My favourite framing expert, George Lakoff, of ‘Don’t think of an Elephant’ fame suggests in this Salon interview that this is exactly where the Clinton campaign went wrong: they told people to think of an Elephant. By Elephant, I mean Trump. Lakoff says ‘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’.
I wrote about this Clinton strategy at the time, saying it was clever. I suggested it was a good narrative because no one, surely, could see Trump’s words and the images of children watching them and think ‘yeah, this guy is just the type of guy we want our children looking up to as President of the United States’. But I was wrong. As were the Democrats and just about everyone else who underestimated the strength of Trump supporters’ hatred of Democrats. We all underestimated how grateful these people would be to have Trump saying offensive things, consistently plumbing the depths of new lows. We all thought they liked Trump despite his offense, misunderstanding they liked him because of it.
So what does this mean for Democrat communication strategy now that they are the Opposition to a Trump Republican Presidency? How do the Democrats pick themselves up, brush themselves off and rebuild their narrative to make sure they beat Trump in 2020?
As much as I admire Lakoff and his theories on framing, I don’t think now is the time for the Democrats to stop talking about the Trump elephant. I also don’t think now is the time for the Democrats to stop talking about their own policy ideas and outlining their alternative vision for America’s future. What I’m advocating is a ‘let’s walk and chew gum at the same time’ strategy where Democrats call Trump out for his catastrophic failings, and when the time is right, remind people of their positive message, the opposite of Trump’s American-carnage story. The trick is to get the balance right between the two; to weave both the negative message about Trump and the positive message about the Democrats into a consistent, memorable and emotionally appealing narrative.
So what does such a narrative look like? In this narrative, Trump is the villain and the Democrats are the hero who will save Americans, the victims, from Trump. Keeping in mind Lakoff’s advice about Trump supporters appreciating Trump’s offensive nature, the framing of the Trump villain is particularly important. Rather than focusing on Trump’s liberal-offending-characteristics, his bald-face-lying, anti-immigration, pussy-grabbing, con-artist, tax-dodging, Russian-loving flaws, Democrats need to focus on the villainous ways in which Trump is letting down his own supporters. Describe how he’s not saving jobs nor bringing back coal mines. Focus on his promises about an anti-establishment government which is, in reality, full of corporate elite-billionaires. Give examples of how the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act is hurting families who no longer have health insurance. Only when Trump supporters see the impact of a Trump presidency on their lives, as not just stoking the outrage of liberals who they don’t like anyway, will they begin to consider voting differently next time around.