Hillary Won the Battle, But Donald Could Still Win the War

NEW BLOG PHOTO_edited- 3In the 20 minutes it took me to drive home from a debate-watching party last night the “elite media” decided that Donald Trump badly lost the first debate with Hillary Clinton and that as ridiculous as he looked and sounded (the sniffing!) it wasn’t going to matter all that much.

In 2016 when everyone with a smartphone is a pundit and a publisher, citizen-satirists spat out some hilarious bits overnight. Like, for example, Donald Trump’s constant sniffing set to Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine”. We also got a re-visit of Rose O’Donnell’s Trump imitation, and her “Daily Show” “history of The Donald”. Not to mention, if sick jokes are your thing, scalding fact-check after scalding fact check. Not that, the cable heads reminded each other, either Trump or his people care all that much about facts..

Conventional wisdom this morning is that Trump was exposed to well over 80 million people, many of whom have never seen him one-on-one with a serious opponent who wasn’t pandering to the same low-information voter base. The jabbering mess that he was last night may move a few “educated white suburban voters” away from him. Either that  or away from the voting booth entirely.

Other speculation I’ve seen over the last eight hours suggests “independent-minded” millennials clinging to either Jill Stein or Gary Johnson may … may … decide that since Hillary didn’t come off like Margaret Hamilton as The Wicked Witch of the West they might, y’know like, go for her after all. Despite “all that crooked stuff about her”, almost none of which they can explain with any detail or coherence.

But as much as I thought Hillary did just fine — she can drop the “trumped up trickle down” line — I watched Trump and kept thinking, “This works for him. It makes no sense at all. But it sounds like the same gilded-Mussolini, tough strutting egomaniac that ‘his people’ adore.” What they saw last night was the same thing they’ve seen since the get-go. Namely, “The guy who is going to stick it to everyone and everything that has made my life the mess it is.”

My belief about that is based on what I have come to accept as a fact. Namely, that wonky policy stuff — nuclear triads, strategic alliances, pre-school baby care and all that liberal, nanny state think tank BS — matters far, far less to the average “Trumpist” than, “blowing shit up”, for lack of a better phrase. Trump’s is a grievance and resentment campaign. His people don’t want “change” so much as they want vengeance on everyone that FoxNews, Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart say have done them wrong. There’s nothing constructive, no “making America great again” about it.

As along as Trump keeps picking scabs and pressing hair-trigger emotional buttons like he did in the debate, with his visions of roaming gangs of gun-wielding immigrants turning Chicago into Aleppo, he won’t lose a single vote of the irrationally terrified, angry and under-informed. Or the “37.5% who will vote for a bag of cement with an ‘R’ painted on it”, to quote Trump-despising GOP operative Mike Murphy.

A year ago I said I could see a path to Trump actually winning (although I still don’t think he will). It was based on this simple math. If he rallies even 10% of the “low information” crowd who rarely if ever vote, and adds them to the “37.5%” who will vote for any Republican no matter if he is an “orange anus”, to quote Rosie O’Donnell, he becomes POTUS 45.

The gobsmacked “elites” (that’d be TV talking heads everywhere but on FoxNews, all Democrats but mainly Hollywood liberals, and anyone who went to college and reads books with multi-syllable words) continue to flounder about trying to explain why Trump hasn’t cratered. Theories abound. But one explanation that hasn’t been examined closely enough is Trump’s vernacular and speaking rhythm, its similarity to religion and advertising, and how effective that is with an audience almost entirely “informed” by TV and pop culture.

Allow me to quote from length, James Fallows in this month’s Atlantic cover story


“Donald Trump’s language is notably simple and spare, at every level from word choice to sentence and paragraph structure. Of a thousand examples I’ll use just a few.

In the second Republican debate, hosted by CNN and held at the Reagan library, in California, moderator Jake Tapper asked Trump to explain his ‘build a wall’ immigration plan. Tapper said that fellow candidate Chris Christie had called it impractical. How would Trump respond? He did so this way:

‘First of all, I want to build a wall, a wall that works. So important, and it’s a big part of it.

Second of all, we have a lot of really bad dudes in this country from outside, and I think Chris knows that, maybe as well as anybody.

They go. If I get elected, first day they’re gone. Gangs all over the place. Chicago, Baltimore, no matter where you look.

We have a country based on laws.’

Bad dudes. A wall that works. Gangs all over the place.

After the first GOP debate Jack Shafer, of Politico, ran the transcript of Trump’s remarks through the Flesch-Kinkaid analyzer of reading difficulty, which said they matched a fourth-grade reading level. One of Trump’s press conferences at about the same time was at a third-grade level.

 In political language, plainness is powerful. ‘Of the people, by the people, for the people’. ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’. ‘I have a dream’. This is especially so for language designed to be heard, like speeches and debate exchanges, rather than read from a page. People absorb and retain information in smaller increments through the ear than through the eye. Thus the classic intonations of every major religion have the simple, repetitive cadence also found in the best political speeches. ‘In the beginning’. ‘And it was good’. ‘Let us pray’.
But Trump takes this much further, as he does with so many other things. Decades ago, when I worked on presidential speeches, some news analyst made fun of me for saying in an interview that we were aiming for a seventh-grade level in a certain televised address. But that is generally the level of effective mass communication—newscasts, advertising, speeches—and it is about where most of the other Republicans ended up when Shafer ran their transcripts through the analyzer. (Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Scott Walker were at an eighth-grade level; Ted Cruz at ninth; and John Kasich at fifth.)

Another illustration: At a Fox Business debate in January in Charleston, South Carolina, Maria Bartiromo asked Trump about criticism from South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, also a Republican, that his tone was too angry. The transcript shows:

‘I’m very angry because our country is being run horribly, and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger. Our military is a disaster’. [The outlier word here is mantle.]


‘Our health care is a horror show. Obamacare, we’re going to repeal it and replace it. We have no borders. Our vets are being treated horribly. Illegal immigration is beyond belief. Our country is being run by incompetent people. And yes, I am angry’.


‘And I won’t be angry when we fix it, but until we fix it, I’m very, very angry. And I say that to Nikki. So when Nikki said that, I wasn’t offended. She said the truth’.

This is the classic language of both persuasion and sales—simple, direct, unmistakable, strong.”


Trump’s sustained viability has nothing to do with any specific remedies he has for the end-of-days apocalyptic disaster he imagines outside our windows. He is where he is because he, and he alone of everyone running this year, speaks in a way — full of terse, resonant, “See Dick run” emotional cues — that an astonishing/appalling chunk of the population finds reassuring and inspiring.

Weird as that sounds.



4 thoughts on “Hillary Won the Battle, But Donald Could Still Win the War

  1. I’m in danger of becoming one of those old guys throwing beer cans at the TV. Between Trump’s unfathomable bullshit – really, I don’t understand it – and Hillary’s failings as candidate, I’m in a constant state of anxiety. The goddamned election can’t come soon enough.

  2. Funny, I never pictured Austin as one of those dewy-eyed characters, his little heart going pitter patter for the one true candidate. For myself, having long ago baked off the dew and replaced it with reptilian scales, I’m all for a good, dull, competent manager. Maybe it’s just because I’ve got a thing for pant suits.

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