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There is no lack of explanations for what happened in 2016.  All the major groups have their version of it.  The centrist-Democrat political establishment one goes something like this:

“The Democrats failed to understand the economic anxiety voters in the Midwestern states felt as a result of globalization.  Donald Trump tapped in to these fears and won by turning out the midwestern white vote.”

That seems pretty reasonable.  But the more liberal, socialist-leaning elements of the Democratic party have a slightly different explanation:

“The people in the midwest were turned off by the flawed ‘establishment’ candidate Hillary Clinton, who they viewed as untrustworthy and unlikely to bring economic reforms that they wanted.  This depressed voter turnout, allowing Trump to capitalize on latent racism.”

This is pretty much the same thing, only it puts a little more blame on the Democrats and offers an implied prescription for the direction of the Party.

The Republicans, of course, have their own view as well.  It can be summarized as follows:

“The working men and women rose up to vote out the politically correct big government agenda of the Democrats, and supported a successful businessman who will put their interests first and bring back jobs and opportunity, and who is not afraid to say what he thinks.”

All of these explanations are fairly similar.  In an increasingly rare event in politics, all sides are in agreement on the basic facts; that Trump won, that Clinton lost, and that the Midwestern states were the reason why. They are all describing the same event, and so arrive at a set of explanations that satisfactorily summarize the same results in a way that suits their respective worldviews.

Each explanation seems plausible. Which one to use depends on the target audience, but any one of them could work in a typical piece of political analysis.

But chances are, you don’t want typical political analysis.  If you did, you would be reading CNN or Fox News or Huffington Post or Breitbart or some other site.  You’re here because you want more than a summary. You want to understand 2016 in a larger historical context, and to know about the economic, cultural and philosophical forces underpinning the shocking electoral result.

In other words, you want to know what really happened.

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I’m a big believer in the “charisma theory” of Presidential elections.  To summarize, the idea is that the more charismatic candidate always wins. It has held in every election since 1992, and examples can be found going back to 1960.  In fact, the only instance I know of in which the more charismatic candidate lost was in 1896, before TV or radio existed.

One curious thing about charismatic candidates is that seemingly they always go up against non-charismatic opponents–people who may be good, studious, diligent policy wonks, but who are also stiff and boring.  Or, to use the words of Paul Graham, the creator of the theory, “people who are earnest, but dull.”

Think about it: the big knock on Hillary Clinton was that she “couldn’t connect with people”–versus Trump, who could at least connect with angry white men.

Same deal in 2012: Obama was one of the most charismatic politicians in history, and Romney was famously stiff and awkward.

Again, 2008: Charismatic Obama against boring, tired John McCain.

It goes on. In 2004, folksy “just a regular guy” George W. Bush vs. famously boring speaker John Kerry.

2000: Folksy Bush beats dull, awkward Al Gore.

1996: Legendarily charismatic Bill Clinton beats old, tired Bob Dole.

It goes on and on. Now and then you get elections where neither candidate was charismatic (Bush vs. Dukakis, Nixon vs. McGovern and Humphrey) but you seemingly never get two charismatic candidates running against each other. (Imagine what Trump vs. Obama would have been like!)

That seems highly improbable when you consider that there are lots of charismatic politicians, and that charismatic politicians have an innate advantage over non-charismatic ones. They should be running against each other all the time. What’s going on?

One possibility is that charisma is a winner-take-all sort of thing, in that whichever candidate is more charismatic automatically makes the opponent seem stiff and boring by comparison.  So if A is more charismatic than B, B looks boring, but B might be more charismatic than C, and make C look boring.

But it doesn’t seem to work this way.  Nixon lost to Kennedy on charisma, but he beat Humphrey and McGovern without getting any more charismatic.  Charisma simply wasn’t a factor in those elections.

Another possible explanation is that when one party has been out of power for a while, they become more likely to nominate a charismatic candidate. (Charismatic candidates usually start as long-shot outsiders, e.g. Obama and Trump) Similarly, when a party has been in power for a while, they are more likely to nominate a careerist politician who has paid their dues in the party. (e.g. McCain, H. Clinton)

If that’s the case, it apparently runs in an eight year cycle, conveniently matching up with Presidential term limits, and thus preventing possible “high-charisma showdowns”, as would have happened with Clinton vs. Bush, or Obama vs. Trump.

This could be the case, although it seems like an awfully big coincidence that it takes almost exactly eight years for one party to get a charismatic candidate, and that the other party seemingly forgets this lesson every eight years.

What are your thoughts on this pattern?

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Here’s a little conspiracy theory for you to mull over…

During the Republican primaries, Trump tended to perform much better in states that held primaries vs. those that held caucuses. Trump only won two of the eight Republican caucus states (Nevada and Hawaii).

A caucus is a meeting of party members where they discuss which candidate to support, as opposed to simply casting a ballot in a voting booth.  Ted Cruz won most of the Republican caucus states in 2016.  Most analysts assumed this was because the Cruz campaign spent more time and money organizing at the local level. A few others suggested that people were ashamed to openly admit that they supported Trump.

These explanations seem logical. And Occam’s Razor suggests these factors explain what happened.

But, it’s also worth considering that it would far easier to hack or otherwise manipulate primary elections than caucuses. To interfere in a primary, you would just have to be able to tamper with some machines. It’s much harder to do with caucuses.

I’m not saying I think this happened. I’m just saying it’s worth asking about.

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.

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.

{Sung to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General“}

I am the very model of a charismatic candidate,
I have thwarted ev’rything the GOP has planned to date.
From starting as a dark horse, I’ve become the odds-on favorite
Saying I will build a wall and then force Mexico to pay for it.
And though Establishment Republicans think I am despicable
Ev’ry charge they level at me has proved totally unstickable.
And even though I’ve said disgusting things about my progeny
And made so many statements that are dripping with misogyny–
By thwarting ev’ry action that the GOP has planned to date,
I’ve proved myself the model of a charismatic candidate.

My “Apprenticeship” in showbiz has undoubtedly done well for me–
I am so telegenic, all the major networks fell for me.
My domineering manner plays so well when I’m debating folks
It doesn’t even matter that I sometimes tell degrading jokes.
Believe me, folks, I’m so very, very big-league entertaining
That I have no need coherent policies to be maintaining.
I’ll be so much like Reagan, it will make your head spin, I insist–
Heads will spin so much it will all be like the film The Exorcist.
Since I’ve thwarted ev’rything the GOP has planned to date.
I am the very model of a charismatic candidate.

 
In fact, when I know whether Judges “sign” on “bills” or not
When I’ve decided what to do with all the immigrants we’ve got–
When I’ve some idea what is and isn’t Constitutional–
When I’ve proved my economic plans are not delusional
When I have shown I will not always act impulsively–
When I behave towards women just a little less repulsively–
In short, when I have turned into my very living opposite–
You’ll say a better candidate has never run for office yet!
Though all my civic knowledge is just stuff I learned in real estate,
I am sure a brand-new wall will make our location really great.
And since a country is the only thing I’ve yet to brand to date,
I am the very model of a charismatic candidate!

Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip “Dilbert”, has been getting attention for his numerous blog posts praising Donald Trump’s persuasion skills.

It’s hard to argue against it. Trump has persuaded millions of Republicans to vote for him, despite never holding political office, and despite running a campaign that few political experts even took seriously ten months ago.

Trump has indisputably had more political success than most pundits expected. So, whatever your opinion of him, I think most people can agree he is very persuasive.

But is he really as good as Adams claims? I am skeptical.

Trump is good at commanding media attention. And he is good at leveraging that media attention to get what he wants.

But he also constantly makes a critical mistake: he complains about–and therefore draws additional attention to–bad press about himself.

For example, recently the New York Times published some accounts of Trump’s mistreatment of women. Trump responded by tweeting repeatedly that it was a false “hit piece”. The result was that for a time, if you went to his Twitter page, all you saw was a bunch of denials that he had done bad stuff.

Trump says bad publicity is better than no publicity. Maybe so, but good publicity is better still, and since Trump has full control of his Twitter page, he should seek to fill it with good publicity. When people come to the homepage for your brand, you do not want them to know that negative opinions about it even exist.

But Trump is so thin-skinned that he can’t help it. He has to respond to the NYT, even if it makes no sense to do so.

The irony is that even as Trump attacks the Times for “failing” because it is losing readers, he is unintentionally helping it by drawing attention to the article. How many Trump followers would have never even heard about the NYT article if he hadn’t brought it up?

Note that I am not even discussing the issue of which is more reliable: the New York Times or Trump’s tweets. That’s because in the world of persuasiveness, truth is a secondary concern. Trump has never really claimed to be 100% honest; rather, he has campaigned on his ability to sell stuff. He is now selling himself based on his ability to sell himself. It is the ultimate confidence trick.

But he is not even as good at marketing as he thinks he is. He makes plenty of PR mistakes. The only reason he has gotten as far as he has is that the other politicians are even worse at selling than he is.

Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump has said he would “hire the best people” to handle almost everything–foreign policy, economics, etc. In his book, “The Art of the Deal”, Trump also stresses the importance of hiring the best people to do jobs you yourself don’t know how to do.

Trump has been ridiculed for this. People say he is using this excuse to cover for his lack of policy knowledge.

I hate to say it, but Trump’s idea is, frankly, what I’ve always thought a good President–or any executive–needs to do.

There aren’t enough hours in the day for someone to be an expert on all the issues on which the President needs to make decisions. You would need to be the world’s greatest economist, diplomat, orator, military strategist, environmental scientist, financier and epidemiologist to do that. Nobody can do it all.

The President, therefore, needs to be able to figure out who the best people are for handling the myriad duties and put them in charge of each. That ability to recognize good people who can get results is what matters.

Look at F.D.R., widely considered the greatest President in U.S. history. He was not exceptionally bright, or even especially energetic. What made him great was that he insisted on getting people who knew how to get the job done. F.D.R. was focused on getting results, and that, in turn, led him to hire good people.

In contrast, look at George W. Bush, who even many Republicans now consider to be a colossal failure as President. He wasn’t a dumb guy, despite what some Democrats will say. He had degrees from Yale and Harvard. No, what made Bush’s administration such a mess was that he (a) gave important jobs to people who repeatedly showed they could not do them right (Cheney and Rumsfeld) and (b) failed to hold them accountable for their failures until it was too late.

President Obama’s track record has been sort of mixed as far as picking good people. And Obama is obviously smart–but identifying the right person for a job is a completely different skill set that unrelated to factual knowledge. And it’s especially hard in the world of politics, where jobs are given in exchange for political support rather than ability.

To be clear, I am just saying Trump is right in terms of the theory of being a good executive. It is by no means clear that Trump actually knows how to find “the best people”. The fact that his campaign manager is currently charged with assault, plus the fact that he has been obviously unprepared for easy questions in recent interviews, argues that he does not.