“People think campaigns are about two competing answers to the same question. They’re not. They’re a fight over the question itself.” -Josh Lyman
Vox recently put together this fascinating little video on Donald Trump’s appeal to Americans who prefer an authoritarian candidate. I’ll return to it later, but if you have seven more minutes than you normally budget for my rambling columns, watch it first.
But before we get to how Trump is playing voters and the media like bongos, let me first talk about an old Democratic obstacle: the Mommy Problem.
A wise man once said that every political issue during a presidential campaign can be placed into three general categories or “boxes.” The first box is foreign policy and security, the second is the economy, and the third is the unpredictable trivialities that, despite having little to do with the qualifications or merits of a candidate, can still dominate the news when a press corps is desperate enough. (Think Dean Scream or “47 percent“)
For over a generation, it seemed like each of the two major political parties made its nest in one of those first two boxes. The Republicans were the foreign policy party. They were tough. They talked a big game. Only Nixon could go to China, Reagan demanded that Gorbachev tear down that wall, former CIA director Bush 41 led the first Gulf War, and Bush 43 warned all terrorists — and those who harbored them — to sleep with one eye open.
The Democrats, meanwhile, became associated with economic support for poorer Americans while also being linked with a weak foreign policy. Johnson championed the “Great Society” but seemed incompetent in Vietnam. Carter’s heart bled for the poor, but he let the Iranians push him around and the Soviets push into Afghanistan. Clinton felt the pain of America, balanced the budget, and oversaw flush economic times, but he bungled Somalia, consequently hesitated in Rwanda, and was surprised by attacks on multiple US embassies and the USS Cole while also presiding over the rise of relatively unknown terrorist organization, Al Qaeda, and its leader, a Saudi named Osama bin Laden. The Democratic Party embodied a big, empathetic government, never a strong, intimidating one.
At century’s turn, we saw the political ramifications of these stereotypes. Both Al Gore and John Kerry suffered from ostensible timidity, despite the latter having won purple hearts in Vietnam. In contrast, George W. Bush hailed from the party of strength. In 2000, it was as if he had a built-in advantage in foreign policy despite having only been a businessman-turned-governor. Four years later, of course, he was the guy who had stood on a pile of rubble promising justice. He personified the perception of Republican power.
These opposing narratives were a problem for the Democrats. They were saddled with the “Mommy Problem.” When the country wanted someone to care for it, someone to show warmth and compassion, it elected a Democrat. In ’76, an emotionally shattered, post-Watergate electorate turned to Baptist farmer Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton got the job when Bush 41’s economy stagnated in 1992. Most recently, the country elected President Obama when a staggering President Bush passed the baton to John McCain after our most recent recession was underway. The Mommies were always there for the people when a skinned knee (or, you know, a housing crisis) needed a band-aid and a kiss. Mommies are there to nurse us back to health.
But it’s Daddies that take care of the mean people outside who threaten our family. If the country needed Daddy, the Republican Party was seen as a powerful protector. In the 40 years between the Elections of 1968 and 2008, Republicans controlled the White House for 28 of those years, and they did it primarily by being tough. The Mommies, in contrast, were only called on to help if Daddy was out drinking a little too late or we needed a forward on our allowance.
Now, remember the three boxes? While Box #3 is understandably impossible to predict, the Mommy Problem shows us a great deal about the roles of the first two boxes. The most remarkable realization is that the consistency of the parties and their strengths has made the candidate a minor variable in these elections. In fact, for those 40 years, it really wouldn’t matter how strong a particular candidate was on the issues.
You read that right. A candidate’s strength on the issues didn’t matter. Instead, what mattered was not how well the candidate spoke to the issues, but what the issues were.
To paraphrase that wise man again, it’s not about who has the better answer to a question, it’s what the question is. If it were a Box #1 election — if Box #1 was what the people cared most about that year — the paternal Republicans won. If it were about coddling the people — Box #2 — the maternal Democrats won. The party was the candidate, and the Box in which the election was held gave a great indication as to which party held the advantage.
Enter Donald Trump, the grand-Daddy of them all. He knows how Republicans win elections, and it’s not by being strong on the issues. The trick for Trump, instead, is to increase the amount of Americans who care about Box #1. One way to do that would be to scare the living daylights out of them. As a result, his tone, speeches, and jumbled bits of information do just that. He’s been trying to cram this election into Box #1 like it’s a bulky suitcase in an overhead bin. The barbarians are at the gates! They’re coming through our porous southern border, taking our jobs, and raping our women. Others are infiltrating our society with their dangerous religion. And those Chinese are robbing us blind. We need a strong man to stop them!
We need a strong man. We need a Daddy.
The media, of course, must then cover these speeches and excerpts, repeatedly playing the soundbites. The American public sees it and grows more nervous. He’s a master authoritarian.
And boy, does Daddy have the children responding. That Vox video detailed what a sneaky Morning Consult survey revealed about the kind of people who have flocked to Trump. They prefer security over liberty. “Well-behaved” children over “considerate” ones. On other questions that had nothing to do with order versus freedom, responses were about evenly distributed across answers and candidates. Even demographics — income, education, age — were less predictive of Trump supporters than how prone to authoritarianism the voter was.
Ultimately, there seems to be a general understanding that terrorist attacks and threats, both home and abroad, would be good for Trump’s candidacy. It’s why he ran to the nearest microphone after Egypt Flight 804 went down in the Mediterranean to tell us, quite dramatically, that it “got blown out of the sky” (quickly politicizing a tragedy, a tactic not unlike the one his party blames Democrats for doing after school shootings). Under the above paradigms — the Mommy Problem and Trump’s appeal to authoritarians — you can see why he sees this strategy as his path toward victory.
As can be said about so many things related to the 2016 election, the Democrats are not helped here by their nominee. In Hillary Clinton, a major American party is, for the first time, nominating an actual mommy, and she’s going up against perhaps the most bellicose “strong man” nominee since Eisenhower. (Eisenhower retains the crown on account of him, you know, liberating Europe from the Nazis.) It’s Box #1’s ultimate mismatch.
It’s worth noting here that, logically speaking, if the country is worried about terror and other foreign concerns, one would think that, in a vacuum, voters would sooner turn to a former Secretary of State and U.S. Senator who served on the Armed Services Committee instead of a real estate mogul who has shown dangerously little knowledge besides catchphrases and one-dimensional problem solving.
Of course, it’s not a vacuum. There exists decades of context, including the appeal of authoritarianism and the Democrats’ Mommy Problem. Remember, it’s not who’s better on the issues, it’s what the issues are. It’s not who has the better answers to a question, it’s what the question is.
“People think campaigns are about two competing answers to the same question. They’re not. They’re a fight over the question itself.” If this becomes a Box #1 election, you have to like Trump’s chances.