Our president took a break last week from the chaos enveloping his administration to bumble his way across the Middle East. While in Saudi Arabia, he joined the leader of the most extreme government on the planet to inaugurate that country’s suitably Orwellian “Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology.” As part of the ceremony, he joined two other tyrants in placing their protective hands over a glowing globe. If you photo-shopped the President into an image from a Bond movie or Lord of the Rings, you still couldn’t top the sense of villainous dread radiating from that picture.
That picture is a gift. For the narratives it reinforces and the narratives it erodes, it might be the most politically toxic image of a President that we have ever seen. Democrats will waste it, because they still don’t know how to win campaigns in a post-patronage climate.
There is no substance in that picture other than the already obvious ineptitude of Donald Trump and his idiotic handlers. No one should have let a US President get cornered into that terrible photo-op. At a rational level, that photo just tells us that this administration is riddled with incompetence.
A rational interpretation of that photo is meaningless in electoral terms. Moving voters depends on imagery, emotion and mythology. Does it make sense for a state legislative candidate to pair that picture with a random image of Paul Ryan and a shot of his opponent? It makes just as much sense as depicting Georgia Democratic Senator Max Cleland with Osama bin Laden in the 2002 campaign. It is nonsense, but it’s winning nonsense.
Rationalists on the right and left love to make intelligent arguments from facts. That process is important, but only for its role in defining elite processes and plans. At the level of the voting public, arguments that take shape in the opinion pages of the New York Times are flakes flying in a snow globe. They never land in the real world.
If you want to win electoral support for sound, intelligent public policies, build a mythology to support them. Symbols, archetypes, stories; those are the building blocks of opinion and activism. Developing a rational, well-considered plan with appropriate citations is very important for planners and administrators. It does nothing to move mass politics. Of all the stories that move people, the strongest and cheapest are centered around a villain or a monster. Stories, not logic, are the delivery mechanism for effective public policy.
Every Democrat running for dogcatcher for the next ten years should find a way to work that picture of Donald Trump into their campaign media. It should be leveraged to define everything you are against. If there is anything Democrats should have learned from the politics of the last twenty years, it’s this – people care a lot less about what you’re for, than what you’re against. If you want to move people, you need to define your enemy. That image defines your enemy. You don’t have to add a word to it.
Pink-hatted crowds that flooded the National Mall on Inauguration weekend weren’t there to fight for access to health care or protect reproductive rights. Those were the values they carried with them, not the values that moved them. They were pushed off their couches by their loathing of a dangerous enemy. Hardly anyone showed up at their Congressman’s office in 2009 to press them to support the ACA. All the heat came from the opposition – from the people who felt threatened.
That picture has the power to move voters. Place it in front of hardened StormTrumpers over and over and over. You won’t win their votes, but you’ll jam their messaging and frustrate their outreach. For a bunch of racists, especially the dumbest ones, seeing their hero joining hands with an Arab prince over a glowing orb is a mind-scrambling contradiction. It is a headache in a jpg. Meanwhile, the 15-20% of Trump voters who supported him out of novelty or indifference will waver under that barrage.
Stories win. Logic loses. Use that gift.