Last night, I watched the political experts ask and offer their own answers for the question, “How did this happen?” How did Donald Trump, a man a super-majority of voters thought was unqualified to be president, defeat Hillary Clinton, perhaps the most qualified candidate in the history of the United States of America?
The political people offered a lot of great answers about demographics and voter enthusiasm and the electoral college, answers I’m sure are true.
But I’m not a political expert. I’m a writer. And as a writer, I’ve known for months how Hillary Clinton could, and ultimately would, lose.
Eight months ago, as the first primary results were coming in and Donald Trump was looking like he might defy the political elite and clinch the Republican nomination, I wrote a post on my blog thewritepractice.com about a concept that seemed obvious to me.
I had no idea at the time that this would explain what people have called the most surprising Presidential election in our generation.
“Good stories are about problems,” I said in February, not long after Hillary Clinton won the Iowa caucus. “You think stories are about solutions… but the reality is great stories are filled with things going wrong: a parent dies, a crush delivers a rejection, a friend picks a fight, an enemy returns. If you really look at the stories and films you love most, you’ll probably find that eighty to ninety percent of them are filled with problems. Only ten or twenty of every hundred pages are filled with solutions.”
As I was processing this election this morning, I realized that this simple idea about storytelling perfectly describes the campaigns of these two very different candidates and correctly describes the result.
Of course, it’s easy to make sense of things after the fact. This article isn’t meant to show how smart I am for correctly predicting this election, because that wouldn’t be true. Personally, I thought Hillary would win. Instead, what I did know was that if she lost, this would be why.
This is meant to offer advice from a writer and storyteller for anyone who wants to tell better stories for their project, their organization, their book, and yes, even their political campaign. Here goes.
Donald Trump Tells a Story About America
Like many people this election season, I was obsessed. I watched every debate, listened to campaign speeches, and read countless (countless!) articles about the candidates, most of them about Donald Trump, whose story the news media ate up like candy.
It was in the primaries that I started realizing what Trump was doing, but it wasn’t until the first debate with Clinton, who had such a different style, that I fully saw what was happening.
Donald Trump was talking about the problems, not solutions. And it was working.
By the time the first debate arrived, I was pretty firmly in the #nevertrump movement. But every time he talked about the problems America was facing I started to agree with him. And I talked to other people who I respected who were starting to agree with him, too. He’d say something crazy, and we’d wake up. But every time he talked about the problem, we would fall into a kind of spell.
Donald Trump was telling a story about America that I’d never heard before.
In Donald Trump’s American Story
Trump’s story of America, which he told at rallies and in interviews and at the debates and in ads, goes something like this:
America is falling apart. The seventy years of prosperity experienced after WWII are slipping through our fingers like sand. Factories are closed, whole industries have left, gone mostly to China, and small towns across America are either dying or already dead. Simple, hardworking, everyday Americans, the heroes of this story, have lost their livelihoods to foreigners, all because of disastrous trade deals negotiated by incompetent losers. What few jobs we have left are being lost to illegal immigrants, some of whom are the worst sort of people.
Meanwhile, the elite in Washington D.C. aren’t just clueless, they’re actively getting rich and powerful on the backs of simple, honest, everyday Americans. They shoved Obamacare down our throats, then shoved down gay marriage, and then, as if we weren’t filled up, they promised to prosecute our businesses and even churches if we refused to support it.
Worse, those hardworking, everyday Americans feel like the world is laughing at them, calling them “hillbillies,” “white trash,” and “deplorables.” Their way of life is under attack, by China and ISIS of course, but also by Washington D.C. and their globalist agenda.
And things really are bad for those hardworking, everyday Americans. Their kids don’t want to live in the dying, small towns they grew up in and are leaving for the big liberal cities, like Chicago, where you can’t walk down the street without getting shot.
What’s worse is the media is in the pocket of those Washington D.C. elites. The biased, corrupted media is actually rigging the system to keep good, honest Americans from knowing the truth.
Speaking of the truth, what happened to Law and Order? You hear all these people attacking police officers for doing their job, but they’re the ones laying their lives on the line to protect us. What happened to respect for the law?
Before you leave an angry comment, I’m not saying this is true or false. I’m not saying I agree with this story.
You might object and say this story isn’t true. It doesn’t follow the facts. But you have to remember, this is a story. It doesn’t have to be factually correct to be true.
“He’s putting words to what I’m feeling,” Trump’s supporters say. “He’s saying what I think but am too afraid to say out loud.”
Every writer would love to get a review like that. In fact, if this story were a book, enough of these kinds of reviews and you’d have a bestseller.
Compare Trump’s Story with Hillary’s
As I watched the first debate, I was surprised at how impressed I was with Hillary Clinton. She didn’t curl up under Trump’s pressure like Jeb Bush did. She was able to hold her ground. When she went on the offense, she delivered incisive attacks that seemed to throw Trump off.
But good stories are about problems, not solutions, and Hillary couldn’t help but focus on the solutions. In her story of America:
America is doing great! And yes, we could be doing better, but here’s how we’re going to do that. We will enact policy 3B which an unbiased, non-partisan think tank has reviewed and confirmed will put 34.6 percent more people back to work over the next 10 years, bringing over $2 billion to the national economy, and raising the standard of living for everyone.
I made that up, but you get the idea, right? Clinton couldn’t help herself. She had to talk about the solution. She couldn’t talk for ten seconds about the problem, all in very vague terms, without explaining the solution to that problem.
Good stories, good political campaigns are about problems, not solutions, and Clinton didn’t tell a good story.
Political experts praised Clinton for being a disciplined politician who was always on message, but she was an undisciplined storyteller.
During the election, Hillary Clinton was praised as being a disciplined politician, but as a storyteller, she was incredibly undisciplined. (tweet that)
Hillary Clinton’s B-Plot, the Part About Trump
Of course, focusing on the “problem” was always going to be hard for Clinton, not just because she is a policy wonk that loves to talk about all her great solutions.
The main reason she couldn’t talk about the problem was how deeply she was associated with the problem. For the last eight years, she has been part of the ruling elite. She had firmly allied herself with President Obama, hoping to be buoyed by his relatively high approval rating.
But to make the case that America had so many problems, she would have to say she and her political allies were part of the problem.
And so instead, Hillary had to choose to tell a different story, a story about Trump himself:
America, we’re going to be in trouble if this man becomes president.
He’s a spoiled rich kid who had everything handed to him—see his huge loan from his father.
He has no idea what it means to sacrifice for this country—cue up Kahn family.
He is incredibly derogatory toward women—note Alicia Machado.
He lies constantly and without remorse—fact checking on my website!
He doesn’t pay taxes—see his tax returns. Oh wait! You can’t because he’s never shared them.
He’s so thin skinned. Watch as he seethes while I, a harmless woman, insult him. Can you imagine what would happen if Russia or China insulted him? Can you imagine this man with nuke codes?
Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president.
The story, in other words, was that this mean, orange ogre might capture the White House, and that we as a nation had to send her as the white knight to defeat him.
It was an effective story, and she told it convincingly. If you were an independent voter, you almost forgot that she had political motives for saying all these things.
Hillary Clinton hit her stride as she told this story during the debates, and her poll numbers—discredited as they now may be—shot up during this period.
Except… America couldn’t quite believe that Clinton was really that white knight. The emails? The foundation? The conspiracy of the dead bodies around her? Really? She’s our champion to defeat ogre Trump?
And besides, this was always only meant to be a B-story, the subplot in a larger narrative about America that Trump was already running away with.
Good Political Campaigns
Good stories are about problems, not solutions. New writers think good stories are about solutions, about things going right for their characters. What you learn as you study storytelling though is that good stories are really about things going from bad to worse.
There’s a one-hundred-year-old storytelling maxim that says:
In the first act, put your character up a tree. In the second act, throw rocks at him. In the third act, bring them down.
This is true for storytelling, and this election, Donald Trump showed he is one of the most effective storytellers in the world.
In the End, Donald Trump Told a Better Story
Why did Trump win? In the end, he told a better story.
In the first act, put America up a tree. In the second, throw rocks at it. In the third act, bring it down.
He told a story about a generation of honest Americans living in our country’s heartland, a generation America had left behind.
He told a story about a value system that people had forgotten, a value system people used to believe in, the value system America was founded on, which the elites now ridiculed as being “old-fashioned” and “out of touch.”
He told a story about losers and winners, about bad guys and victims, a story about corruption and the deceived.
He told a story about good, honest Americans taking their country back, restoring their way of life, and finally getting everything they had dreamed about for so long.
It’s a good story, true or not, and on November 8, 2016, America decided they liked Trump’s story more than they feared his incompetence and doubted his character.
What You Can Learn from Trump’s Election Victory
Trump was underfunded, under-supported, and unexpected to win. But this is the power of a good story. A good story can beat the odds.
What can you learn for your project, your organization, your book, or even your political campaign?
1. Know your reader/voter/customer.
Trump, whether through his own instinct or the counsel of his advisors, realized there was a huge, untapped group of the American public that could be activated: the un-colleged white voter in small-town America. (See David Wong of Cracked’s brilliant article on what Trump understood.)
He might not have been born into that group as a wealthy New Yorker, or even have much in common with them on the surface, but he knew them. He might as well have read their diary, he was so able to describe the fears and desires of their subconscious.
If you want to tell a story that builds momentum for your project, your organization, or your political campaign, you need to know your reader/customer/voter better than you know yourself.
2. Focus on the problem, not the solution.
Trump talked constantly about America’s problems, so much that people criticized him for not having any policy ideas. Clinton, on the other hand, talked constantly about her policy solutions. Clearly, Trump was right.
A guideline you can use: For every ten minutes, use eight or nine minutes to talk about problems, and only one or two minutes to explain solutions.
3. Identify the villain(s).
Note: Whoever isn’t for you is against you. Trump started by attacking the Republican elites (Little Marco, Lying Cruz, Low Energy Bush). Then he moved on to Obama, the D.C. elites, and of course Clinton (Corrupt Hillary). Finally, he settled on the “biased” media who were “rigging” the system.
Hillary, to an extent, made a villain out of Trump, but she was hampered by her connection to the status quo to expand her network of villains beyond him.
Who are the villains in your story? Who are the people who aren’t for you and are therefore against you? And when you finally defeat those villains, which new villain can you find that will unite your former enemies toward a new cause?
This might be an uncomfortable way to live, but it’s an incredibly effective way to run a campaign.
If you do this, it doesn’t matter what negative things people say about you. Even if your flanks are unprotected, like a blitzkrieg, you’ll already be circling behind them to finish them off.
Tell Better Stories
To be President, it’s not enough to be a great storyteller. Good stories might be about problems, not solutions, but as the president, unless you have solutions, those stories are going to start looking a lot more like fanciful dreams, a lot more like old man Oz behind the curtain than the Great Wizard.
And if those solutions don’t work, then Trump will find that his competitors have much better stories to tell than he does.
What we as a country need are not better bullshitters. We need people with good solutions. But we will always choose the person who tells better stories.
If you have the great solutions that will help our lives, our country, our world, then you owe it to all of us to tell an equally great story.
May we have the ears to hear it. May the stories that spread fear and contempt be utterly forgotten, and may the stories that are true, good, and life-giving spread to the ends of the earth, today and always.