In order to win, a competent United States presidential campaign must tell an effective story. It must provide a disparate, desperate, disaffected electorate/audience with a persuasive narrative.
The Trump campaign narrative was nearly mythic heroic in conception, analogous to the stories of Hercules: the entire country (its economy, its employment, its trade, its military, &c.) is a disaster, the U.S. government is a swamp of corruption and insider elitism, its establishment (all three branches of government and mainstream press & media) has no credibility, and the world-order is crumbling. All of this is conspiring against real Americans; and only he, Trump, can fix it. He will drain the swamp—clean out the Augean stables, if you will.
The Clinton narrative was more akin to a classic marriage plot. Our heroine achieves her aim by capturing and marrying the seemingly indifferent object of her affection—the voter. Clinton sought to cast the American electorate as the romantic lead whom she aimed to woo with her appeals to love and caring. She cares about good governance, keeping the household of state in order, dedicates herself completely and totally to it, and wants to bring the country together in a sense of shared patriotism. Capturing the vote would achieve the feel-good denouement—the happy ending—she, and by implication we all, desire.
The strong man vs. the good wife.
As I pointed out in the first post: "A coherent narrative, i.e., a well-told story, satisfies at least two basic human needs: (a) the need for authority and (b) the need for meaning." In a structural sense, these two fundamental goals of narrative in general actually worked in Trump's favor in this election, and he was able to exploit this advantage fairly convincingly.
In my pre-election six-part Frameworks series and post-election Aftermath post, I pointed out how Trump offered himself up as a classic Romantic hero, a candidate for the role of the "great man" of history consistent with a Republican deontological ethical philosophy. [Sorry about the big words.] Like a great novel, his narrative generated conflict after conflict, feuds, outrages, obstacles, and, importantly, Antagonists. He scapegoated Mexicans, Arabs, immigrants, inner city Democrats, corrupt Establishments in both parties, coastal elites, celebrities, and on and on. What's more, and as proof of concept, he managed to quell an apparently feuding GOP Establishment and bring them to heel. He gave a face to the causes of the angst he stoked in his followers, and he offered himself up as the strong Protagonist who alone could vanquish all those bugabears—including Hillary Clinton in all her corruption and dishonesty. He offered authority and meaning.
What's more, Trump managed to portray Hillary Clinton as ineffective, as a member of the elite, as an embodiment of the Establishment, as the face of all that 'otherness' that he asserted conspired against his constituency. And this portrayal of her stuck because it comported with her own self-characterization as a champion of diversity.
For my money, the absolute narrative climax of the campaign came in the second debate when Trump got in Clinton's face, pointed his finger at her, raised his voice angrily, and called her a criminal and said if he became President he was going to throw her in jail. He wasn't speaking to the moderator or the audience. He was confronting HER. It was a shocking moment. Nevermind the niggling protest of the Constitutional Separation of Powers, this was the Protagonist confronting and, at least rhetorically and showily, vanquishing his antagonist. It took.
It was the high point of an effective narrative. Character-driven. Full of intriguing plot twists and turns. A real page-turner. One simply did not know what the protagonist would do next (though you could rest assured it would be entertaining and rife with conflict). And the collective catharsis among his constituency when he won was as intensely purgative as Aristotle told us that a well-told tragedy should be after their emotions of (self-)pity and fear were triggered and, satifyingly, soothed.
The moral here is: Never underestimate the power of a good narrative, nor the consequences of failing to relate one. Quite frankly, the Clinton narrative did not have the classic power of Trump's. She was unable to wrestle the diverse, micro-targeted messages she was seeking to convey into a compelling, unified story. And in failing to do so, perhaps more importantly, she failed to portray herself as a powerful protagonist. She came across more often as a constant victim—of a vast right-wing conspiracy, of a Russian hack, of a rogue FBI faction and its intemperate Director, of a resentful mostly millennial Bernie constituency. Even of ill health.
And no one likes a passive hero. [Except, of course, for the 60+ million who voted for her, giving her at last count nearly three million more votes than Trump.]
What's more, she managed (with Trump's stong help) to come across as a classic unreliable narrator. In telling her own story, no one felt they could grasp quite what she really believed—again, a natural consequence of what I have called her all-things-to-all-people approach. Moreover, the promise of on-going scandal and investigation continuing long after her election did not portend a satisfying catharsis.
Clinton's appeal to love and positivity and diversity and competence, though denigrating Trump as a rank and divisive amateur, failed to identify a true villain or even any kind of strong cause for the brooding sense of anxiety that seemed to grip the electorate this cycle. And, perhaps most damningly, her campaign narrative had no effective climax or closure. No moral. She merely asked for everyone's votes because she deserved them. Very unsatisfying!
[to be cont'd]