To Beat Trump Biden Must Erode and Erase His False Image of Strength
In a time of chaos the strongman wins. That simple lesson from history is why Donald Trump may win re-election in November notwithstanding current polling. In fact, I’m convinced there is only one reliable way to stop Trump from triumphing yet again: by unmasking him as a complete and total wimp, a weakling. Elections are all about images. If Trump goes into election day 2020 looking like the strongest leader on the ballot he will win. If he looks like what he really is, the wimpiest wimp to ever crawl across the American political stage, he will lose. It’s as simple as that.
Trump’s false image of strength is the only thing he still has going for him. Trump knows that. It’s why he relentlessly tries to project strength at every turn, uses words designed to make him sound tough, bullies others, fails to show empathy, won’t wear a mask in public, and so on. Trump’s charade is to look like a strong leader. It reflects his simplistic, animalistic approach to politics and leadership. Look strong, act strong, appear tough, and voters in numbers sufficient to enable victory will impute to him the strength to stand up for them and our country. That, combined with thinly-veiled racism, is Trump’s entire political strategy. Act like a tough guy. It worked last time. It can work again if not effectively countered.
That’s why I feel compelled to write this open memo about messaging to my friends on Team Biden. I’ll make it short and simple. To beat Trump you must go after the foundation of his support and rip it from its moorings. You must turn his greatest strength into his greatest weakness. To do so, you must develop effective ways, which you have not yet done, to reveal, highlight, and reinforce Trump’s public identity as a wimp, a weakling. Please take a lesson from how President George W. Bush, who had evaded service in Vietnam, defeated his 2004 rival, democratic party nominee Senator John Kerry, a Vietnam war veteran. The GOP got that dirty job done by relying on the notorious “swift boat” campaign, an assortment of lies carefully calibrated to alter public perceptions about the military experience Kerry enjoyed over Bush. The Bush campaign team understood Kerry’s appeal, and then smartly, even viciously, went right at it and undermined it. By election day, enough voters were confused about Kerry’s military service to enable a narrow Bush victory. To win in 2020, Democrats must do the same thing to Trump’s false image of strength. Convince enough Trump supporters that he is not the tough guy they think he is, that he conned them, and Biden will win all 50 states.
I was an early supporter of Biden 2020. I thought then and think now that among the possible candidates Vice President Biden is best positioned to beat Trump. I like and admire Joe Biden and I adore his wife, Jill, who has done more for community colleges and working students than any other living American. But Biden’s victory is not assured. What’s more, at the national level my beloved but often inept Democratic Party has a regrettable history of booting away elections it should win even when it has more campaign funds on hand, as it did during Hillary Clinton’s 2016 losing effort which was characterized by unforced messaging errors.
These days, I get daily emails from Team Biden, the DNC, and associated groups telling me that in 2020 everything depends on my financial donations, my “digging into my pocket until it hurts.” No, it does not. The outcome of the next election does not hinge on my financial contributions. It hinges on whether those who receive my contributions know what to do with them and, more specifically, whether they understand what Trump brings to the electoral table well enough to stop him in his tracks.
Fortunately, Team Biden can win the debate about strength if it is smart enough to join it. Joe Biden’s life is a textbook story, straight out of Hollywood, of strength and courage. Not reality show courage but real courage, like the way he picked himself up after the devastating auto accident that killed his first wife and child, or the strength of character he exhibited when he set aside his own ambitions to serve faithfully and well as Vice President to a younger Barack Obama, and the way he perseveres despite losing his beloved son, Beau, to cancer. More than a few times Biden has done something courageous Trump has never once done: he has admitted errors and pledged himself with humility to fixing his mistakes. That takes strength. Real strength. Not false bully strength. Real strength.
It’s a safe bet that as the election approaches Trump will do all he can to sow chaos, to create anxiety, to stoke public fears, and to create the scary political climate within which he hopes his charade of strength will prove convincing to enough voters. Team Biden must anticipate those developments now and be ready to counter them with a narrative that illuminates both Joe Biden’s strength as a leader and person and the weakness that lies at the heart of Trump’s character.
When I was a kid in grade school there was a bully named Chuck who had all the other kids terrorized. He was taller than most kids our age, took cookies from our lunches, threw our coats on the ground, peed on our shoes (yes, he did that) and generally amused himself by roughing up smaller kids. One day, fed up, I walked right up to him and punched him as hard as I could right in his nose. Chuck crumpled to the floor crying. After that, no one was afraid of Chuckie anymore. That’s how bullies operate. You have to strip away the image of strength they use to intimidate others. Stripped of that image, they have nothing.
Joe Biden: A Strong Leader. Donald Trump: a Wimp. That’s the way to win.
Hal Plotkin served as Senior Policy Advisor in the U.S. Department of Education during the administration of President Barack Obama.