Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
Caveat: Trump’s win was no landslide. There are many plausible explanations for it, including that it was a fluke. Here is one among many speculations I think is worth considering about why he won and what it means for future elections.
Consider the possibility that the election was not decided on issues, values, character, scandal or national direction, but on confidence. Trump postured as the infinitely confident candidate. Though most of us thought he would lose, he campaigned throughout as though he were infallible.
He never once broke character. Not once during the campaign did he change his mind. Of course, he changed his positions like a chameleon. Still, he was able to sustain an uninterrupted impression that he thought he had the “best mind” already, nothing to change, learn or correct about it. He gave the impression of someone who never needed to make the case for anything. We never saw him wondering or defending or really apologizing. He acted as though he believed in his own supreme power to interpret reality correctly and to do whatever it takes to bring reality to heel under his command.
Trump employed a formula for giving the impression of absolute invincibility. It’s not a complicated formula. It simply requires an unfailing ability to treat truth and reality as trivial, an ability to play presiding judge over every decision, and a handful of rhetorical tricks for turning the table on everything and everyone in his way, retaliating against all challenges with counter challenges tenfold.
Voters were split in response. To those of us who value reasons, respectful engagement and debate grounded in evidence, his formula made him seem ridiculous, dumb, psychopathic, immoral and criminal. We focused on reasoning with voters to get them to see that supporting him was all of those things.
Consciously or unconsciously, half of the voters fell for his formula. They faced a choice. Either heed our warnings and doubt about his character and theirs for being drawn to him, or just go with the candidate who acted convincingly invincible. The solution for many was to act like they doubted his character (distorting poll results) and still vote for him.
By the end, no quantity of facts, scandals or counter-arguments would sway these voters. That’s crucial to understand. The points and positions that people claim swayed them toward Trump are not strongly held. They’re expedient rationalizations for their inability to resist the appeal of his posture of invincibility. The appeal of his undauntable authority was his trump card. And it’s not hard to see why.
People have always gravitated toward the charismatic appearance of invincibility. Life is an anxious, uncertain affair. We dream of a superhuman power to escape self-doubt, indecision, and confusion. You hear it in the spiritual quest to discover the infallible path to eternal success on earth or in the afterlife.
We’re none of us viscerally enthusiastic about being challenged and doubted. Though people claim that they welcome critical feedback because they can learn from it, it’s inherently discouraging. Confidence is smooth sailing; doubt is choppy waters. Confidence is what all advertisers sell; doubt is an unwelcome punch to the gut.
Our reasonable challenges to Trump supporters backfired. We tried to stir doubt in them. Doubt is the last thing they wanted especially when demonstrated invincibility, however unrealistic, was on offer.
We all learn from successes but also from mistakes, and not just that we should avoid them. When devil’s bargains work in the short run, we employ them more, not less.
It’s likely that the U.S. has just made a devil’s bargain. Our founding fathers would certainly argue that we have. Time will tell, but in the meantime, people can’t resist learning from Trump’s win that feigned invincibility pays. People never forget strategies that work expediently.
Feigned invincibility is not a new strategy. Goebbels, Hitler’s propagandist, discovered ways to win through unbridled self-confidence that have been exploited ever since. Reagan was known as the Teflon president.
Reporter Ron Suskind recounts a conversation with Bush’s campaign manager, Karl Rove:
[Rove] said guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Trump’s formula simply takes the art of feigned invincibility to its logical conclusion and just in time to thrive in a new era in media, an era in which everything candidates have ever said or done is on record and repeatedly exposed. Feigned purity can’t thrive, let alone survive in this era of hyper-exposure. Feigned invincibility can. Trump rode undaunted above his many scandals. That’s how one wins in this new era.
Principle and policy were not the source of Trump’s success. Christian fundamentalists supported him despite his behavior. Women supported him (2% less than Romney) and Hispanics supported him (2% more than Romney). That’s good news for the nation. To the extent that voters even think and care about policy, we may not be that divided.
The big divide today is between those who find feigned invincibility irresistible regardless of how realistic it is, and those who can’t help but doubt their own impulse toward unrealistic confidence.
That point is easily lost in the days after the election because those of us who can’t live in unrealistic confidence appear unrealistically confident in three ways. We appear wrong about the direction of the country, since the GOP won every seat of power. We were wrong about what the people wanted and we were wrong to think we would win.
In us, this mistake-trifecta breeds doubt. In those who find feigned invincibility irresistible, the equivalent comeuppance would make them double down on their posture of invincibility. As Trump did throughout and as the GOP has now done for decades.
Still, Rove is wrong in the long run. Reality ultimately prevails over whatever “reality” you create even if you run an empire. Denying climate change won’t convince the climate not to change.
There’s a possibility that as reality comes home to roost with Republicans in complete control of all branches of government, more people will sober up and demand realism. It didn’t come home to roost during the Bush era, but rather just as Obama was assuming power. Feigning invincibility, the GOP pinned the blame on Obama. This time the timing could be different.
Going forward, the question is what could ever trump feigned invincibility? I’ll argue that the only thing that can is hyper-confident exposure of the formula for feigned invincibility. In other words, with relentless unshakable confidence, drawing attention to the opposition’s realism-be-damned confidence formula. To name it is to tame it. Expose how simple the formula is. Play the judge of the self-appointed judge.
Ignore the issues, since with those who feign invincibility, the issues are never the point. Do not engage in debate, since those who feign invincibility will turn your willingness to debate into evidence that you aren’t as invincible as they are. Ignore calls for engagement, harmony, collaboration and civility, since those who feign invincibility will use both your willingness and unwillingness to engage to raise doubts about you.
Stay on message, hammering away unflinchingly to expose the formula. The formula for beating it is pretty simple too, since with every denial that one feigns invincibility can be exposed as further evidence of feigned invincibility.
Power through with brazenly, though realistically confident, absolutist rejection of feigned invincibility. None of us are invincible. Reality wins in the end. Make unflinchingly confident heroes of those of us who earn their confidence with realism. Pick candidates who with silver tongue can expose the peril of feigned invincibility as the pivotal campaign issue that it has become.
This election was a referendum on feigned invincibility and it won. There will be more referendums on it in years to come.
IMAGE: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pumps his fist as he arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Sacramento. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson.