It was my intention this week to discuss the phenomenon of yardfowlism, an enduring feature of Barbadian party politics. However, the amazing number of requests from persons seeking explanations for Donald Trump’s earth-shattering win in Tuesday’s United States presidential election has necessitated a change of plan.
The reality is that such shocking electoral outcomes do occur from time to time but they are more an exception than the rule. What we are dealing with here is human behaviour. Though generally predictable based on a clear pattern established over time, human behaviour does tend to deviate sometimes. Politics, like cricket, has its element of glorious uncertainty.
Indeed, the more I reflect on the events of this week, the more the validity of Dan Ariely’s thesis that human beings are “predictably irrational” is underscored. In a 2008 bestseller entitled Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Ariely argues that contrary to the common view that humans are capable of making the right decisions for themselves, our actions are more irrational than rational.
“I believe that recognizing where we depart from the ideal is an important part of the quest to truly understand ourselves,” posits the Israeli-born American university psychology and behavioural economics professor. “Understanding irrationality is important for our everyday actions and decisions, and for understanding how we design our environment and the choices it presents to us.”
Trump’s victory defied conventional wisdom. On the campaign trail, he was outrageously obnoxious and offensive to certain groups. He ripped into Muslims, immigrants, women, a military family which lost a son in battle, even members of his own Republican Party. He had a degrading label for almost everyone.
Then there was the infamous tape in which he was heard bragging about grabbing women by the P-word. Under normal circumstances, all of this baggage would have had been more than enough to turn off voters and derail his chances of election. Indeed, it did initially look that way. As news of the scandalous tape spread, the polls started to show a surge in favour of Democratic party candidate Hillary Clinton, who on experience is far more qualified than Trump, a political novice, and was adjudged to have been superior in all three debates with him.
Additionally, after Trump was jettisoned by key Republican power brokers who were offended by his behaviour, the Republican nominee was left fighting a campaign without having the full weight of the party machine to propel his candidature. At an organizational level, he also had to change his campaign team a few times in the past year.
Plagued with all of these handicaps, the only real discernible advantage which Trump arguably had over Clinton was a more compelling campaign message – “Make America great again”. Grounded in emotion, it resonated with voters who considered themselves disenfranchised politically and economically as a result of the decline of American power and influence around the world.
In the design of campaign strategy, I take the approach that what we are going to be involved in is a battle of competing messages. My client’s message against his or her opponent’s message. And the field of battle is the collective mind of voters which I must delve into to identify the emotional triggers that would cause a clear majority to like my client and despise his or her opponent in order to deliver a victory.
I saw evidence of this approach at work in the Trump campaign. Indeed, in some aspects, it mirrored the techniques which Adolf Hitler used with telling effect to rise to power in the early 1930s Germany where similar mass disenchantment with the establishment had existed because of depressed economic conditions.
Hitler, who like Trump was also not taken seriously initially, understood that his strength resided in knowing how to reach and capture the minds and hearts of the broad masses through the effective application of propaganda. Reaching the broad masses requires simplicity rather than complexity in the design of message. “The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small but their power of forgetting is enormous,” wrote Hitler in Mein Kampf.
Trump also had luck on his side. What was decisive in turning the tide for his campaign when every seemed to be going downhill during the last week, was the timely intervention of a deus ex machina. Namely, the decision of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to reopen its probe of Clinton’s emails during her tenure as president Barack Obama’s secretary of state. As she was already battling against mistrust, which would have caused many voters to have reservations, the FBI’s action only served to reinforce the perception that she could not be trusted which Trump was emphasizing through the label “Crooked Hillary”.
By the time the FBI announced it had found nothing amiss, two days before the election, the damage had already been done, major recovery was a virtual impossibility, and a significant swing towards Trump was already underway. Trump too seemed stunned by the scale of his victory. Winning, however, is the easiest part of getting elected. The real test always comes in governing and the outbreak of protests across America points to a deeply divided country which will present a challenge for Trump’s presidency.
Given the aggressive tone of his campaign, Trump will find that it is not going to be easy winning the trust and cooperation of aggrieved constituencies. He has little choice but to reach out with an olive branch and, drawing on his reputation as a dealmaker, seek to broker a political accommodation. Otherwise, the Trump presidency will be just as turbulent and chaotic as his campaign.
With Trump’s rise to the presidency along with the fact that Republicans are in firm control of Congress, we may be witnessing the beginning of a paradigm shift in American politics. In The Great Game of Politics: Why We Elect Whom We Elect, Dick Stoken said such occurs when “one party is in the nation’s driver’s seat relentlessly imposing its political doctrine on the nation”. This is very likely over the next four years.
Stoken goes on: “The key player in a megapolitical trend is the paradigm-setting president who brilliantly reinterprets his party’s doctrine to address the needs of the present. FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] and Ronald Reagan were both paradigm-setting presidents.
“The former engineered the New Deal, which was to institute big government spending programmes that helped rebalance the nation’s social structure in a more egalitarian way. The latter promoted an agenda geared to re-igniting a spirit of entrepreneurship and awakening a sleeping American economy. Their success in breaking the mold of the previous paradigm legitimized their agenda.”
Is America standing at another of these critical turning points? I sense so but it is a bit early to say precisely what it will be as Trump seeks to deliver on his core promise of making America great again. His promise speaks, among other things, to a plan for taming the tiger of globalization in order to reassert American economic interests, including restoration of industry to past glory.
That, by any means, is not a simple and straightforward undertaking. Importantly, Trump must resist any temptation to resort to “beggar thy neighbour” type policies which fuelled significant international tension during the 1930s and were identified as a contributing factor to World War II.
The warning of the Spanish-born 21st century philosopher George Santayana powerfully resonates through history: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist. Email: [email protected])