A man who wants to build walls and promised to ban Muslims is the president-elect of the world’s most powerful country.
There are innumerable theories posited, explaining how it happened and apportioning blame: Trump stood on a platform that exploited white people’s fears and used immigration to signal an existential threat to the Western world. Trump exploited the collapse of blue-collar America. Alt-Right lies spread because Facebook’s algorithms don’t favour veracity. The Democratic Party invested in a candidate who was never genuinely popular. Add to this a hundred more.
Each argument may have merit; some will stand the test of time. Perhaps together they help to explain Trump’s victory. But we are a long way from understanding this phenomenon and will probably remain so for years.
So rather than dwell on the arguments, I want to make one observation about Trump: That he tells a story.
Stories are powerful things. They sink into your consciousness, and permeate your being.
In politics, the stories that appeal most are the ones that confirm our views and our values. They don’t even need to be true, in fact sometimes they are more effective if they are not. Seth Godin, in his book ‘All Marketers Are Liars’ describes how stories are often the way we tell lies to ourselves, about who we are, who we want to be and the world we live in.
Trump understood this and he used his own carefully crafted story time and again.
It was ruthlessly simple. Trump was the guy who knew Washington, who understood corruption and could tell people how bad it was. He was the insider who had seen how bad things had got and could ‘drain the swamp’. Only he could see, from his vantage point, how the American Dream had been corrupted by Washington and by the outsiders who were taking away American values and power.
Trump’s story signalled to his supporters that if you were angry, he was too. He told people that they were right to feel frightened but he’d take that fear away because only he really, truly understood it. Most importantly, Trump’s story made sense to people – it told them something they wanted to believe about themselves.
It is harder, but not impossible to identify Hillary Clinton’s story.
Clinton stood to become the first female president of the United States. This part of her story should – really should – have been a moment of great renewal in America. Clinton, too, was a hardworking politician who had relentlessly pursued equality for minorities – and whose record at Ground Zero in the days after 9/11 suggests a remarkable politician, with determination, fearlessness and compassion. But too often the story she told was simply one of continuity and acumen. It played right into Trump’s own critique of what his supporters saw as Clinton’s privileged and corrupt America.
Does this explain Trump’s victory? No, it absolutely does not. It makes no reference to the world that Trump found himself in, the bizarre set of consequences that undercut Clinton’s lead in the polls and the state of America right now. But it does demonstrate the power of story – and how a story can overcome the inconsistencies that all politicians embody. Trump told and sold his story well, whatever we might think of the consequences.