The Key to 2020

White House

Election Day 2020 is a mere 19 months or so in the future, so it’ll be here before we know it. We hope.

In the meantime, let’s consider what happened last time and maybe figure out how to keep it from happening again.

MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” is a great slogan. It sold a lot of hats. It’s short and snappy. It has an action verb and it proudly proclaims American greatness. And we can go there again!

OK, we can’t go there again, that part is BS. What’s important for now is that a lot of people tuned in to the MAGA message. It was one part of the sales pitch that helped elect Donald Trump.

A young Democrat named Pete Buttigieg* emerged from virtual obscurity this month, starting with his breakout moment, a CNN town hall on Sunday March 10. In less than three weeks, Buttigieg (we’ll call him Mayor Pete) has gone from nowhere to third place among Democratic presidential contenders nationwide. Only Joe Biden (who has yet to declare his candidacy) and Bernie Sanders (who didn’t want to repeat his own 2016 mistake and wait too long to declare) are now ahead of Mayor Pete.

On March 13 the Los Angeles Times published an article by White House reporter Eli Stokols about President Trump’s aversion to change and science, as suggested by his tweets about modern airplanes being “too complex to fly.” In that article, Mayor Pete said:

The core theme of this president and this campaign is the idea that you can turn back the clock, that you can ‘make America great again,’ that the answer for people worried about change is we’re going to stop it and reverse it — and that’s just not true and it’s just not possible. There’s obviously a shallow appeal to leaders telling us we don’t have to change. But at a moment when automation and AI are deeply transforming our economy and our society, we’d like to believe we have leaders who get it.

I absolutely agree with the thrust of Mayor Pete’s argument, which is that we can’t go back again. The last sentence in that quote makes an important point in saying that “we’d like to believe we have leaders who get it.” True.

In a radio interview last week, Mayor Pete said what he thought Democrats did wrong in 2016: “We spent, I think, way too much time on our side talking about him.” This observation was quoted in an analysis by CNN Editor-at-large Chris Cillizza, and I think it is also true.

Yes, we need leaders who get it. We desperately need that, and we don’t have that. And yes, we did spend way too much time talking about Trump, and we still do. But bear with me, because we have to talk about him a little more.

Trump didn’t get elected because he gets it — he doesn’t. Trump also didn’t get elected because we talked about him too much, though we did. And while social media micro-targeting and Russian interference may have made the difference in getting Trump his Electoral College majority, it only mattered because Trump was already close.

Mayor Pete has also figured out that last point, saying “[A] figure like this president should never have been able to come within cheating distance of the Oval Office. And I fear if we’re not paying attention to the causes that he’s a symptom of, then not only is it possible for him to succeed in 2020, but we could also find ourselves with another figure like him or even worse in the future.” Yes, even Breitbart is now reporting on Mayor Pete.

So what was it?

Trump got elected because he connected with what his voters wanted to believe.

People want to believe a lot of things. Americans want to believe that America is great. We hear about American exceptionalism all the time. Politicians tell us that we live in “the greatest nation on earth.” Trump likes to walk on stage to “God Bless the U.S.A.”

People want to belong and be a part of something bigger than themselves.

People want to believe that they’re doing something important.

People want to believe that they’re doing the right thing.

People want to believe that things are going to be all right.

People who once had it good want to believe that things will be good once again. This is a huge part of Trump’s appeal to his base.

People want to believe that they are valued and respected. In 2016, one of Hillary Clinton’s great mistakes was saying “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call a basket of deplorables.”

Perhaps most important of all – more important than the idea that their leaders get it — people want to believe that their leaders get THEM.

Trump managed to convey to a lot of people with a variety of concerns that he understood them, cared about them, embraced them, and was looking out for them. Trump voters believed it and many still do.

People don’t readily change beliefs and they aren’t necessarily persuaded by facts, but people do sometimes change their minds. It happens. Some practical considerations can be found in this 2017 article by Ozan Varol entitled “Facts Don’t Change People’s Minds. Here’s What Does“.

We need to take a different approach than we did in 2016. I am not suggesting that Democrats should tell voters only what they want to hear or that we should lie to them. We’re trying to win hearts and minds, not just votes, so lobbing verbal grenades is not going to do it. We have to connect on respect, values, mutual interest, involvement, and caring.


*Pete who? How do you pronounce that name? Who is this guy? The Daily Show is here to help with the name and other important stuff about Mayor Pete in “Who is Pete Buttigieg and Why Is He Killing It in the Polls.”

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