elections have been won by the more hated candidate. (Al Gore won in 2000, sorry. George W. Bush just managed to end up president).
Contrary to what the pundits would have you believe, hate isn't a bad thing. Because if you're hated it typically means you're also beloved. It's nearly impossible provoke hate without also creating love. If you're not hated it doesn't mean you're a great candidate, it probably just means you're really bland and don't provoke much love either. Did anyone really hate Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, Walter Mondale or Mitt Romney? Of course not. Those guys didn't lose because they were unlikable, they lost because they were running against someone who provoked intense emotions and could turn out supporters to vote.
I have no idea what's going to happen in this election because as you can see from the above chart, the Republicans and the Democrats have both managed to nominate the most hated nominees in the history of both parties. But if the most hated candidate wins, as has happened in eight of the last nine elections, then Trump's in good shape.
2. Authenticity matters more than policy.
DONALD TRUMP ISN'T EVEN A REPUBLICAN AND THE REPUBLICANS NOMINATED HIM.
That's all in bold because I'm still pretty shocked this happened.
Trump isn't religious, yet he won the evangelical vote. Trump isn't a social conservative, yet he won the social conservative vote. It's incredible until you realize that most people aren't voting based on complex policy positions, they're voting based on how a candidate makes them feel. That's what pundits don't understand. Pundits make tens of millions of dollars because they believe their knowledge matters a great deal when it comes to electing someone president. But it really doesn't.
A candidate matters.
Everything else is just noise.
If Donald Trump had hired a typical political campaign infrastructure, he would have lost this election.
Instead he crushed candidates who spent hundreds of millions of dollars attacking him.
Love him or hate him, Trump has virtually eliminated the difference between how he behaves in public and how he behaves in private. Donald Trump is Donald Trump, in an inauthentic age, he's authentically himself.
3. Attack ads don't work if people feel like they already know you.
Donald Trump is effectively inoculated from all political attack ads because what else can you say about Donald Trump? People will tune attack ads out this fall because they've already made up their mind, good or bad, about Trump. That's what we saw again and again from this campaign. When rivals attack Trump, it ACTUALLY HELPS HIM.
Because it makes them look like typical politicians and it strengthens the connection in voters heads that Trump isn't a typical politician.
If you hate Donald Trump, the worst thing you can do is protest his rallies. Because your hate only makes his support stronger. Lots of people are voting for Trump not because they like him, but because they hate the people who hate Trump much more than they hate Trump. Guess what, that's an awful lot of swing voters.
If I were advising Trump I would tell him this is his biggest advantage in this match-up -- people believe Trump is authentic, whereas they believe Hillary is inauthentic and untrustworthy.
I actually think Hillary Clinton is less defined, and more vulnerable to attack ads this fall because much of the voting public views her as untrustworthy. If Trump were smart he wouldn't attack her for being a woman at all, he would attack her for being untrustworthy and doing whatever it takes to remain in power for a generation in public life.
That's why Ted Cruz's pathetic Cam Newton at the Super Bowl-like collapse and attack was so funny yesterday. What Cruz was doing by attacking Trump so aggressively -- he has venereal diseases and sleeps with lots of women out of wedlock, Cruz wailed! -- was really mourning that the rules of traditional politics didn't apply to Trump. Cruz and every other Republican ran a campaign like it was still 2012, they fought a war using the technology of the previous war, while Trump had already changed the game.
(Also, did Cruz really think that accusing a candidate of sleeping with lots of women was disqualifying? Cruz is a student of history, has he forgotten about LBJ and JFK and Clinton and FDR? Politics is the art of seduction. Just about every election between two men is won by the guy who would take home the girl from the bar. And nobody is going home from the bar with Ted Cruz. Which is why he'll never be president.)
4. Unfair media criticism helps a candidate even more in a social media era.
Donald Trump didn't say all illegal Mexican immigrants were rapists and murderers, he said some were. That's factually true. The media immediately branded him a racist for saying this. How is this statement racist? I happen to be very much pro-immigration and disagree with Trump on building a wall and most of the absurd things he's said about immigration, but the media's coverage of this incident and the resulting fall out was the best thing that ever happened to Trump's campaign.
Later Trump doubled down on this issue and said that in the wake of terror attacks Muslims shouldn't be allowed to immigrate to the country. Again, I disagree with him, but it isn't racist to say that the primary proponents of religious terrorism in the world today are Muslim. That's true. When you attack someone for saying something that's factually true, it makes people like you more and rallies them to your cause.
Now you can argue that Trump is playing to the baser nature of conservative opinion by using this language and gaining the votes of people who are racists, but isn't the liberal media doing the exact same thing by calling these statements racist when they clearly aren't racist? My point here is pretty simple, both groups are playing to their base.
5. The election cycle moves so fast what you say doesn't matter that much.
The more you talk, the less significant what you say is. Trump did every TV show imaginable, he singlehandedly led to skyrocketing ratings on cable news networks. He took questions from media all the time. How many times did you hear a pundit or politician pronounce something that he said as the death blow to his campaign? Yet he just kept growing. Sure, he sometimes said ridiculous things, but he said so many ridiculous things that they drowned in an overall ocean of opinion. What was left was a general sense that Trump authentically said what he thought about controversial issues.
Trump's comments about immigration at his announcement speech were actually a great gift because they emboldened him to speak freely throughout his campaign. He was to presidential campaigns what Howard Stern was to radio. (Or what Charles Barkley was to sports.) Once you get attacked for being controversial it stings for a bit, but you get the creative license to say whatever you want about anything. And it gets progressively harder for people to attack you because eventually the audience just comes to realize that's what you do. If you can survive massive attack, you come out on the other side reborn as the rarest thing in America today, an honest person.
Most presidential campaigns have historically been run with consultants attempting to restrict their candidates from ever saying anything unscripted. There is no reality, everything is inauthentic. Voters can tell that speeches are poll tested, written awkwardly, and read off teleprompters. That's why voters like debates so much, because it's really the only time when candidates can be pressed on complex issues and taken off their talking points.
Hillary's campaign is terrified she might say something impolitic so everything she says is workshopped and analyzed before she says it. Then it's all put into a teleprompter. The result is a curiously robotic candidate who appears to be doing exactly what's she doing, reading a planned and poll tested speech.
It's the very definition of inauthenticity.
If Trump manages to win this election it will be for this reason -- his authenticity. Even if you think Trump's an idiot sometimes, his authenticity perfectly combats Hillary Clinton's inauthenticity.
6. Donald Trump brought the rap game to politics.
What are rappers known for? Their bling, their bitches, and their flouting of convention en route to fabulous economic success, right?
Screw Kanye, Donald Trump is the first rapper to ever run for president.
And that swagger has tons of appeal to people of all races and ethnicities across the country. It's why I think Trump will end up getting a decent amount of the vote with minority men in particular. They'll come to like Trump's swagger too. (This election will be decided by this question, how will Trump do with black men, Hispanic men, and white women? You tell me that and I'll tell you who wins the election. That's why I think Marco Rubio is the best vice president he can pick.)
What's more, the appeal of rap is understated with white audiences, who make up the vast majority of Republican voters.
Every white person under the age of forty loves rap. Seriously. Go to any party filled with only white people under forty and at least half of the songs will be rap. And everyone knows the lyrics. Even the most conservative white dudes and chicks out there have spent their lives marinating in rap.
DONALD TRUMP IS A RAPPER!
He's on his third wife, each one more beautiful than the last. He's got the Trump jets and he puts his names on buildings. His entire life is about branding and excess. Think about it, this dude is the King of Bling, the original "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man."
He's Jay Z, but white, boasting about his conquests everywhere he goes, hyper masculine, deriding anyone who doesn't like him as a hater, combatting his rivals with verbal put downs that emasculate them while elevating him. Every rapper is essentially selling the same theme -- I'm living the American capitalistic dream, from having nothing to having everything.
Everybody's been trying to figure out how Trump got the nomination in 2016 and the answer is simple -- he took the rap game to politics.