How the GOP can stay in power for the next 20 years
Friday, November 11, 2016
Aberration or blueprint?
The shock waves from Donald Trump's upset victory on November 8th are still reverberating across the country and around the world. Protesters (don't any of them work for a living?) are marching in the streets while mainstream media talking heads are melting down on prime time TV.
But aside from the histrionics of those who lost and the Cheshire cat smiles of those who won, Trump's stunning victory for the ages is begging for analysis. Specifically, how did "the Donald" pull it off? And how did the professional political prognosticators - try saying that three times fast - get things so wrong?
Perhaps the most critical question is this: did Trump simply catch lightning in a bottle or did he launch a revolutionary political movement that will have consequences for decades to come?
Harkening back to 1980 may provide some clues and maybe even a few answers.
The general election that year pitted incumbent Democrat President Jimmy Carter against the Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. A third-party candidate, Rep. John Anderson, was also a factor in the race, garnering 7% in November after polling as high as 26% in mid-summer.
Carter was not a popular president, with an average approval rating during his single term of 45.5%, the second lowest since World War II. Only Harry Truman at 45.4% polled lower.
And so, Carter's campaign strategy was to focus attention on his opponent, trying to portray Reagan - a former B-movie actor and two-term governor of California - as a dangerously inexperienced warmonger who lacked the temperament for the job. Sound familiar?
By contrast, Reagan famously asked voters, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" Sound familiar?
But Reagan did more than that. Astride a horse and dressed in denim, he seemed to personify boundless optimism and vitality as well as American manhood at its finest. Meanwhile, Carter was pictured huddled in front of a fireplace wearing a cardigan sweater, urging his fellow Americans to shake off their "national malaise".
One candidate - the one wearing the cowboy hat at a jaunty angle - exuded self-confidence at a time when Americans seemingly lacked it. Indeed Vietnam, Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis had taken their collective toll.
The other candidate smiled sweetly - some would say weakly - while a previously unknown ayatollah mocked his every move for all the world to see.
And that, my friends, gives us the first clue as to why Trump confounded the so-called experts on November 8th.
Simply put, Americans crave a strong, optimistic leader who - even if his rhetoric borders on bluster - appears ready and willing to take on all challenges and all challengers. Reagan convinced voters that he had the "right stuff" in 1980 and Trump did likewise in 2016.
Thirty-six years ago, Reagan proclaimed that it was "Morning in America" and we believed him. Throughout his campaign, Trump told voters that he wanted to "Make America Great Again"... and they signed on the dotted line.
The moral of the story is that Americans want to look forward - not backwards - and they want a true leader (or at least a perceived one) to show them the way. One who sits tall in the saddle.
The second key to Reagan's and Trump's come-from-behind wins is the way they connected with people who were "on the outside looking in", offering them unbridled hope and a sense of belonging.
In 1980, Jimmy Carter told people who were stuck with mortgage rates in the mid-teens and car loans in the low 20's to get used to it. Ronald Reagan convinced voters that we could do better... much better.
Carter's campaign - and yes, Hillary Clinton's too - were earth-bound. But with Reagan and Trump, the sky was the limit.
Struggling middle-class families and working-class whites rejected Carter's new reality and instead, embraced Reagan's blueprint for a better tomorrow. The "Gipper" rode that tidal wave of blue-collar support to a whopping 489 to 49 Electoral College victory.
But after Reagan left office, Republicans forgot about Johnny lunch-bucket and somewhat reluctantly, he returned to the welcoming arms of the Democrat Party. And there he stayed for the better part of three decades, even though it was a poor fit.
Johnny disagreed with their stance on the Second Amendment and their growing tolerance for aberrant lifestyles. And he felt left out as they coddled up to rappers and Hollywood elitists.
"Come see us on Election Day," he was told, "but until then, don't bother us while we hobnob with the rich and famous". And with that, the Democrats focused their attention - and their affections - on climate change and carbon footprints; on same-sex marriage and transgender bathrooms.
Johnny still loved Clint Eastwood, but his party was enamored with Caitlyn Jenner.
Like a faithful spouse who has been jilted for a new lover, rural Americans and factory workers accepted the abuse because they felt like they had no place else to go. Until, that is, they were introduced to Donald J. Trump.
He didn't look like them, but he sure talked like them - bold, brash and without a filter. Most importantly, he listened to their concerns and gave them a voice. A loud one, too.
Somehow, the other 16 Republican candidates on the debate stage missed that growing flirtation as did the mainstream media, the pollsters and virtually everyone else...
...including Hillary Clinton and those within her party's infrastructure who propped up her failing - and flailing - candidacy. Until it was too late.
And so, Ohio gave way to Michigan, which gave way to Wisconsin, which gave way to Iowa and others. From the Farm Belt to the Rust Belt, the dominoes fell as Trump reclaimed the Reagan Democrats... and he did it right under Hillary's nose.
Now the big question remains: will this be a one-time occurrence or a long-term (and potentially permanent) trend? The answer to that question is as elementary as it is profound.
Simply put, it's up to the GOP. Donald Trump, whether purposely or accidentally, has delivered to the Republican Party an electoral coalition that, if properly cultivated, could result in a popular mandate - and a series of presidential victories - for decades to come.
However, if the Grand Old Party neglects instead of nurtures that coalition, it can wave bye-bye to the White House for the foreseeable future.
It all boils down to this: Americans want to feel hopeful and appreciated. They also want to feel like they are part of the process, not innocent bystanders.
And yes, they don't like wimps.