Donald Trump has not only proven that negative campaigning works, he has proven that vulgar personal abuse works too, writes Terry Prone
New Year resolutions fell by the wayside over the past couple of weeks, as New Year resolutions do. The only reason for the existence of the wayside is as a reception area for New Year resolutions.
As those resolutions were face-planting by the wayside, our mainstream media was awash in newly released material from the national archives. For the most part, these were official documents: Recordings of formal meetings and other reports. Not that many recorded phone calls, in sharp contrast to what emerged in Washington last week.
Fifteen years after US president Bill Clinton left the White House, copious transcripts were released of phone calls between himself and Tony Blair, the British prime minister at the time.
The New York Times said the transcripts, characterised by blunt and sometimes bad language, reveal a president sometimes unseen by the general public who could move seamlessly from detailed nerdy discussion of the Northern Ireland peace process to “serrated” assessments of his own political opposition.
At a time when individuals in Ireland are considering running for political office, the transcripts are particularly instructive. They demonstrate a political skill possessed by Clinton to a perhaps unique degree, and one which tends to go unmentioned in discussion of the traits required in Irish politics, although it should come top of the list of prerequisites for a political career. That skill or trait is the capacity to compartmentalise.
The more than 500 transcripts of phone calls between the two leaders run from the spring of 1997 right up to the end of 2000. During that time, the Monica Lewinsky scandal was in the world media virtually every day.
During that same period, Clinton was investigated by independent counsel Kenneth W Starr, impeached by the House of Representatives, and eventually acquitted. Yet not once was Lewinsky’s name mentioned in any one of those conversations. Clinton spoke on a single occasion about what he was planning to do when “I get all this crap behind me”.
Even when he made a major speech effectively apologising for not telling the American people the truth about his illicit relationship with the White House intern, it went unmentioned between himself and Blair.
That pattern indicates that a man who demonstrated such minimal self-control in some areas of his life could muster absolute self-control in another. He could do it in an area where most people are weak.
In communications consultancy, we constantly see what we call “truth leakage”. Individuals who have done something of which they are ashamed, or of which they believe they will be expected to be ashamed, can rarely keep away from the topic. Even in a simulated interview about a different topic, the stinker issue surfaces, because they are drawn to it as if it were a subliminal magnet.
Clinton, on the other hand, managed to cover more than 500 pages of conversation with another world leader, who he knew was aware of every development in the Lewinsky saga, without any “truth leakage”. He could, and did, box the issue off. He could, and did, compartmentalise it. That’s one hell of a capacity.
This is not to suggest that Clinton should not have been truthful about Lewinsky. But that’s a separate issue. Confessing to the public, or, more to the point, not employing duplicitous devices such as claiming never to have had sex “with that woman” on the basis that sex could be narrowly defined as missionary position congress, was what he should have done.
However, the blue dress and all of the other squalid details of the affair had nothing to do with Blair, and, in that context, Bill Clinton’s concentration on what mattered in his conversations with the British leader was admirable and worth emulating. Politicians should be able to compartmentalise their lives so their personal problems do not impinge on their delivery of their wider responsibilities. Similarly, Bertie Ahern’s compartmentalising of his mother’s death allowed him to move forward the Good Friday Agreement with consequent saving of many lives.
Clinton’s rigid refusal to go near the most sensitive aspect of his private life, oddly, was not matched by other aspects of his private life. The transcripts show that he was prepared to interrupt high-level conversations with Blair in order to bring his dog out of doors to do the business that dogs should do in the open air.
The transcripts are relevant to the upcoming general election here, not least in their acknowledgement of what is rarely seen as a political asset: Hatred.
Talking to Blair during the time when Al Gore went down the tubes in the recount in Florida, the then-president spent a long time analysing the technicalities of the vote in that state, lamenting the fact that more Floridian voters meant to vote for his vice president than were showing up in the numbers. But he also addressed a less technical, more emotional strength demonstrated by the Bush campaign.
“They hate us more than we hate them,” he told Blair. That capacity to tap into the underlying hatred of everything liberal and democratic is currently being demonstrated by the Donald Trump campaign. Thus far, the Democrats have not had to engage with Trump, and they will and should put off that task until the last possible moment.
Right now, it’s the rest of the Republican candidates for the nomination who have to cope with rampant hatred, as a tool deployed by Trump, and they have no idea how to handle it. Trump hates half the world, and half the world stands mesmerised and impotent in the face of the power this hatred gives him.
Hatred obviates the need for truth. Clinton — at the timed — observed this in action in the Bush campaign.
“He [George W Bush] is making people think he is saving them from the right,” he told Blair. “But it’s a fraud because he is really for them on everything else.”
He also described Bush’s nomination campaign against John McCain as “the most vicious in modern memory”.
Fast forward 15 years, and Trump is rerunning Bush’s campaign on steroids, with the significant difference that, where Bush, according to Clinton, utilised “these right-wing foot soldiers [to] do his dirty work so he can be nice”, Trump has dispensed with the foot soldiers and the need to be nice.
He simply goes for other aspirant candidates, such as Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina, in the most direct and crude way possible. He applies the same crude directness to female media interviewers. In the process, he creates a level of media noise which effectively drowns out the responses of those attacked. Trump has not only proven that negative campaigning works, he has proven that vulgar personal abuse works, too.
Trump is the hate candidate, with all the terrifying strengths tapping into underlying national hatred can deliver. The Republican Party must be wondering how dangerous to them and to America is so overt and narrow a hate figure.
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