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Hear us out: There are lessons for Labour in Trump’s win

What on earth can the left learn from Donald Trump? Quite a lot, as it happens, or so Simon Wilson argues in part five of his week-long analysis of Labour in 2017.

The big lesson from Trump is not that progressive policies must now be abandoned. Their effective advocacy is more important than ever – and that’s true for the reinforcement of integrity, compassion and the value of science, too. But the Trumpmachine didn’t set up a template just for the right. The left can learn from it too.

Donald Trump at a rally on March 13, 2016 in Boca Raton, Florida.

Donald Trump at a rally on March 13, 2016 in Boca Raton, Florida.

1. Campaign lessons

He reinvented the campaign rulebook, using new tools for old-fashioned ends. Probably Labour and the Greens are all over this stuff already, but anyway:

  • That genius cap with Make America Great Again. It spread the message with every photo; it gave supporters a great, easy way to identify, to become part of the Trump community; it raised money. Is Labour talking to @FoxyLustyGrover about T-shirts?
  • Multi-platform digital marketing. Campaigning where you try lots of things without spending much, quickly stop the ones that don’t work, quickly scale up the ones that do, pivot quickly when events and circumstances and analyses change. And you do all that for fundraising as well as with your messaging. The Trump campaign sent more than 100,000 uniquely tweaked ads to targeted voters each day. In one four-month period they raised US$250 million and they knew where to spend it: in the Rust Belt, which hardly anyone else even realised was in play.
  • Facebook, the place where people live. Also the place with analytics.
  • Dear old Twitter. It’s important because it’s where media and celebrities go to feel clever: all the people with far too much influence over public opinion, doing their best to use it.
  • Stupid outsiders. Already got the most experienced campaigners you can find? Don’t rely on them. Everybody laughed at Trump for bringing in outsiders who’d never run a campaign before, but it hard-wired him to the communities he needed to reach in ways the professionals couldn’t.
  • Fear The Walking Dead. Famously, Trump supporters watch The Walking Dead, probably because they’re all down on the metaphorical subtleties of the zombie apocalypse (though help me here, do they think Trump is Rick or Negan?). Actually they watch other TV shows, too. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner used TV preferences to develop a geo-location tool that plotted the location density of about 20 voter types, using TV viewing habits, over a live Google Maps interface. Found all the hot spots and targeted the campaign to them. So what do potential Labour voters watch?

Read more in Simon Wilson’s series on the NZ Labour Party in election year 2017, including a 3-step plan to making Andrew Little an electable PM, here


2. Personality lessons

A lot of people really like Donald Trump. But what exactly is it they really like? Why do conservative Christians look past the sleaze and patriotic Americans put up with the Putin-love?

Trump’s likeable because he’s a good-time guy. He’s admirable because he’s fearless. He’s trustworthy, not on account of any particular promise, but because you can absolutely rely on him to blow shit up.

What does he do? He breaks the rules. He’s smart without being a snob. He has fun. And he’s on their side. Those Rust Belt voters swung the election and some of them told journalists they didn’t even believe Trump would bring back their jobs. They were just so grateful someone had spoken up for them.

These aren’t right-wing traits or the habits of a monster. They’re successful campaign tactics for anyone to use. A leader on the left can say: Those stupid rules and those greedy organisations that stop you realising your perfectly reasonable dreams? We’re going to fix that.

Should play pretty well with anyone wanting to buy a home.

3. Emotional lessons

Hope or resentment? You can win an election with either, Obama and Trump between them showed us that. But New Zealand is far more like Obama’s America than Trump’s, isn’t it?

To put that another way, you don’t need to be like Trump to win. And when, inevitably, some New Zealand politicians do give it a go, it’ll be important for the messengers of hope and opportunity to stand strong against them. Yes we can.

Remember 2005, when National leader Don Brash invited us to treat the general election as a plebiscite on his Orewa speeches? He said Māori were getting unfair preferential treatment and “middle New Zealand” was missing out. They used the profoundly dishonest “Iwi/Kiwi” campaign to rub it in. National lost. Not by much, but they lost.

It was exactly the same a generation earlier, after the Springbok Tour in 1981. The general election that year also became a plebiscite on race-related liberalism. With first-past-the-post voting National won, because they won more electorates. But they lost the popular vote. Not by much, but they lost.

That’s New Zealand. Called on to take sides, we’re a bit more liberal than reactionary. Hope trumps resentment, if you fight for it.

As for “yes we can”, the slogan that made success possible, it’s worth remembering where it came from. In 2008 Obama didn’t start saying it until after Hillary Clinton surprisingly beat him in the New Hampshire primary. It wasn’t the slogan of a winning campaign, which is how we remember it now. It began life as the slogan of the guy who was losing and needed to turn things around.

“Yes we can” is brilliant, though, isn’t it? A message of hope and unity, a message of determination that acknowledges hardship but promises rewards, a vote of confidence in everyone who might feel that confidence is precisely what they lack.

4. Cat pictures

Honestly, this has nothing to do with Donald Trump, but I just wanted to say. Millennials love cats. So do people a bit older. It’s hard-wired into all of them, left to right, political activist to couldn’t-give-a-fuck. And they binge-watch The Crown. Understand the ramifications of all that, I reckon, and you can’t lose.

You’re welcome.

This is the fifth post in a series on election year and the Labour Party. Tomorrow, the sixth and final part: National’s Index of Shame.