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How To Beat Trump

A political campaign is a competition of narratives, and you need a better story than the other guy to win.

Mike Troiano
Jun 12, 2019 · 10 min read

As the 2020 Presidential campaign gets underway in earnest in Iowa, national polls show Trump losing to all of the Democratic front runners, in some cases by a comfortable margin of 13 points.

Don’t believe the hype.

Democratic primary candidates are spending their time before Iowa caucus goers attacking Trump rather than putting forward a real alternative to the anger, resentment, and fear he rode like a castrated pony into office. As they do, my own fear and anxiety of a Presidential election eve just like the last one only grows.

Please, God, no.

“What about Elizabeth Warren?,” you say, referring to the former professor who “has a plan for that” no matter which underlying root cause you attribute to red America’s 2016 electoral temper tantrum. If campaigns were fought on policy I might be reassured by the Senator from Massachusetts, but — here in the real world — they are not. Presidential campaigns aren’t fought on resumé, or work effort, or even money in the modern age… and if you doubt that just set a spell with President Clinton on her porch in Chappaqua.

No. The Presidential campaign of 2020 will be a contest of narratives — just like all the campaigns that preceded it — and right now the Democrats are ignoring that fact at their (and frankly, the world’s) peril.

I’ve written before about how Trump won the 2016 election, but it boils down to this:

Trump understood that if you want to change what someone does, you need to change what they feel, and not just what they think.

Trump mines the fear and anxiety millions of Americans feel as the country they love seems poised to leave them behind. To them, the fealty of coastal elites to some abstract global order has destroyed their communities and their prospects, leaving behind epidemic levels of unemployment, poor health, and addiction. They blame free trade agreements and authentically historic levels of immigration as the culprits in the unfolding tragedy of their daily lives, along with a political class of social justice warriors focused on jumping every black, brown, yellow, Jewish, Buddhist, Mexican, gay, lesbian, transexual into the line ahead of them. These people — whose parents and children fought and died in America’s wars for an American dream that now seems hopelessly out of reach — feel the contempt of blue state hypocrites toward their values and their religion in a daily drip, through the liberal media they also blame for leading them astray.

And now they have their guy.

Make America Great Again. Say what you want about his hair and his taste and his lies and his morals, but that is one hell of a story. And in the immortal words of the guy left out of the Song of Ice & Fire:

So what are the Democrats to do? Well, one approach is to play the critic… to spend the next 18 months pointing at the ways this story and the man telling it so effectively since 2015 actually suck; why the message is built on a foundation of lies, and why the messenger is so plainly unfit to occupy the office at the top of the free world. Democrats have been deploying this strategy since the election, in fact, with the cumulative effect of driving the President’s approval rating down from a heady 44.3 to a dismal 43.9.

You’ll forgive me for lacking confidence this approach will succeed, particularly through the twists and turns of a campaign sure to be equal parts Twitter fight and media circus, against a man deeply at home in either context.

What the Democrats need to win is a candidate who can formulate, road-harden, and authentically deliver a simple, dramatic story that re-frames the negative emotions we’re all feeling into a passionate narrative that points the way toward a brighter tomorrow.

Where are we as a country, right now? Don’t tell me things are great, and that Trump is the problem. The plain truth is they aren’t, and he isn’t. So why are we here? How did we get here? Who is to blame? And what is the way forward, in the face of forces already spinning so far beyond our control that the whole world sometimes feels like the upside-down.

“Great, Mike,” you might say. “Does a story like that even exist?”

Here’s what I’d like to hear someone say from the stump somewhere on a windy Iowa plain, just to show it can be done:

Look… your mileage may vary. There may be 50 ways that story is flawed, and at least as many opportunities for something better, more dramatic, or more compelling. So let’s hear them. Somebody needs to get to work, improving a story the only way you can… by telling it, watching how people respond, and refining your message.

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Just make sure it fits on a hat.

Right now I’m just looking for a candidate who can tell a better story than Make America Great Again, because that’s the candidate who can win. Electability isn’t about gender, age, experience, or labels. It’s about this. And if enough of us believe that, and enough of us say so, I really hope someone already in this field will hear us, and do what the best storytellers are so often called upon to do: Lead.

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