Donald Trump’s stunning election feat and the vanishing political center

Posted on November 15, 2016 · Posted in Blog

President-elect Donald Trump ekes out a win against all odds in a stunning upset in the most divisive and confrontational campaign in recent American history! Trump deserves only scorn for channeling bigotry, misogyny and scorched earth tactics to galvanize his base in this historic feat. The Machiavellian maxim that the ends justify the means can never yield to nativist impulses that tear at the social fabric of a society in the name of winning.

Where the Trump campaign deserves begrudging credit is in its shrewd grasp in communicating cost-effectively in a social media age. Trump early jettisoned the principle that he could only win by pivoting to the political center, one that was turned literally on its head this time around. It was for this reason that Trump greatly outperformed expectations and proved much of the punditry, myself included, to be way off base. This age-old premise of winning elections in the political center is outdated and flawed for three principal reasons, which I will discuss in turn.

Social media: Donald Trump has been notorious for bombastic use of twitter for quite some time. The content of so many of these tweets would be unwise to replicate, and even President Obama mocked Trump for having to apparently take away his twitter privileges towards the end of the campaign.

Yet the twitter strategy was a huge success to Trump for two main reasons. First, it was an enormous, and free advertising platform through which Trump could add hundreds of thousands of new followers in a single day, and literally at zero cost to him! Whereas traditional advertising at prime time is very expensive (he did do this too) as are analytics programs for which the Clinton campaign clearly had the edge, social media as a comparatively inexpensive voting machine is no longer novel but almost definitely here to stay. Trump got better bang for his buck, so to speak, and benefited “big league” from this apt insight! He alluded to this during his interview on “60 Minutes.”

Second, the proliferation of social media means less need for politicians to pivot. It is much easier to attract attention with bold, if not outlandish statements that galvanize a base than with thoughtful, measured policy responses, especially when the limit is 140 characters. Twitter is most effective with hard hitting, polarizing messages that might enrage some, but yet attract 25,000 likes and 30,000 retweets in a matter of hours, and with that a rapidly expanding pool of voters. This often is much more effective than the most sophisticated analytics, as Hillary Clinton discovered to her chagrin.

Grassroots engagement: Donald Trump’s rallies often resembled a bizarre, self-indulgent and narcissistic rant more than they did any attempt at enlightened discussion. Scenes of protestors being whisked out, his utterances of wanting in one instance to “punch him in the face” or even insinuations of paying their legal fees were enraging and totally unbecoming of a leader. Yet despite these serious concerns, Trump made the many thousands of participants feel that the campaign was a “movement” and one that belonged to “them”, and where they were the focus and, not the Washington insiders.

And this leads to another point; whereas delegated conventions tend to yield to the political center, where outcomes are brokered and compromise often is key to political success, it is much easier to galvanize and motivate a stadium of over twenty thousand people, some of whom have never voted, with bold pronouncements than with measured reflections.

Barack Obama could not be more different a politician and person from Donald Trump in so many respects. While his previous rallies tapped into people’s optimism and sense of hope, he nonetheless too was able to inspire people with slogans such as “yes we can” and “the audacity of hope”, phrases that shared little in common with “build that wall” other than the ability to mobilize and get out the vote. This factor is critical in tipping the scale in favour of the winner.

Hillary Clinton never mastered this art. Although she was always prepared and in command of the issues, especially when asked complex questions on matters of policy, lingering doubts about her e-mail server, Comey’s last minute bombshell in the dying days of the campaign, constant Wikileaks revelations, and allegations of cash for access with the Clinton foundation cemented the perception that she was a Washington insider that was out of touch with ordinary people.

Clinton’s extensive record of distinguished public service and passion for women’s and children’s rights could not pierce through the veil of her establishment status, in part because the world is unjust but also because she never truly embraced the tools of modern communication to enhance her political brand. Clinton’s proximity to the political center, and her battle scars over a thirty-year political career, were her Achilles heel in a change election.

Change! Change! Change! Donald Trump repeatedly made statements on the campaign trail that ought to have been disqualifying. From his derisive rant against Mexican migrants entering the United States, to his infamous temporary Muslim immigration ban (which he did amend to more measured “extreme vetting”), among many others, Trump’s ghastly conduct was often deeply disturbing to the casual observer.

Yet these reprehensible remarks motivated a core group that seemed to appreciate his confidence, if not hubris, in taunting the core of democratic institutions many in his base believed were simply beyond repair. Many supporters would admit they even they were baffled by his over the top and most offensive remarks, (not to mention the Access Hollywood tape) but believed that change, not incrementalism was needed and that this could only come from a pompous, larger than life figure like Donald Trump.

Donald Trump must now “bind the wounds” and heal a divided nation inflamed by his own hostile rhetoric. This will undoubtedly be a monumental task and I am dubious that he can succeed given the seeming irreconcilability of these deep fissures.

Small “l” liberals in the US must propose an alternative, progressive vision to mobilize the millions of now despondent Americans in the aftermath of this stunning defeat. Mr. Trump must now be given an opportunity to govern, as the institution of the presidency must always transcend partisan labels. Politicians of various stripes come and go but our democratic institutions endure even as technology and campaign mechanics evolve before our very eyes!

Jeremy A. Richler is a corporate and employment lawyer and lives in Toronto. He is a member of the Liberal party of Canada and on the executive for the federal riding of Eglinton-Lawrence.