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How to Beat a Strongman
The candidate that defines strength will win the election
The Republican Convention is (finally) over. It was a muddled mess of messages. COVID is NBD (unmasked events); Trump is taking COVID seriously (fake vaccine announcement); Trump is less racist than you think (Alice Johnson); Trump is just as racist as you think (Rudy, St Louis Gun couple). Trump’s nomination speech was a meandering incoherent mishmash delivered like a man trying to pass a lie detector test.
While the words didn’t adhere to any specific theme, all of the imagery pointed in one direction: Trump as a strongman leader that will protect (certain) Americans. This was the thrust of his appeal in 2016 and the goal of the convention was to recapture that racist magic. The (very) early polling evidence suggests it may be working.
Trump’s convention was straight out of the authoritarian playbook that worked for him in 2016 and has worked across the globe for others in recent years. The good news is that there is also a tried and true playbook for defeating a “strongman” politician, but it may require going against our own instincts as progressives deeply worried about our democracy.
While reporters and political junkies obsess about the horserace numbers, political operatives often focus on other aspects of the polls. Campaign pollsters track how the electorate rates the candidates on a series of character traits and issues. Using data analysis, the campaigns have a sense of which of these measures most closely correlate with eventual support. For example in the 2012 Obama campaign, we were obsessed with the question of “which candidate fights for someone like you.” We believed if we won that debate, we would win the election.
In 2020, I would bet the Trump campaign is focused on how Trump and Biden rate on the “strong leader” question. A recent YouGov poll found that 47 percent of voters see Biden as a very or somewhat strong leader, while 48 percent rate him as a somewhat or very weak leader. Trump fared worse with 54 percent of voters and 60 percent of Independents rating him as a weak leader. Trump simply cannot win if he doesn’t improve those numbers in the next sixty-some days. The Republican Convention showed the three ways the Trump campaign is trying to move that number.
Paint Joe Biden as Weak: The key message of the convention was delivered by Mike Pence and Trump in their speeches: “No one will be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” Like a lot of Trump messaging, this one may be a little too optimized for Tucker Carlson’s audience to be effective with swing voters, but the intent was clear. Trump needs voters to believe that Biden is too weak to protect the country. This is a multi-prong strategy that includes raising questions about Biden’s age, his cognitive capacity, and painting him as someone too weak to stand up to what Trump calls the “Radical Left.”
Make America Afraid of Something Other than COVID: The obvious flaw in the “No one will be safe in Joe Biden’s America” message is that 1,000 Americans are dying every day from COVID in Donald Trump’s America. This is why the convention largely pretended that COVID was under control and it is why an incumbent would spent 70 minutes talking about (highly exaggerated) chaos and violence in urban America. Kellyanne Conway gave up the game when she went on Fox and Friends and admitted that chaos and violence were good politics for Trump.
The need to scare people is why so much of the Republican messaging focused on crime even though the crime rate is historically low. Truth and logic are beside the point. In fact, crime itself is largely beside the point. Trump is using crime as a proxy to stoke intense cultural fears about a changing America.
Project Strength at All Costs: Trump conducting his convention illegally from the White House was a very specific choice. In addition to providing images that would have made Hugo Chavez blush, it reminded voters that norms and institutions are too weak to stop Trump from doing what he wants. As White House aides gleefully told the New York Times.
Mr. Trump’s aides said he enjoyed the frustration and anger he caused by holding a political event on the South Lawn of the White House, shattering conventional norms and raising questions about ethics law violations. He relished the fact that no one could do anything to stop him, said the aides, who spoke anonymously to discuss internal conversations.
It’s easy to look at this shit show of a White House and wonder how anyone could possibly want to sign up for another four years. But progressives sometimes confuse competence with strength. George W. Bush was one of the most incompetent people to ever walk the face of the planet, but he was reelected because he convinced voters that he was strong and John Kerry was weak. As former President Bill Clinton once said "When people are insecure, they'd rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who's weak and right."
Now that we know what Trump’s plan is, how do we fight back?
Trump’s Weakness is our Strength
Most of us respond to Trump’s dictatorial cosplay by expressing horror at his power grabs and worrying (often publicly) about the fate of democracy. While this reaction is logical and understandable, it is also counter-productive. The more we describe Trump as an authoritarian capable of anything, the more we reinforce his appeal with a core set of voters.
None of this is to suggest that we should ignore Trump’s offenses against democracy. Far from it. It’s not IF we talk about Trump’s authoritarianism. It’s HOW we talk about it. The key is to emphasize that Trump operates from a position of weakness, not strength. I have seen versions of the below message that test very well with the swing voters — independents and soft Republicans — most drawn to Trump’s strongman persona.
Trump pretends to be strong, but he is too weak and insecure to be President. His incompetence is why the U.S. is one of the only countries in the world that can’t get COVID under control. He talks a tough game, but Trump has never stood up to anyone in his life. He bows down to dictators, gets his marching orders from CEOs, and hides in his bunker when things get tough. Trump simply isn’t up to the the job of President.
Trump is headed to Kenosha on Tuesday to “review the damage” in a cynical ploy to pour gas on the flames of a delicate situation. It is critical that Democrats make it clear that to the extent there is violence and anarchy in America it is result of Trump’s weakness. Every bit of civil unrest and chaos at home and abroad is proof of Trump’s failures. We can remind voters that at the 2016 Republican Convention, Trump promised:
The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20th, 2017, safety will be restored.
Four more years of Trump means four more years of a weak President that mishandled a pandemic that cost 180,000 America lives and failed to keep us safe.
Painting Trump as weak is the first part of the equation. The second part is talking about Joe Biden in ways that accentuate his strength. Much of the conversation around Biden focuses on his personal decency, experience, and competence. All of these are important attributes that are critical in a President. But we don’t talk enough about Joe Biden’s strength. This can be accomplished with imagery and language that demonstrates strength. There is no need to be subtle. This ad ,which the Biden campaign ran during the GOP convention, is a very good example of how to do it.
The most important line in the ad is “Joe Biden knows when get knocked down, you get up off the mat.” The grace and dignity with which Joe Biden handled unimaginable tragedy is often seen as evidence of personal decency, but it is also evidence of tremendous personal strength — strength that America desperately needs right now. The Biden campaign will do their thing, but all of us can help by talking about Trump and Biden — to our friends, family, and on social media — with language that highlights Trump’s weakness and Biden’s strength.
Between now and Election Day, Trump is going to run as an authoritarian demagogue in the hopes that he can surf the nation’s anxiety into a second term. It’s on all of us to remind everyone that Trump isn’t a strong man. He is a weak, incompetent narcissist that failed to protect America in our time of need.
We will all be much safer in Joe Biden’s America.