As political analysts, pundits and disillusioned Democrats try to unravel the many possible reasons why Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, they’ve all overlooked what I believe is the most important - the potency of Donald Trump’s messaging.
From the moment I heard Trump on the campaign trail, and as the crowds at his rallies began to swell, I knew deep in my gut that he could win. My Democrat friends laughed, scoffed and told me I was crazy. “He’s a clown, a reality TV star!” they said, as they chortled and guffawed. “He can’t win the primaries, much less the White House!”
Yeah, how’d that work out for you?
In their dismay and disillusion, they pointed to all sorts of explanations - low turnout among African-Americans, Hillary’s failure to hold together the Obama Coalition, white women voting for Trump in surprising numbers despite his offensive remarks and behavior, huge white male turnout in the rural red counties, strategic blunders by Hillary’s campaign ignoring Michigan and Wisconsin. The millennials! Where were the millennials? And that goddamn Electoral College!”
And I lean into the microphone and say, “Wrong.”
Like George W. Bush (with a lot of coaching from Karl Rove and Dick Cheney), Trump knew how to unleash “the reptile.” Whether, like Rove, he understood the science or not, he instinctively understood how to speak to the “reptilian brain,” also known as the “lizard brain” or “primitive brain.”
The reptilian brain is the oldest part of the brain, and consists of the same structures found in reptiles – the brainstem and cerebellum. Hence, the name. It controls our most basic vital functions like breathing, heart rate, body temperature and balance. It also controls the “fight or flight” response. Its only concern is survival. If your child walked in front of a speeding car, you would dive in front of it to save her because of your reptilian brain.
Years ago, we used to call this “the politics of fear and smear.” But modern neuroscience has shown us that it’s much deeper than that. When the reptilian brain is engaged, it overrides all other parts of the brain that are responsible for rational thought and decision-making. It works well with the part of the brain that controls emotions, but maintains supremacy over all. Once you awaken the reptile, you can make people do almost anything. The survival instinct kicks in, and rational thought goes out the window. Throughout the course of human history, messaging that appeals to the reptilian brain has been a staple of cult leaders, tyrants and dictators. I’m not saying Trump is any of those things, I’m just saying.
Think about the core of Trump’s campaign messaging. It was, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
When he said our economy is going down the tubes, the reptile heard, “I’m not going to be able to feed my family and we’re all going to die!” When he talked about the rise of ISIS and atrocities like beheadings, crucifixions and the slaughter of innocent children, the reptile heard, “ISIS is going to come here, chop off my head and kill my children!” When he said Mexican drug dealers, rapists and murderers were pouring across our southern border, the reptile heard, “They’re going to kill me, get my kids hooked on heroin and rape my wife!” Think of how often he used scary words and phrases like “disastrous,” “terrible,” “horrible,” “horrendous,” and “We’re in big trouble.” It didn’t matter that many of Trump’s claims weren’t supported by the facts. Once the reptilian brain is engaged, FACTS DON’T MATTER.
Then, after awakening the reptile and putting him on high alert, Trump did something brilliant. He would stroke its underbelly by offering words of reassurance – “We’re going to renegotiate NAFTA and bring jobs back to America,” “We’re going to have the best military you’ve ever seen and we’re going to defeat ISIS,” “We’re going to build a wall along the Mexican border and keep the murderers and drug dealers out,” and finally and most importantly, “We’re going to make America great again.” By executing this rhetorical two-step, Trump soon had the reptile curled up and purring in his lap. Meanwhile, Hillary’s messaging attempted to appeal to our sense of reason, compassion and emotion. But it was too late. For many voters, the reptile was in total command.
In addition to masterfully crafting his message to appeal to the darkest recesses of our brains, Trump did two other important things – kept his message simple and repeated it everywhere he went.
Adolph Hitler famously said, “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” Although Hitler didn’t have the benefit of today’s neuroscience, he intuitively understood the reptilian brain. He understood that if you can make people afraid, you can get them to do anything. And, like Trump, he also understood the power of simplicity and repetition. If Hitler had access to Twitter and Facebook, the world would be a very different place today.
Throughout his campaign, Trump rarely deviated from his core talking points. Even after the release of the explosive Access Hollywood tape, where the candidate was caught openly admitting to sexual assault, Trump offered a half-hearted video apology and went right back to his core message about jobs, immigration and national security.
Like Hitler and many other leaders of mass movements, including Bill Clinton whose campaign coined the term KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid), Trump also understood the value of simplicity. He would say things like, “We’re going to renegotiate NAFTA and bring back jobs like you’ve never seen before. Trust me. It’ll be terrific.” No specifics for any of his campaign promises, but it didn’t matter. It was simple and people could remember it. I’m a Democrat and I can’t remember Hillary’s economic message other than something about green energy jobs and vague platitudes about giving every American the ability to reach his or her God-given potential. Beyond that, I’ve got nothing.
Personally, I’m no fan of Donald Trump. But way too many people on the left, in the Democratic Party and in the media underestimated the genius of his messaging.
You can’t say I didn’t warn you.