We learned something this week—something crucial, I'd say, about the dismal state of American politics. What do I mean by that?
Think about what just happened: voters around the country rejected "culture war" issues. Abortion bans were soundly rejected by people even in red states. Meanwhile, in Virginia, the legislature flipped, a fairly stunning repudiation of Glenn Youngkin's strategy and approach, which was Trumpism in a fleece-vest, aw shucks grin while scapegoating people, ginning up moral panics, and basically trying to start a culture war. Virginia's an especially important state because it represents so many of the tensions central to America—and the world's—future, from investment to growth to diversity to governance.
So around the country, people came out, in force, even, to basically roll their eyes at culture war issues, or even to deliver a full on slap to those trying to make it the only agenda in town, like Youngkin.
And yet...Trump's still right at the brink of quite possibly winning. As the Economist recently put it, "Donald Trump looks terrifyingly electable."
Now. Hold those two thoughts together in your mind, because they tell us something.
Trump can't be pulling ahead, still neck-and-neck with Biden, because of culture war issues. Now, I highlight that because that's the way that pundits think of it, and tell people to think of it, too, "it" meaning politics, in this case. If people have overwhelmingly rejected culture war issues, and yet Trump's still resoundingly in the race, to the point where he could win it...then surely you see the point. They can't be the reason Trump's still ascendant. There's a deep lesson here to be learned.
So what is the reason that Trump's still...in it, even on the brink of winning it, as things stand today? What happened this week is confirmation of something that we've been discussing, if you're a regular reader, for quite a while now. We just discussed it yesterday, in fact, but what's different today is that there's pretty vivid confirmation of it. It's the economy, stupid.
I don't mean that in a naive way. I mean the sentiments and attitudes of uncertainty, despair, distrust, and instability it's producing—so let's call it the "socioeconomic," maybe.
Why did voters reject "culture war" issues? Their top priorities are, over and over again, the economy. From inflation to the cost of living to making ends meet to the bitter, brutal struggle that American life's become. How could it be any other way? As we discussed recently, 70% of people in America are "financially traumatized." Terrifying stats to behold. And telling ones, too. People simply don't care about culture war issues, not primarily, not fundamentally—and the days when the GOP could easily gin up moral panics based on them appear to be receding now.
That's a good thing. Because "culture wars," really, is just an American term for what looks pretty...can I just say it out loud?...fascist to the rest of the world, and to history. Banning books? Attacking kids? Persecuting families for having kids who are different or read books? Criminalizing teachers, doctors, and professors? It's the stuff of textbook authoritarianism. It's eminently a good thing that Americans appear to be tiring of this nonsense, because it is nonsense: a dead end in the paths nations take, which leads nowhere but ruin.
Trump's undying appeal has to be based on something. It's not...magic. And that something is...the economy, stupid. You can see it openly now, in poll after poll, in all the data: swing state voters trust Trump over Biden on the economy by a tremendous margin, more than 20 points. And meanwhile, the economy is issue number one for most people. Hence, the undying appeal of Trumpism.
Now. That's not to say that there's not an element of bigotry and prejudice and outright hate in Trumpism. Not at all—sure there is. But it has to be understood in an intelligent, not just a reactionary, way: when economies crater, when people are traumatized, they turn on their neighbors. It's old stuff, from Weimar Germany to Rome to Athens itself. Nationalism rises in times of decline, and old wounds and old hatreds explode all over again. Hatred is a proximate property of fascist collapses, in other words, but almost always, they can be traced back to socioeconomic woes. I'm not excusing Trumpism's ugliness—I'm trying to help you understand it, so that something can be done about it.
Why? Why do people trust Trump more on the Number One Issue, The Economy, than Joe Biden, by over twenty points? Despite the fact that Trump's...not even a very good businessman, that he's been brought up on a panoply of charges, that he appears to not understand anything about finance or economics at all, right down to (over)valuing his own buildings? How can that even be? Those are the questions that are driving Democratic strategists nuts these days.
And yet the reason's profoundly, almost idiotically, simple.
People trust Trump on the economy more, by very, very large margins, for the simple reason that they don't trust the Democrats on it. People don't trust the Democrats on the Number One Issue. Why not? Because they don't seem trustworthy.
There are the Democrats, telling a nation of financially traumatized people, over and over again, that things are great. They tout GDP growth, and job creation, and say the economy's booming. But those numbers are abstractions, and worse, they only mask the stunning decline in American quality of life. So what if GDP's growing by 4%? In America, we know that 100% of those gains go to the richest, because of course, incomes for everyone else have been falling in real terms. So what if jobs are being "created"? The average person can't make ends meet on one.
The Democrats are drinking their Kool-Aid, and unfortunately, in this case, it's beginning to look a lot like Jonestown. They appear to really believe the spin that the economy's booming and so forth...and hence, they totally ignore mind-blowing numbers like 70% of people being financially traumatized, 80% living paycheck to paycheck, half struggling just to pay the bills, and so on. There's a weird cycle of deliberate ignorance and wishful thinking at work here, and it's not wise.
So let me sum all that up, because it's really important, and now, this week, we have evidence of it.
People don't trust the Democrats on the Number One Issue: the Economy. Think about that for a second. Why is this such a pitched battle, despite Trump's charges, trials, Jan 6th, and so forth? It shouldn't be. But it is, and it can only be, when people don't trust the incumbent party on the Number One Issue.
That's a basic mistake. I don't talk about it a lot, but I'm actually the Guy Who Had the Last Big Idea in Marketing. I changed how modern marketing works and what it is—I'll tell you that story another time. For now, suffice it to say: if I had clients who people didn't trust on the Number One Issue, that's where we'd have to begin. I wouldn't say to them: hey, just ignore this! Tell people that their Number One Issue doesn't matter, or worse, tell them that it's magically gone away, and it's not even an issue anymore. I'd be crazy to do that, because those clients would suffer a huge loss. In market share or brand perception or what have you.
You can't ignore the Number One Issue, and worse, you can't ignore it when people don't trust you on the Number One Issue. That means that your approach is not working. In any respect. It's not credible. It's not gaining traction. It's being ignored, or worse, it's making you look like you're out of touch, maybe even cynical, or clueless. This is...101 level stuff.
This is why it's a pitched battle, now, the next election. The Democrats are not willing to confront the ugly truth about the economy. They're afraid to, because they're playing by an old rulebook for marketing, strategy, vision, and mission, which says: never show weakness or vulnerability. That playbook doesn't work anymore. These days, people desperately want authenticity, which is why they fall for Big Lies, ironically, in the first place. It's ok to admit things aren't going well—we all know it, because we're all living it, and pretending they're fine and dandy only makes people roll their eyes and walk away. And you can see that happening to the Dems now across many of their major constituencies.
This is so, so foolish. You see, to the Guy That Reinvented Modern Marketing in me—it's the most elementary stuff of all. You can't...do it. You can't go out there and deny people's basic reality, at least not if you want to garner their trust, respect, and build lasting ties with them. Marketing's pretty simple, at the end of the day: find out what people's issues are, build credibility by addressing the top ones, not just pretending they don't exist, then explain what you're doing to fix them. The Democrats, incredibly, are doing the precise opposite of all that.
It's not just about "marketing." It's about relationships and coalitions and values and beliefs. Visions that tie people together, bonds that endure because they hold together a shared purpose. Missions that catalyze people and transform societies. You see, when people don't trust you on the Number One Issue, you can't do any of that.
Even if people want you to, because then you lack credibility.
So that's why America is where it is. Americans are rejecting the GOP's tired old culture war fascist-authoritarian schtick, at last. But they're still deeply invested in Trump and Trumpism. That only leaves one possibility, really, which is precisely the one that all the data, all the stats, all of history, really, too, says must be the case. It's the economy, stupid.
The Democrats? They just need to take a deep breath, and take the first step. Things are rough out there. No, everything's not fine. Nope, it may be booming for Zuck and his ilk, but for the average person? It's brutal, bitter, and existential. That's how you build credibility, and until you do that? Well, the battle will become even more pitched, because even your own side isn't following you onto the field anymore—and the horrific risk of another Trump era will go on rising by the day.
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