Unlock the Editor’s Digest for free
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
There can be little doubt that Donald Trump 2.0 would pose an even greater threat to US democracy than he did last time. Yet issuing the same warning to Americans again and again is not having the desired effect. There are grounds to believe that it never will. If someone refuses to eat their spinach, it does no good to shout ever more loudly about how healthy it is.
The Democratic party’s problem goes deeper than communications. Trump lost in 2020 chiefly because of his mishandling of the pandemic. It would be nice to think that US voters elected Joe Biden because they wanted to restore US constitutional norms. Doubtless some did. But not enough to explain Trump’s defeat — at least not according to the exit polls.
It would also be good to believe that the storming of Capitol Hill on January 6 2021 and Trump’s refusal to accept Biden’s victory will play heavily on voters’ minds next year. Alas, there is little evidence of that so far. Issues such as inflation, immigration and crime dominate their priorities.
A lot of Americans think the Democrats are exaggerating the Trump threat, or using it as a cudgel to disrespect who they are. If you frequent the salons of Washington DC, or Upper East Side Manhattan, the Trump threat is surpassingly existential.
Aside from anxiety about crime, their concerns rarely intersect with those of the median voter. It is hard to persuade America’s cognitive elites that there may be valid reasons to take their worldview with a pinch of salt. The art of persuasion is forfeit if you brand your opponent as immoral before you begin.
It is also no way to win elections. The deeply uncomfortable reality for Democrats is that America’s working-class electorate is increasingly turned off from their brand. This stretches to non-white blue-collar Americans, including Hispanics of both genders and African-American males. Such trends offer both a warning to Biden’s Democrats, and a blueprint of how to defeat Trump.
The clue is to figure out what such ex-Democratic voters have in common. Clearly, being white supremacists is not one of them. Nor is being worried about the future of democracy. It does not help to tell people that the US economy is fine so they should stop complaining. It is safe to assume that median households are more familiar with their personal finances than people employed by foundations.
The same applies to the average voter’s concerns about crime and immigration. It is possible to be worried about your personal security, and angry about rates of illegal immigration, without being racist. It is indeed relatively widespread. It is also possible to vote for Trump without endorsing or believing everything that he says.
Last week Trump sparked richly deserved outrage when he said immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country”. He managed in one sentence to be racist and disrespect his mother plus two of his three wives. Yet to say that this means Trump is a fascist will not bring Democratic voters back.
The art of winning elections is to differentiate what you say from what people will hear. Trump says all manner of obnoxious things. Not all voters hear it the same way. Democrats sound all sorts of loud alarm bells. Not everything merits an alarm.
One of the most frequently aired warnings is that America is awash with misinformation. If only voters knew the truth, they would either see the light, or prove they are willing slaves of darkness. The latter certainly exist. But they are not the ones Biden needs to win re-election. The former are the difference between Trump winning and losing.
It ought to be taboo for campaigns to insinuate that they know voters’ minds better than they do. Unfortunately, the left sometimes cannot help itself. Aside from the epistemological difficulty of deciding what is true and false, voters tend to feel belittled. The way to win is to meet people’s anxieties on their own terms. It is the source of some concern that Biden has not yet found a way of doing that.
The good news is that he still has time. The bad news is that large swaths of his donor base and consultants are obsessed with spinach. Both the following sentences are true: Trump is a mortal threat to the US republic; roughly half of the country does not believe that. It follows that Democrats need to find more compelling ways of asking people to vote for them.