Presidential Campaign

What Hillary can learn from Donald

Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton
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“Vicious, horrible, miserable” — terms Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump used to describe business negotiators — are exactly the words many would use to describe Trump. He’s a loud, obnoxious bully who seems to enjoy kicking those who are down and publicly humiliating anyone who calls him on it.

Yet even — or especially — those of us who have trouble containing our distaste for Trump have something important to learn from him. If there’s one thing he does know, it’s how to sell himself. And that’s an area where Hillary Clinton, in particular, has fallen short.

{mosads}Some have attributed Trump’s popularity to a perceived “authenticity” about him: a sense that he says what he thinks, even if it’s offensive or bizarre. Yet there is little to suggest that his views are genuine and heartfelt, unconstrained by public opinion or lacking in political guile. His positions have vacillated wildly over the years — on issues as important as abortion, gun control, healthcare, immigration and taxes — and he’s changed his mind on many others in the last three months alone. Trump may be totally unscripted, but he’s a genius at gaining media attention, which in and of itself can lead to a rise in the polls.

Yet the troubling question remains: Why, for Trump, is there no such thing as bad publicity? Why do the comments that would end any other candidate’s career only make him stronger?

What Trump understands is that the presidential contest is not about the “what” of policy prescriptions, or even the “how” of putting them into practice. For his campaign, it’s all about the “why”: the reason why he is running. When he says his goal is to “Make America Great Again,” he taps into America’s deepest well of fear, distrust and resentment. He appeals to those who believe that big government, immigrants and liberals have sapped the United States of its military strength, economic vitality and moral superiority. The product he is peddling is not so much a candidate or a plan as the validation of a gut feeling.

This is precisely the pattern of behavior that leadership expert Simon Sinek identifies as the secret to long-term organizational success. As Sinek explains in a powerful TED Talk, a sales pitch doesn’t work by explaining the benefits of a product, no matter how effective that product might be. It doesn’t work by explaining how the product is new and different, even if it is. Rather, it works by selling a shared value: an idea that inspires. The goal, he says, “is not to sell what you have but to appeal to people who believe what you believe.”

And at this, Trump excels. With his braggadocio and self-promotion, one might be fooled into thinking he is selling himself, rather than his cause. But Trump understands that the strength of his “brand” depends not so much on how people feel about him as on how he makes people feel about themselves. The test will be whether he can make that case to a less aggrieved audience.

Like Trump, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), running for the Democratic nomination, has a message and a cause. He draws on the anger and frustration of people who share his conviction that our country is not the best it can be. Unlike Trump, his authenticity is evident from the coherence of his worldview and the consistency of his positions over time, even when they were unpopular and garnered little media attention. Still, it is unclear whether there are enough people who believe what he believes to make him a credible candidate.

With Clinton, the problem goes deeper. She is unquestionably the most qualified candidate in the race. Her positions are moderate and mainstream. But what is her message? Why is she running? What kind of America does she believe in? Until she learns to answer those questions, and to do so in a way that appeals to voters’ subconscious belief systems as much as to their rationality and logic, she will have trouble generating the excitement and enthusiasm her campaign so desperately needs.

While Republicans wring their hands at the Trump phenomenon, jockeying for his supporters as they wait for him to implode, Democrats can barely contain their glee, figuring that the longer his candidacy continues, the more it hurts the Republican Party. It’s time for all to recognize that there’s a method to Trump’s madness and that his loss does not automatically translate into their gain. He’s given his supporters a reason to show up at the polls, and others need to trump it.

Ohlbaum is an independent consultant, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Project on Prosperity and Development and a principal of Turner4D, a strategic communications firm.

Tags 2016 presidential campaign Donald Trump Hillary Clinton

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