Just for members: Leonard Steinhorn, Professor of Communication at American University and a CBS Radio News Political Analyst, offers this report from Philadelphia.
It’s day three of the Democratic convention, and so we must ask: Has the party missed its opportunity to define Donald Trump, who he is, and what he represents?
What the convention has given viewers so far is light fare — an Elizabeth Warren address, a few Trump critiques embedded in speeches, and short video snippets showing Trump’s bigoted statements and business duplicity. These do well on Facebook and are both easy and fun to share, but with all due respect to social media, sharing is not persuasion and linking is not repetition, and the Democrats seems to be violating a fundamental principle of political communication, which is to define an opponent more powerfully than the opponent defines himself. Democrats certainly want Americans to embrace what they see as the real Hillary Clinton, but even if they succeed at that, campaigns are also about framing an opponent, and if they were hoping in part to make this election a referendum on Donald Trump, they’re not doing too well at this task.
“I come from the Sixties,” Hillary Clinton said in one debate, and there’s actually a refreshing Kumbaya tone to this convention, one bound together not by anger but appreciation for how America has become more inclusive, open, free, and equal since the segregationist, McCarthyite, and organization man era of the 1950s — and how our goal must be to advance those values to include more and more of us, and to make sure we don’t succumb to divisiveness and bigotry. Emblematically, in the 8 p.m. hour, we will hear a stirring rendition of the classic 1965 Jackie DeShannon anthem, “What the World Needs Now is Love.”
Don’t get me wrong — there’s something wholly uplifting about affirming our values and better angels. Cynicism and resentment offer no oxygen for a thriving society. But politics is about strategic communication, and as much as we might not like to embrace it, this is a contest that will be determined in part by how much people distrust the other candidate.
So the key for Democrats is to define Donald Trump in a way that’s consistent with the dignity of the convention. It can’t come off like the hyperventilating Chris Christie or the mouth foaming Rudy Giuliani when they attacked Hillary Clinton at the Republican convention. But it also can’t come off as snark, which is the tone of the current DNC Trump videos and makes them appear a dash arrogant. The Democratic knock on Trump almost seems too clever by half.
Instead, consistent with the Sixties feel of this convention, what’s needed is a speaker who plays the role of a great professor teaching Trump 101, someone who knows how to open eyes and help people understand what they might sense inside but don’t know how to express. And go the whole classroom here — the giant video screen should have a PowerPoint listing facts and links, one that the party can make available to anyone who wants it. And cover the most important points: Trump’s nativism and bigotry, his reckless statements, his willingness to exploit September 11 and the housing crisis, his failed businesses, how he has fleeced customers and shortchanged employees and contractors, and why he seems so implacably opposed to releasing his tax returns. Ground it in fact, make it compelling, don’t distort, and respect the intelligence of viewers seeking to understand this man who is running to become their president.
I often wonder if those who live on the East Coast don’t fully appreciate the appeal of Donald Trump to the rest of the country — much like the famous 1976 New Yorker cover of Manhattan as the center of America and there’s no need to see things the way others do. Easterners who grew up with the Trump brand see him as a charlatan, narcissist, and crude self-promoter, which may explain why many in the press for way too long trivialized his chances of winning the Republican nomination.
But those outside the East associate Trump with skyscrapers, luxury buildings, vacation resorts, golf courses, and an entertainment empire — in other words, as someone who epitomizes success in America, someone who knows how to get things done. If Democrats don’t fillet this image of Trump, if they don’t undercut his infomercial pitch, if they don’t cast doubt on who he is and what he represents, then voters fed up with Washington gridlock and desperate for change may pull the lever for the man who promises to aim his wrecking ball at our political institutions and rebuild them in glitter and gold.Save to Favorites