Trumped: How He Won (and How Hillary Lost)
“The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.” – Peter Drucker
The stunned faces on the television news shows the night of November 8 as it became clearer and clearer to the coastal, establishment media that Donald J. Trump was about to become the president-elect told a number of stories: there was disappointment, elation, fear, joy, rage, and despair–but mostly there was shock.
Nobody, but nobody saw this coming, left or right.
How could this have come to pass?
This was the question on everybody’s lips on television that night–pundits on all sides of the political spectrum spun and danced and bobbed and weaved trying to find a way to retroactively predict Trump’s win, but it was all hollow hindsight. They were all steamrolled.
For political insiders who are used to calling the balls and strikes of elections, those who come from the tradition of reporting the horse race–which precincts are red and which blue, and which might change–as opposed to the actual stories of real people in “flyover country,” this was literally an impossible outcome.
Hillary Clinton’s political machine was wired in to all the right donors, all the right pundits, all the right news outlets, and all the right politicos. Not only that, she had twice as much money to spend as Trump on the campaign, she had endorsements from hundreds if not thousands of celebrities and bigwigs from around the world. To the elite punditry, the notion that Clinton could conceivably lose to this unwashed outsider heretic who had zero political experience and who, not incidentally, had disrespected them at every turn was laughable.
Keep in mind that these are the same all-too-clever people who had first dismissed Trump as a joke when he took that slow escalator ride to announce his candidacy, reporting on the sideshow of it, but firmly touting Jeb Bush’s frontrunner status. (Remember him?) These are the same smug prognosticators who subsequently dismissed Trump at every twist and turn along the way–right up until midnight or so on November 8 when it finally came home that it was all over but the shouting.
There is a lot to unpack here. People will be analyzing the election of 2016 for decades to come. But among the things we can look at as the dust settles and the new reality sinks in are these: the game-changing impact of Trump’s political marketing and use of social media, the ways the Clinton team managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and what the future may hold as the nation moves forward under a President Trump.
“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” – Don Draper, ‘Mad Men’
If you picked up on the key words “insider” and “outsider” in the opening paragraphs, congratulations: you are more perceptive than most of the Democratic elite were this election season. These concepts and the phrases that were built around them during the course of the campaign were key components baked into the architecture of the race and they had a huge influence on its outcome.
And that was no accident. From Day One, even back in his early days in real estate in New York, Trump has built his brand on a certain insouciance, a devil-may-care lack of concern for what anyone might think.
One source of that attitude is no doubt having grown up rich, with the hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of confidence and security that Fred Trump could provide for his son. But many think that young Donald’s befriending infamous New York lawyer and gadabout Roy Cohn early in life and learning at his knee was a sign of things to come.
Cohn is perhaps best known for being part of the Joseph McCarthy anti-communist team during the House Un-American Activities hearings. But he also helped prosecute Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and is widely thought to have skirted the edge of the law in the course of that trial–if not outright breaking it–in his zeal to send the Rosenbergs to the electric chair.
Much like his protégé, he was also relentlessly driven to win, at all costs.
Also like his protégé, Cohn was a consummate self-promoter, lacking any semblance of shame about taking every opportunity to push his way into the spotlight even when the news about him was far from good. In Trump’s seemingly endless reservoir of tweets, off-the-cuff insults and casual commentary on anything that crosses his mind, one can see the ways in which the student has far outshone the master.
Fast-forward to 2016, to a time when vast swaths of the country are feeling left behind as factories close down, desperation and drug abuse run rampant in middle America, and decent jobs are scarce, even as Wall Street indexes climb ever-higher. Those tweets and other messaging broadcast by Trump and his people played to a deep, seething dissatisfaction with the status quo, one that the Clinton camp failed to even acknowledge, much less address.
When the actual unemployment rate is close to double digits, when people in middle America are forced to take two and three jobs at dead-end, service industry or retail work just to survive, in places where industry once held sway, formerly providing dignified work that elevated millions to the middle class, when they can see their loved ones and neighbors succumbing to the ravages of opioid addiction–and when one candidate is saying things are just fine the way they are while the other is railing against business as usual, it isn’t hard to see who will inspire more passion.
For a New York City-born billionaire real estate heir/television star who got his start in life on an inherited $400 million to somehow pull off the trick of playing Everyman USA is nothing short of marketing genius. But he had his work cut out for him this election season.
The challenge for the Trump marketing team in facing down the colossus of the Clinton organization was a determination to somehow capture the focus of every news cycle despite his opponent’s ability to massively outspend him, not to mention the clear and near-universal media support for Clinton.
But Trump had an ace up his sleeve: his reality television experience. That was his self-promotion graduate school, the place where he perfected the marketing skills and philosophy learned from Roy Cohn and tuned to a fine-honed edge, proving some old adages about marketing, as well as defining some new truths for the future:
Any publicity is good publicity Trump understands that this adage is more accurate than ever before. No matter what people were saying about him, he lunged for the Twitter and television spotlight, at times only half-heartedly defending himself, instead pivoting to attacks on his critics and Clinton. He sucked the air out of the Clinton media balloon at every turn.
Emotion Trumps reason Reality television, as many have noted before, is anything but reality-based. It is a cauldron of emotion, image and competing narratives that wind together to form impressions in the viewers’ minds and stir up feelings. Trump knows this and he knew how to market himself along these lines. While Clinton and her surrogates tut-tutted Trump’s latest gaffe, presenting her as a knowledgeable, sober, thoughtful leader, Trump played to people’s emotions, their fears about Hillary’s dishonesty, her links to Wall Street, her foundation’s shady ties, and her foreign policy blunders. (More on that later.) The result was one passionate, fervent, true-believer side, and one with a bloodless, hand-picked, establishment candidate.
Truthiness Trumps truth Chief strategy officer at global ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, Richard Huntington, believes Trump’s win indicates that openly lying is now acceptable in political marketing. “Lies are currently the most powerful weapon in the political armory,” Huntington said.
“Lying is telling people what they want to hear and that’s why it’s so successful.” Huntington believes that the future in politics is fearlessly telling even provable untruths, something which Trump did not shy away from. By doing so he connected on a daily basis with his followers, restating their beliefs for his millions of Twitter followers to read, even if they weren’t true. “I’m not even sure that when they find out it’s a lie it is a big problem because the lie proves the alignment of your values,” Huntington added.
What is undeniable is that the political marketing landscape has undergone a radical upheaval in the wake of the campaign, with Trump leading the charge. But another interesting footnote to the campaign and the use of marketing in it, is just how disconnected the opposing camps of followers were from one another.
Trump’s use of social media to get his message out and control the narrative was epic. But he also benefited from the so-called “filter bubbles” in which people live their daily internet lives.
This term for the Balkanization of information comes from MoveOn activist Eli Pariser’s 2011 book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. In it he suggests that while we think of the internet as a massive, neutral library with all its books open to us, in reality it is anything but.
True, you can do a Google search for literally anything. But by and large the information that comes to us is carefully curated, groomed, packaged and specifically fed to us by the careful spoonful, designed to maximize the chances we will click through and provide advertisers with a coveted pair of eyeballs.
And that trend has continued unabated since the book’s publication. Back then, Google used around 57 “signals” to optimize its search results for the individual; today it’s more like 200 signals.
And then there’s Facebook. While the social media platform was already a phenomenon in 2011, today some 67 percent of Americans use the site. And fully 40 percent of them report that their Facebook feeds are their primary source of news. When you consider that this “news” is run through proprietary Facebook algorithms, then is highly curated by Facebook employees and tailored to what all that data thinks a particular individual will be most likely to click on–not to mention the fact that it has already come along due to the user’s presumably like-minded friends sharing with him or her–it’s no wonder that none of Clinton’s supporters nor her political team could tell which way the wind was blowing.
How Trump Won (Which Is to Say, How Clinton Lost)
The Clinton team’s stunning arrogance didn’t help either–for instance they declined to visit economically desperate Michigan for any campaign stops at all, in favor of focusing on micro-targeting tiny slices of precincts in Ohio and Pennsylvania where her experts thought they could eke out enough votes to sway the Electoral College picture.
But that hubris is rivaled only by Democratic Party’s leaders’ epic misreading of the lay of the political land.
Witness for instance the Clinton camp’s hijacking of the primary process and sabotaging Bernie Sanders at every turn. The Sanders-stifling plot–hatched by the likes of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Nancy Pelosi, John Podesta, Cory Booker and Bill Clinton of course–represents exactly the type of corporate-friendly, foreign interventionist, business-as-usual Democrats who blandly spout the same empty promises to help the working class they have been failing to fulfill for the past 40 years.
And let’s not forget that rightly or wrongly, the Clintons have been vilified by a large swath of the press and populace for the better part of 30 years. She is one of the most widely despised presidential candidates ever to be nominated, facing real doubts from Day One on her honesty, her banking ties, her husband, and, yes, her personality.
In this moment of upheaval and cries for change from the status quo, Clinton represented that status quo to a T. Yet somehow the party bigwigs couldn’t see that her negatives seriously outweighed her positives, despite poll after poll showing that, in a hypothetical head-to-head match-up, Sanders outpolled Trump by nearly ten points.
So there’s the aforementioned partial laundry list of negatives on Clinton.
But then there’s foreign policy.
This was supposed to be an area where Clinton shone, a place where her team touted her foreign policy experience as Secretary of State and Senator every chance they had. But what they didn’t mention was the unmitigated foreign policy disaster Clinton has been all along. Here’s a greatest hits list:
Iraq She voted for the invasion, as it was politically expedient to do so in 2003. Then she attempted to backtrack starting in 2008 and beyond because it was politically expedient to do so, claiming it was a mistake to vote for the war and that it was based on faulty information.
Honduras As Secretary of State, Clinton’s State Department covertly helped to enable a military coup in Honduras, where a military junta continues to suppress and kill the opposition.
Libya As Secretary of State, Clinton seemed like she was on a mission to destroy Libya, a country that dared to suggest going off the dollar standard. For his troubles, Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi was slaughtered like a pig in the streets and the country lies in ruins to this day, with thousands dead and thousands more fled as refugees. She stated her sick glee at what she had wrought in the memorable phrase, “We came, we saw, he died.”
Syria/Russia Clinton has recently stated her approval of a “no-fly zone” over Syria, a move that would likely trigger a shooting war with Russia. Yet, the Obama/Clinton establishment wing of the Democratic Party was gleefully plowing on last summer, pushing us ever closer to the brink of a new Cold War–conceivably even a hot war with one of the great nuclear powers.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Things have changed since those days, thankfully. We are perhaps a step or two further back from the prospect of nuclear war, which, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, has to be considered a good thing to any rational person. Here are few other hopeful developments that may be on the horizon, based on Trump’s recently released Action Plan.
De-escalation with Russia/Syria While Trump is calling for more investment in the military, largely to aid struggling veterans, he has also shown a strong distaste for the cavalier use of troops around the world as exemplified by the W. Bush and Obama administrations. Based on what he has said up to now, we can also hope for a troop draw-down in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a reduction in the drone wars currently being conducted in at least seven nations.
Withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trump has already announced the end of U.S. participation in this odious agreement that would essentially have given corporations a privately-funded and staffed court in which to challenge any nation’s laws, whether they be trade, labor, or environmental. Good riddance.
Revamping NAFTA The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement under then-President Bill Clinton is widely seen as the death-knell for manufacturing in the U.S. The mass exodus of factory jobs quickly followed, leaving the middle class in tatters. Revisiting NAFTA may not bring American manufacturing back to where it once was, but it certainly can’t make the lives and economics of Middle Americans any worse than they are now.
Repatriation of corporate trillions held overseas Trump has announced several tax changes, one of which would help to encourage corporations hiding money overseas to bring it back the U.S., which would in theory allow companies to invest in infrastructure and new jobs here at home.
In all, cries that Trump’s election was madness and that his presidency signals the end of the world are wildly overblown. The slow, crushing destruction of the middle class that has been ongoing under the neoliberal/interventionist project of the past 40 years might do well to take a step back from the levers of power for a moment.
Let’s see what he can do.