A Dark Speech for a Dark Time

A Dark Speech for a Dark Time
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Dark. Dystopian. Dangerous. 

Email recaps, cable chatter and social media channels are filled this morning with lurid descriptions decrying GOP Nominee Donald Trump’s acceptance speech last night. 

No, it wasn’t puppies, flowers and purple unicorns. It was a dark speech. But sadly, it met the moment. Americans believe our country is in a dark place. 

Economically, Gallup’s US Job Creation Index has been a flat line for the last two years. Real unemployment is about 10%, and the percentage of the adult population with “good jobs” is less than half. 

People also feel insecure. It is one thing that Western values are under attack. But we are physically under attack both at home and abroad by an enemy that wants not only to destroy our way of life, but to take our physical lives with heinous and random acts of terror.

Culturally, America is coming apart divided by an onslaught of identity politics that pit us against each other instead of drawing us closer together. Too many Americans on both sides of the ideological divide define themselves by movements of which they are a part and not by common American values, themes and institutions. 

The end result cries out from the Real Clear politics polling average – a whopping 69% of voters believe America is off on the wrong track. 

Many are comparing the present time to 1968, but I beleive 2016 feels an awful lot like 1980 in several ways. 

First, the RCP wrong track number reminds us that it’s not morning in America by anyone’s standard. That theme emerged, and that spot aired, in 1984 after Reagan had turned things around. 

In the 1980 campaign, Reagan’s overarching theme instead was a question: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

Trump’s theme – “Make America Great Again,” a phrase employed by Reagan in 1980 – is not that different from this question. Both phrases drive the same theme, that things have gotten worse under the current leadership and we need new leadership for things to get better. 

The Reagan campaign and the Kennedy primary campaign against Carter hit the arguably dark and negative themes of a broken country: American hostages and overseas, weakness in foreign policy, high inflation, interest rates and unemployment here at home.

Check the negative tone in much of the advertising, which you can see here

Observers of political history can clearly see the frame Trump is trying to set around this race. Things are bad, the other candidate and their party is responsible, and I can fix it. Trump’s convention, and his final night’s speech in particular, worked to set that frame. Snap polls already show a 75% approval of Trump’s speech, which is remarkably consistent with the 69% wrong track number in the RCP polling average.

Next week, the other side gets their turn at bat. They have made it clear that the frame they want to set is that Trump is risky and dangerous and Clinton is prepared and experienced. 

Ironically, that’s an incumbency campaign similar to the Carter campaign theme from 1980. Carter sought to frame Reagan as an uncaring warmonger who was too dangerous to be president. Carter failed, largely due to Reagan’s employ of his superior communications skills to rebut these charges. Reagan also used family, Nancy Reagan in particular, to fight back. This week, we saw a preview of the potential that Trump family members have to perform a similar, reassuring role.

Looking at history and the present wrong track numbers, it’s clear voters want change and will vote for change if they have an acceptable alternative to the status quo. Trump’s challenge now is to follow Reagan’s path by holding the frame of change and becoming that acceptable alternative. 

Don’t dismiss Trump. The macro-politics around this race still give him a great chance to win. He simply has to execute a winning strategy. This convention was the first step down that road. Now, he has to hold the frame.

 Bruce Haynes is a founding partner of Purple Strategies, with offices in Washington, Chicago and Boston. He writes a Blog at RamblingManBlog.com and can be reached via RamblingManBlog@gmail.com or @BrucePurple on Twitter.

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