On Friday, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America. Less than a year ago, the idea that such an event was even possible -- let alone plausible -- brought about universal howls of laughter from political pundits across the political and journalistic spectrum (and I am talking literally).
That was about that time that Trump bragged to a campaign rally that his support was so solid that he could "stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn't lose voters." It was a typically brash Trumpism and we should probably be thankful that he never felt the need to prove it.
But, to be fair to Trump, he was almost certainly not wrong. His support held in the face of so many outrageous statements and so many gaffes that were wrongly labeled fatal to his chances, one can only imagine that escalating to actual murder would have been easily dismissed by those who attended his rallies as just another example of how "unconventional" a candidate he was ("Other candidates talk a good game, but only Donald Trump has the guts to stand up to the elites...and shoot them at random!").
As both his Republican Primary opponents and the Democrats belatedly found out, you can't beat a candidate like Trump by using traditional campaign tactics. More to the point, you certainly can't beat him by letting him set the agenda for the campaign. Heading into the primaries, virtually no one thought the campaign was going to be fought on whether to build a border wall and ban all Muslim immigration, and whether the Democratic candidate for president should be locked up, but those are the issues that ended up defining the campaign.
George Lakoff, author of the groundbreaking 2004 book, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, has long sought to improve the way that progressives approach political issues --mostly so they will stop debating on hostile territory, but also so they will stop losing. In the days following the 2016 election, while many people were still trying to figure out what happened, Lakoff was already talking and writing about why it happened and how it could be avoided in the future.
In an interview published on Salon.com, Lakoff pointed to the futile attempts to counter Trump's appeal with facts. "You'll get people saying, 'Well, you know, Trump said this, and some Republicans said this...and here are the facts that show they're wrong.' You just keep repeating the things that you're negating. And that just strengthens them."
I would go further and say that the Democrats often didn't even bother with the negating part of Lakoff's equation. They simply assumed that the rest of America would be as horrified as they and their friends were by all of the things that Trump had said, so repeating them was enough. The best they could come up with as a counter was "our children are watching." But, none of Trump's supporters appeared to care, either because they fully agreed with what Trump was saying or didn't consider it a deal breaker.
As Lakoff explains, "the Clinton campaign decided that the best way to defeat Trump was to use his own words against him. So they showed these clips of Trump saying outrageous things. Now what Trump was doing in those clips was saying out loud things that upset liberals, and that's exactly what his followers liked about him. So, of course they were showing what actually was helping Trump with his supporters."
Given that Trump appears intent on running his Presidency in the same predictably erratic manner that he conducted his campaign, his opponents need to come up with a different strategy than perpetual outrage. If they don't stop merely reacting to him and come up with an alternative vision with which they can reframe the political narrative, Trump will continue to set the terms for the debate -- and continue to win that debate. If that happens, we could be looking at not just four years, but eight years of President Trump.
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