Whenever I read or hear a news story about the perplexing rise of Donald Trump, I myself am confused. Confused, not by Trump’s rise, but how predictable his rise was given the politics of the past decade.
The Republican Party did such an expert marketing job for the past 8 years that it actually worked. Being a “Washington insider,” for some reason, became a dirty thing. “Outsiders” were hailed as saviors. This gave rise to the Tea Party movement and laid the foundation for Donald Trump. With zero political experience whatsoever, he is the consummate outsider. Even Ted Cruz, who tries to portray himself as an outsider amongst equals fails in one major respect – he holds a political office.
As part of their hatred of all things Obama, the Republican Party waged short-term warfare with the president. As Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Majority Leader, famously said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Leadership rallied the party around denying the president any “wins” instead of advancing a longer-term agenda for their party or the American people. They made defeating Obamacare a priority, for example, over advancing healthcare for Americans who don’t have it. The problem is, short-term strategies only achieve short-term gains and in the long run, Americans prefer our elected representatives to fight for us, not against each other.
Regardless if it was a good idea or not, the Republican party’s short-term strategy worked. They tied up the system, frustrated the president and incited their base. All positive checks in the short-term gains column. But it came at two significant costs. At some point it became exhausting – both for the politicians waging the war, and the population that had to watch it play out. And, it distracted the party from maintaining any sense of a broader, more long-term and inspiring vision. In fact, the lack of a clear vision from either party made for ripe conditions for someone like Donald Trump to step in to stoke our fears.
Vision, be it Ronald Reagan’s shining city on a hill or John F. Kennedy’s moonshot, inspires us. It infuses a nation with hope and optimism for a brighter future. Optimistic vision challenges us to come together to help build something that is good for all of us. Most of all, it offers us a sense of psychological safety – the feeling that our leaders have our interests at heart.
Absent a compelling vision of a brighter future, our collective sense of safety gives way to paranoia, cynicism, mistrust and self-interest. And when those conditions exist, all it takes is for a big ego-driven personality to agitate any sense of insecurity we may feel to gain support and get a rise out of the population. This is how so many dictators came to power. It didn’t matter if they made sense – what mattered was that they promised to take care of the thing we blamed for making us feel uneasy about our own state. In the case of Donald Trump, Mexicans, Muslims and others.
That Donald Trump has little viable policy ideas to back up his fear stocking is irrelevant. As a PR expert explained to me, people don’t listen to television, they watch it. And Donald Trump is pretty fantastic to watch.
This is not the first time in politics we neglected the power of television. Political historians often refer to the first televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy and the famous bead of sweat that dripped down Nixon while Kennedy was poised and composed…and dry. Anyone who listened to the debates on the radio thought Nixon won. But those who watched it on TV gave the win to Kennedy. Television helped Kennedy win that election and television is helping Donald Trump.
Simply because screens are a mainstay of politics now doesn’t mean the rules have changed. In fact, it may be worse now. Few of us listen to the debates on the radio anymore…we almost all watch them. In fact, since television was introduced, we’ve only had two presidents shorter than 6 feet tall – Jimmy Carter at 5’9½” and George W. Bush at 5’11½”.
In an age of television the 6’ tall Governor of Ohio, John Kasich, is certainly tall enough to be president. He also seems the most rational, reasonable, optimistic and electable Republican on the stage. But that’s only if you pay very close attention to the words he’s saying. On television, he has no presence whatsoever. And, as a result, he lags woefully behind all of the other more tele-savvy candidates.
All these factors add up to one huge conclusion – Americans are sick of politicians. ALL politicians. Republicans and Democrats. That Congress has an approval rating below 15% and hasn’t had an approval rating above 25% (which is still pretty abysmal) since 2009 should tell politicians something. THEY are the problem. We are tired of politicians checking polls before telling us what they think. We are tired of politicians placing their career ambitions ahead of ours. We are tired of politicians standing together against something instead of standing together for something.
People don’t love who Donald Trump is, they love who he’s not. And Hilary Clinton should be worried.