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Like many other Republicans in 2012, I chose to ignore Ron Paul and his supporters as just a deluded fringe element inside the party. “Surely, they can’t be serious,” I said. “No real Republican could ever support a buffoon who espoused policies so clearly out of step with the rest of the Republican Party,” I said.
I was wrong. In retrospect, it wasn’t the message that was attracting people to Ron Paul, it was the medium. Ron Paul’s followers believed in their candidate with a fervor that surpassed anyone else in the field that year because he offered them hope. Ron Paul supporters didn’t just have intellectual knowledge of their candidate, they had faith in him, and the Republican Party chose to ignore their passion. They believed that fever would break, and that Ron Paul’s supporters would find a home inside the Republican Party. They were wrong.
Politics is a game of passion, not position papers. Nixon was elected on the hope he would end the war in Vietnam and provide stability to the country in a time of great turmoil. Reagan was elected and re-elected on hope, and George H. W. Bush followed him to the Presidency because we hoped for more of the good times of the Reagan years. George W. Bush was not initially elected on hope, but he was re-elected because he offered a hopeful resolution to the Iraq War. Since then, Republicans have been offering up competent, successful party leaders, but not people who might inspire the belief in others that their lives were going to get better once they were in office.
For years now, the Republican Party has been failing to provide a message of hope that can be easily understood by the people outside of its ranks. I understand how oppressive teachers unions create failing schools, but to people outside of the party, “Republicans want to cut funding for education!” is an easier sell. I understand the connection between lower crime rates and responsible gun ownership, but “Guns kill people!” is an easier sell. I understand that lower taxes for everyone allows people who have capital to use it to my benefit, but “The rich don’t pay their fair share!” is an easier sell. I understand that we’re better off if we fight our wars on foreign soil rather than our own, but “Get out of Iraq!” was an easy sell to supporters of Ron Paul and Barack Obama alike. “Make America Great Again?” That’s an easy sell.
Republicans don’t sell our message. We talk about our message, we present detailed reports on it, we yell our messages to each other on panels on Fox News, we even preach about it at our rallies a la Ted Cruz, but we don’t tell the people who are not Republicans that they will be better off if they chose smaller government and more liberty. We look at the political process as an intellectual or logistical process, Trump looked at it as a sales process, and he won. He offered to “Make America Great Again,” and the people bought it because we want to be great again, or at least hope that we will be great again.
As someone who was born and raised outside of the United States, I have a third-person view of American culture, and it’s pretty clear to me that optimism is the water that Americans swim in. My family didn’t leave our life up in Canada for a life that was going to be worse here in the United States, we left it because we hoped things would be better here. People are not streaming across our southern border because life here is worse, they hope their lives will be better once they get here. Americans are addicted to a better future, and the really great thing about America is that, through hard work and a commitment to freedom, a better future usually arrives at our doorstep.
Trump, like Obama and Clinton before him, sells a vision for the future that doesn’t rely on laying out a proposal for marginal tax rates or a 14-point plan to rearm the military. All Trump needs to do is make people believe their lives will be better off if he wins, and the people who believe in him will make sure he does win.
Demagogic? Probably. Effective? You betcha.
It’s interesting to note that Trump, the master of the arena event, had a message that appealed on a personal level and Cruz, who was far more effective at local retail politics, failed to connect on a one-to-one level with enough voters to succeed. This shouldn’t surprise us: Ronald Reagan wasn’t asking if the United States as a whole was better off in 1976 than it was 1980. Rather, he made it personal, he asked everyone who heard him if they themselves were better off than they were four years ago. We forgot that lesson, and we lost. All politics may indeed be local, and there is nowhere more local than an individual and his or her beliefs. Once we learn how to sell hope, we can start winning again.