Friday, March 11, 2016

March 11, 2106--Gut Check

In a wise column in Wednesday's New York Times, "Only Trump Can Trump Trump," Tom Friedman finally came around to understanding the Trump political phenomena.

He wrote--
Donald Trump is a walking political science course. His meteoric rise is lesson No. 1 on leadership: Most voters do not listen through their ears. They listen through their stomachs. If a leader can connect with them on a gut level, their response is: "Don't bother me with details. I trust your instincts." If a leader can't connect on a gut level, he or she can't show them enough particulars. They'll just keep asking, "Can you show me the details one more time?"
Friedman could have added that there were a number of earlier presidential candidates who also connected viscerally with voters and, while running for office, offered few details. 

It is a distinguished list--

Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan.

Two Democrats and two Republicans.

FDR famously said that he didn't have all the answers, all the specifics about the ways in which he would take the lead to bring America out of the Great Depression. That he would try many things, that he would experiment and then see what worked, expand on that, and abandon the rest. That's more or less how he governed. 

Ike said it was "Time For A Change" after 20 years of Roosevelet and Truman and that was pretty much it.  All he needed to do was connect to people's guts. Which he did. His campaign button said--"I Like Ike." That was enough.

JFK also connected at the gut level. He promised to close the missile gap. He incorrectly, probably deceitfully, pointed to "the fact" that the Soviet Union had more and bigger and better missiles than we. Voters didn't press him for details, and he didn't offer any. But in any case they went on to elect him because they connected with him emotionally and trusted him to do the job.

Ronald Reagan specified even fewer things. People simply liked him and that was sufficient to move them to trust him. They believed he would bring "morning" back to America. Sort of, make America great again. And to his admirers he did.

On the other hand, it doesn't always work--Barry Goldwater's campaign slogan in 1964 was, "In Your Guts You Know He's Right." When a Democrat button appeared, mocking his, "In Your Guts You Know He's Nuts," that helped assure that Goldwater lost 44 of 50 states.

The other day on Morning Joe, a very frustrated Bob Woodward unsuccessfully pressed Trump to be specific about one of his most effective appaluse lines--how he would get Mexico to pay for the border fence.

Trump refused to, saying there are five ways he had in mind. That was it. Woodward, a scion of the Washington Establishment and master of the traditional ways in which to categorize political behavior, was unrelenting, visibly turning red as he asked again and again. Trump didn't budge. "Trust me," he in effect said. "Elect me president and then I'll show you what I'll do."

I suspect that despite that lack of specificity, not one Trump supporter switched allegiance  to Ted Cruz or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton. They both have 15-page, single-spaced proposals about what they would do about illegal immigrants. But no one is listening to them with their ears. Clinton and Cruz are having trouble connecting with voters at the gut level because your gut can turn you off as well as on.

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