I have yet to read the book Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, by  Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes.  It sounds promising, though–full of interviews from campaign insiders giving first-hand accounts of what went wrong.

But the common thread coming out of reviews of the book, interviews with the authors like this one, and of Clinton campaign autopsies generally, is really ringing false to me. Or, maybe not exactly false, but at least woefully incomplete.

There are two main theories that have emerged as explanations for why Clinton lost. They are:

  1. The controversy surrounding her email server
  2. Her inability to connect with people

Both of these are valid explanations.  But I have not seen anyone analyze how these two things are related; and moreover, why the mainstream political press did not realize it until after the election.

This requires further investigation.  We will start by tackling point 2 first, since it is related to my favorite subject: the importance of charisma.

I firmly believe in the theory that charisma wins elections.  And Hillary Clinton has been my go-to example of someone who does not have charisma for years now. (Note: lack of charisma is often described as “could not connect” or “was not likeable”.)

So, to that extent, I agree that Clinton lost because the voters could not connect with her the way they could with a charismatic billionaire television star who lives in a golden tower.

The problem is, everyone has known for years that Clinton doesn’t have charisma.  It is not like this is some big revelation. This doesn’t mean the press is wrong to say that is the reason she lost… it is just that until election night, the press was right there with her, convinced she would win.

When the conventional wisdom was that Clinton would win, the mainstream political press dismissed concerns about her likeability.  When Clinton suddenly lost, they picked up on this as the obvious explanation for why she did.

And maybe it is.  But if that is the case, why didn’t the press seize on it sooner?  This isn’t the first time we ever had an election–they should have some idea of what is likely to happen based on past elections.  The charisma theory holds up pretty well over the past 50+ years of Presidential elections, so you would think there would have been more talk about it beforehand.

Part of it is the old “hindsight is 2020” problem.  And another part of it is groupthink: Once a few experts started saying Clinton would win, a lot of other people assumed the experts would know, and started following them. (I myself was guilty of this–I ignored Trump’s obvious charisma advantage because so many of the major forecasters were favoring Clinton.)

There’s an even bigger problem with political journalism here, but I want to wait to examine that.  For now, we can just say that it seems probable that Clinton could not connect with voters in 2016, since that had long been a problem for her.

Now to address the theory that it was not Clinton’s anti-charisma that cost her, but rather her email server–or more specifically, the FBI’s investigation of her email server. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight has some convincing data indicating that it was FBI director Comey’s letter to Congress that swung the election to Trump.

Intuition seems to favor the “lack of charisma/could not connect” explanation; the hard data indicates that Comey’s letter was decisive.

Here is the significant thing, though: both explanations can be correct.

In truth, the letter was pretty mild.  It cast a cloud of suspicion over Clinton and enabled Trump to ramp up the number of sinister insinuations he made about her, but that’s about it.  Compared with the Access Hollywood tape which featured Trump literally admitting to a crime, it was small potatoes.

Yet the press hyped the Comey letter as though it were comparable. Why?

The answer is… charisma.  Remember, charisma is the ability to make people want to like you, irrespective of anything you do.

Trump has charisma.  That is why so many voters wanted to like him, and were willing to overlook so much to vote for him.

In contrast, Clinton does not have charisma and as a result many voters were glad to seize on any excuse to vote against her, even a trumped-up (pun not intended) one.

If the email thing had happened to Obama, he could have weathered it.  It probably would not have even been front-page news.

By the same token, if it had not happened to Clinton, there would have been some other heavily-hyped scandal the press would have touted.  Scandals make for good stories, and plenty of people wanted to read about the alleged crimes of Hillary Clinton. People were looking for an excuse to dislike Clinton.

Another key factor to remember is that charisma works on the press, too.  They try to be neutral, but they are just human beings–their personal feelings about a candidate are going to affect their coverage. So,if they are covering somebody who is uncharismatic, they are going to include that in their narrative, even if only subconsciously.

This is leading me to that bigger problem that I mentioned earlier, and it has to do with how the press covers everything.  The problem is that they need to have a simple answer for everything. They cannot say, “we do not understand what happened”.  They have to come up with some explanation, and it has to be something simple that they can explain quickly.

This does not just apply in politics, but to pretty much all mainstream press analysis of anything.  I remember, as my liberal friends and I watched the election results in mounting horror, I kept thinking inexplicably about Super Bowl XXV.

If you are unfamiliar with football history, it went like this: the heavily-favored Buffalo Bills and their record-setting offense lost by a single point to the New York Giants and their strong defense.  On the last play of the game, the Bills missed a field goal that would have given them the victory.

The “narrative” coming out of that game was that the Giants’ defense stifled the mighty Bills offense. (Then-Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick’s game plan is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame) But if the Bills had made the field goal, it would have been different–even though the Giants defensive performance would have been exactly the same.

The perception of both the Giants’ defense and the Bills’ offense was decided by the performance of neither unit, but by the Bills’ kicking game.

This does not mean that defense does not win championships, any more than the fact that Clinton winning the popular vote means charisma does not win elections.  We have enough examples of both throughout history that it is fair to say it constitutes a pattern.

But the sporting press largely did not acknowledge that prior to the game, just as the political press didn’t acknowledge charisma’s strong track record prior to the election.

In each case, it took a specific event (a missed field goal/the Comey letter) before the press were able to recognize the larger pattern.  (Defense wins championships/charisma wins elections.)

In other words, if a Clinton scandal did not exist, the press would have found it necessary to invent one.

The press does not analyze things as closely as they want you to think they do.  They generally report on what happened and then seize on anything that seems convenient to explain why it happened.

(Another area where this is especially transparent is business and financial journalism.  Most journalists have no idea what made the markets go up or down, unless there’s some major world-shattering event that makes it obvious. Most of the time they just make some guess that investors are optimistic or pessimistic based on same random bit of data that seems plausible.)

In general, the press wants their viewers to think they know what is going on.  This makes sense, because the purpose of the press is to convey information.  However, if you do not have all the information readily available, it is hard to know what is going on. This leaves journalists with two options: They can either admit they do not know what is going on, or they can spin some narrative that sounds plausible.

Option 1 is unattractive for a couple of reasons.  First, it is always hard to admit you don’t know something people expect you to know.  And second, suppose some rival press outfit does know what is going on.  Then they might gain an edge in credibility and thus increase their audience.

Option 2 looks a lot better.  If you do that, people come away thinking they learned something.

To most people, Option 2 sounds a lot like lying.  But it’s not the same thing–most journalists aren’t deliberately making up lies; they’re just saying stuff that seems like it’s probably true.  And most of the time, it is true.  If it looks like a duck, and acts like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

But sometimes it is not a duck.  Sometimes, it is a black swan. And when that happens, the press can look pretty stupid.

Trump and his campaign were so weird that it distracted the press from the fundamentals of politics.  Trump’s charisma advantage got overlooked or minimized because everything else about him was in total opposition to the normal laws of politics.

This is the ultimate problem with the political press: once a narrative gets established they tend to disregard all information that contradicts that narrative, unless it becomes impossible.

But even once a narrative has been conclusively disproved, the press still has a hard time putting the pieces together and explaining why the narrative was wrong. Notice how, in the interview linked at the top of this post, Allen keeps coming back to the “email scandal” as the deciding factor. He is not completely wrong, since the emails led to the FBI investigation, but he has trouble putting it all in context.

The correct interpretation is that Clinton lost because her lack of charisma made many voters predisposed to dislike her, and the sensational coverage of the allegations about her email server–and the FBI’s investigation into it–turned enough swing voters against her.

This is a fairly straightforward explanation: Clinton’s lack of charisma was an ongoing problem throughout her career, and the email investigation was the catalyst that ignited the anti-Clinton sentiment that was created by her lack of charisma.

I think many journalists are reluctant to put it in these terms however, since according to this interpretation, they were accessories to the loss because of how they covered the email investigation.

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”–Edward R. Murrow. 1958

[Note: it might be useful to read this post before you proceed.  It addresses some of the same points.]

Barb Knowles of the saneteachers blog suggested that I do a post on print media political campaigns vs. televised/video ones.

The famous line of demarcation in how media changed campaigning is the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debates. They were the first-ever televised debates. Kennedy, the charismatic candidate, won over the supremely un-charismatic Nixon.

It made such an impression on Nixon that he did not debate in his later winning campaigns. He believed, and he was probably right, that an extended televised appearance that wasn’t carefully stage-managed would hurt his image with the voters.

Indeed, in every campaign in which there have been televised debates, the more charismatic candidate has won.

Television, as I once wrote, is a force multiplier for charisma.

Back in the days of print-only campaign coverage, it was much harder for a charismatic candidate to win.  In the 1896 Presidential election, the famously charismatic populist speaker William Jennings Bryan lost to the un-charismatic William McKinley.

Both Bryan and McKinley played to their strengths during the campaign.  Bryan traveled the country at an incredible pace, giving more than 500 speeches. McKinley used his massive financial advantage to send other speakers on his behalf, and to control the coverage that appeared in print.

There can be no doubt that if television had existed in 1896, Bryan would have won. For one thing–and this is something political strategists still don’t understand–even negative television coverage of charismatic candidates is a win for them.  Even if some pundit comes on afterward to denounce the candidate, as long as video of him delivering his message is getting out, he is winning.

There was of course no television, or even radio, in 1896.  However, Bryan was so popular that decades later, he would record parts of his legendary “Cross of Gold” speech for posterity.  No doubt he was less brilliant an orator in his old age, but it is still powerful:

Print media is inherently less emotional than television and video.  It’s a more intellectual, less visceral activity, to read an article in the paper than to watch someone on television.

If you just read transcripts of Trump’s speeches or debate answers, you will see they are incoherent nonsense.  He rarely speaks in complete sentences, he repeats himself, he interrupts himself. It only works if you can see him delivering it. That visceral reaction is the nature of charismatic authority.

This, more than anything else, is the key difference between televised and print campaigning. Print is intellectual, television is emotional.

The best parts of last week’s Presidential debate were the parts when the candidates simply talked back and forth with each other.  In my opinion, this is far better way of revealing a person’s true beliefs and plans than allowing them fixed amounts of time to repeat their campaign slogans.

Whatever else you want to say about it, Trump’s penchant for constantly interrupting did allow for some lively back-and-forth. I thought both Trump and Clinton were at their best when they were actually talking to each other.  When Clinton would speak uninterrupted, she tended to fall back on generic stump speech phrases and slogans.  When Trump would speak uninterrupted–or, more accurately, uninterrupting–he tended to become incoherent or lose focus and start talking about irrelevant issues.

The best line of the night was when Trump, ostensibly responding to a question about his tax returns, gave a laundry list of problems with the country’s infrastructure, concluding by saying the government didn’t have money because it was squandered by politicians like Clinton.  She retorted, “Or maybe it’s because you haven’t paid Federal taxes for many years.”

Clinton’s line was short, to-the-point, and it hit home. Trump should take lessons from Clinton on the value of brevity.  A simple response like that is much better than Trump’s lengthy, rambling and often repetitious monologues that seem like mini-speeches.

I wrote that Trump should have apologized, and a few days later, he does just that.  He didn’t do the profuse heartfelt apology I recommended, but by Trump standards, it was an apology.

Well, Mr. Trump–and/or your advisors–if you’re reading this, and have now learned to follow my advice, I suggest you do the following things:

  • Apologize specifically for your many past disgraceful words and deeds towards women, and never say or do such things again.
  • Read David Ricardo to get some idea how International Trade works.
  • Also read John Maynard Keynes to get some idea how macroeconomics works.
  • In general,  adopt a more cooperative tone–win or lose, it would be better if the country is not at war with itself when the election is over.
  • Make a sizable donation from your own personal wealth to domestic violence shelters or other organizations that help women who have been victims of violence.
  • Use your Twitter account only to post links to press releases and videos–not to insult random people.
  • Quit constantly getting into fights with the Press.  A Free Press is vital to the functioning of our Republic, and thus you should welcome their tough questions.
  • Promise to reform and improve America’s Educational system, so that the next generation of young people can be competitive. As a first step in this direction, quit speaking in slang and improper English, and remove all vulgarity from your language while you are seeking public office.
  • You have spoken in the past about the importance of hiring “the best people” away from the competition.  Immigration can be used much the same way for a Nation–and indeed it has been throughout our great Country’s past. Remember that, and change your proposed policies accordingly.

I know what you are thinking, Mr. Trump. (If you’re reading this)  You’re thinking:  If I do all that, will I win?

I can’t say.  But if you do it, you will at least be able to say you comported yourself honorably and intelligently in the last few months of the campaign.   And if candidates for public office conduct themselves honorably and intelligently, it improves the quality of our political discourse generally.  And if that happens, it will certainly help to make America even greater than it already is.

And that’s really what you want, isn’t it, Mr. Trump?

Ok, so the title may not be specific enough. Trump seems to have many problems.  But I’m not addressing his financial, social, physical, intellectual, moral or psychological problems.  Lots of people have run successful political campaigns despite having those. I’m talking about his strategic problem that’s hampering his quest for the Presidency.

Trump’s strategic problem is that he can’t adapt.  He is a one-trick pony who has used his trick to the limit of its potential and now does not know what to do on finding it no longer works.

In the primaries, Trump employed an aggressive, brash style to get attention for himself and to mock his competitors. It worked very well.  I won’t lie; I thought it was very entertaining to see him relentlessly mock the career politicians.  They had never seen anything like it, and were unprepared for it.

The problem is, people have now gotten tired of the insult-comedy routine. It was funny for a while, but eventually wears out its welcome.  Add to this that the general electorate is less receptive to such an aggressive style than Republican primary voters, and it becomes clear Trump needs a new strategy.

The standard political hack term for this is “pivoting to the general election”, which is a nice way of saying: “tell the primary voters one thing, then tell general election voters something else.”  Or lie, to put it simply.

Mitt Romney provided the textbook example of this in 2012.  He said all sorts of Conservative-sounding stuff in the Primaries, then took it all back and came out with new, more liberal policies in the General election. It all seemed strategically sound in theory, and I think most strategists would say it was very well done, except for the bit where Romney lost the election.

As you can perhaps tell, I do not like the “pivot to the general election” concept.  It seems to show contempt for voters.  It is effectively saying “Ha!  Those stupid voters will forget what we promised earlier this year, and believe the new, contradictory set of things we are promising now.”  I like candidates who seem a bit more principled.

Trump is definitely not pivoting, but he is also not standing on principle.  He is just continuing to fight and insult people.  And people are tired of it.  They want to see that he is capable of doing something else, at least once.

The funny thing is, his biggest error may also have been his greatest opportunity to do this–but he missed it.

After he started his absurd argument with the Khan family, Trump could have surprised everyone by apologizing to them profusely.  If he had done that, completely and unreservedly, people might have said “Wow!  Trump actually can admit when he’s wrong!” and it might have come out being a positive for him.

But Trump couldn’t do that. Whether because he has some personality disorder that prevents him from ever admitting he’s wrong or just because he thought “My ‘Always Attack/Never Apologize’ strategy got me this far, I won’t drop it now”, Trump failed to do the right thing because he can’t do anything other than attack people.

In general, I try not to use sports analogies when discussing politics, because sports are zero-sum games, and politics has more dimensions to it than that.  But in this case, there is a fairly apt analogy with American football.

Teams with great offenses that can “throw the ball all over the field” and score tons of points will go on record-setting streaks and look almost unbeatable playing teams with bad to mediocre pass defenses.  Then they finally have a game when the quarterback and/or receivers timing is off, or the opposing pass defense is giving them a hard time, and they have nothing else they can do.  They fall apart.

Trump is like that.  He won the primaries with an aggressive, angry style against weak opponents, but now that he is in a contest where people want to see empathy and humility, he can’t adjust and do it.

All right, so maybe I did end up analyzing his psychological problems a little, after all.  It’s kind of unavoidable.

“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”–Donald Trump, in his acceptance speech. July 21, 2016

The Democrats, including President Obama himself, went after Trump for this quote at their convention. In her acceptance speech, Clinton retorted that Americans fix things by working together.

It made me think of the philosopher Thomas Carlyle and the “Great Man Theory of History“.  Carlyle stated that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”.

This theory was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After that, it fell out of favor, with most philosophers and historians preferring theories that emphasized societies and cultures as a whole.  What Carlyle would call “Great Men” were products of their times and places.  Often, they just happen to be overseeing the culmination of events that were many years in the making.

“If Napoleon did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him,” in other words.

But though it has long been out of favor with most historians, the Great Man theory has never totally disappeared among nationalistic elements of society.  I’m not sure why, but believers in what is usually called “Right-Wing Authoritarianism” seem predisposed to favor this theory.  Maybe because it complements the strong patriarchal nature of such movements.

Whatever the reason, Trump’s claim and Clinton’s reply underscore a profound philosophical difference between the two parties.  (Not that Trump is aware of it–it came across as more of his usual bragging–but it spoke to something deeper in the political divide.)

Back in April of 2011, I was upset when President Obama released his long-form birth certificate in response to demands from one Donald Trump.  I thought it was a mistake by Obama, and I said so at the time.

My thinking at the time was that it elevated Trump to Obama’s level–it made it seem like the President had to take what Trump said seriously.

This bothered me because it reminded me of something I read in the book Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein.  Perlstein documents how Richard Nixon continually badgered then-President Lyndon Johnson about Vietnam, until Johnson finally responded to Nixon’s criticisms.  By doing so, Johnson unwittingly elevated Nixon to appear as the “leader of the opposition”.  He made Nixon seem as though he was on a par with the office of the President.

This was part of Nixon’s plan.  It was part of how he made his famous political comeback from humiliated has-been in 1962 to President in 1968.  It’s always stuck with me, and so whenever I see some would-be Presidential candidate angling to get the President to react to criticism, I automatically think of it.

When I mentioned this in 2011, my friends said I was paranoid, and laughed at the idea that Trump would ever be taken seriously. He was a joke, as shown when President Obama roasted him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:

My friends thought this was the ultimate humiliation for Trump.  He’d become a laughingstock.

Well, my friends aren’t laughing any more.

I derive no pleasure from this, but it does appear that Trump was using the birth-certificate issue as a proof of concept for his future campaign: say outrageous stuff so the press covers it, then keep harping on it to draw more followers to your “cause”, and then before you know it, some pretty big people start responding to you. And now, the headlines all say “President responds to Trump”.

Once his demands for the birth certificate were met, Trump realized that the press was ripe to be used for his unorthodox quest for political power.  But I think he also knew he would stand no chance against a popular and charismatic sitting President in 2012. Hence his decision to delay until now.

The birth-certificate thing was silly and stupid and frivolous and ultimately the conspiracy theorists were proven wrong. But that wasn’t the main takeaway from it.  The main takeaway was that Donald Trump asked for something, and the President gave it to him. This emboldened Trump to start trying to see just what else he could get out of the political system.

 

Supporters of both Presidential candidates will often say the opponent is “just out for power”, or “doesn’t care about principles–they just want more power”.  The Republicans constantly say Clinton is so corrupt, and involved in so many scandals, that it shows she just wants power and will stop at nothing to get it.

Democrats say that Trump is trying to gain the powers of the Presidency to satisfy his own ego, and that his willingness to lie, scream and bully his way into office reveals him as a power-hungry maniac.

If you asked Clinton if she wants power, she would probably say no, she wants to “bring us together” and “help people”. If you asked Trump the same question, he would probably say no, he just wants to “fix things” and “make America great again”.

In politics, it works like this: “I want to help people and solve problems. They are power-hungry monsters.”

The truth is, both of them want power.  How do I know this?  Because there is no other reason to want to be President.  Actually, I imagine that being President is fairly miserable, since you can’t go anywhere or do anything on your own, and you and your family live under constant threat.  The reward for all that is the power.

“Power” is just the ability to get things done–to accomplish meaningful change.  But it has a negative connotation. Nobody gets mad when someone says “I want to make a difference in the world”, but they do if someone says “I want power”.  And yet, they are the same thing.  Power = ability to make a difference.

The real question is “what will someone do with power once they have it?”  That’s the important part.  To figure that out, you have to study the candidates’ policies, background and statements.  But all politicians try to sidestep this by using the rhetorical maneuver that condemns their opponent for the simple fact they are seeking office.

For the record: Clinton seems likely to use Presidential power in much the same way that both her husband and Barack Obama did as President.  A Clinton administration would be close to a third term of Obama.  Trump, on the other hand, seems very impulse-driven and knee-jerk.  If he had power, he would probably do whatever struck him as a good idea at any given moment.

In the words of Prince Feisal in the movie Lawrence of Arabia: “You may judge which is more reliable”.

The most effective part of Trump’s speech was a brief, apparently ad-libbed line.  The crowd had begun chanting “lock her up”, a phrase they had used all week and which many commentators felt crossed the line from heated rhetoric into a promise to jail political opponents, in the style of a third-world dictator. (Or Woodrow Wilson)

But Trump, for once, didn’t egg the crowd on, but instead pulled them back.  “Let’s defeat her in November” he said, in a tone of friendly correction.

This was a mix of showman Trump–guy who can play the crowd–and politician Trump, who can remain within the bounds of political propriety.  He used his rapport with the angry mob to calm, not to incite.

It reminded me of one time in ’08 when Obama was speaking about McCain and the crowd started booing McCain’s name.  Obama quickly said “You don’t need to boo, you just need to vote.”  It made him seem very (dare I say it?) classy and professional about the whole thing.

Granted, Trump has many more inappropriate remarks to make up for than Obama did at this point–but still, he showed he can at least momentarily maintain discipline and not give in to the blind rage of his cheering base. Whether he can do that over a long period remains to be seen.  My bet is he can’t.