Despite the welcome bounce in Clinton’s numbers this week, the evidence grows that the conventional wisdom about Presidential campaigns is pretty useless this year. My experience as a Presidential appointee, lawyer and investment expert tells me the Clinton campaign may be closing in on a systemic and great idea.
Hillary Clinton said two things the other day that ring powerful true. Any person who can be provoked by a tweet cannot be trusted with “the button”. And, she nearly spoke what could be the memorable line of the year: “We have nothing to fear but Trump himself”.
Fear, the most primal of emotions, has long been a powerful political lever. Since FDR took office in the depths of the world’s worst economic depression, nearly every president has played on or against some American fear.
Eisenhower warned of the power of the military-industrial complex, of a future of endless war that his time as a soldier had taught him to fear and abhor.
Nixon played on the fears of “the silent majority”: crime, ethnic minorities, and the erosion of traditional values.
Reagan coined the phrase “Make America Great Again” in his 1980 presidential campaign, and evoked the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union.
The first President Bush played on America’s fear of taxation and economic stagnation by telling us to read his lips: “No new taxes”.
Years later, his son used fear of terrorism to justify the disastrous invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
This rhetoric of fear seemingly peaked in this year’s Republican National Convention, in which Trump seemed unable to choose, referring to crime, terrorism, political corruption, immigration, economic stagnation, China, and the inexorable forces of globalization and technological progress that are changing the nature of American life and work.
Meanwhile, the Democrat’s convention defined their fears of Trump. Obama called him a demagogue and grouped him with ISIS, the U.S.S.R., and Nazi Germany. There were repeated attacks on Trump’s character and the Democrats repeatedly questioned whether he could be trusted with “his finger anywhere near the button”.
And Trump himself, amazingly, took up the Democratic cause by attacking the Khans, a Gold Star family. He seems unable to resist going on the offensive particularly against ‘soft’ targets, proving again and again to people with any reason that his temperament makes him a genuine danger to America and the world.
A chain of former presidents or their descendants could remind the American public that Trump himself is far more dangerous to America than any foreign power or economic/cultural trend. The twisted angry faces of Trump and his followers on TV are by themselves indicators of what the rest of us have to fear.
Imagine a picture of President Reagan saying space warfare is our biggest danger and then Ron Reagan Jr saying: “I am convinced that my father would believe that Trump by himself is the biggest danger ever to our country.”
Such a chain of provocations (hopefully including the Bushes) could have great public effect, particularly if Trump plays to his normal form and hits back hard against the families of our previous Republican presidents.
There has never before been an election like this one, and polling indicates that Democratic attacks have not had much of an effect until recently. Many polls have noted that Trump’s bigoted and bellicose rhetoric has not been a problem for his voters to overlook, but a feature that actually attracts them because they feel that way themselves.
His attack now on the Khans has drawn bipartisan ire. It appears that a key to defeating him is to ignore conventional tactics and continuously provoke him into attacking anything and everything America may have left to attack.
The basic goal of provoking Trump is not to merely convey the simple message that Trump is to fear BUT to get him to fill the airwaves with his own incoherent rage and show America and the world the ‘face’ of fear.