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.
Smart and insightful…loved it!
Thanks Glenn. Hope all is well with you!
I couldn’t agree with you more. You have many, many good points about the importance and effects of storytelling. There’s one problem for me in the whole system. Whenever we talk about party politics, we’re talking about the opposite of unity. All attempts to build peace and shape society backfires because party meetings are just meetings, not spiritual meetings, not unconditional love.
Good stories are rarely made up of many spiritual meetings, unconditional love, and or perfect peace. Yes, love triumphs in many stories, but it has to endure a lot of obstacles to do it. Harry Potter *small spoiler alert* may have defeated Voldemort, showing that love conquers evil, but it took him seven years *another spoiler alert* and dying to do it, and more of those books are about evil causing lots of problems than sitting in spiritual love circles.
I agree that in the real world unconditional love is preferred over the opposite. But for storytellers (and if you’re running a campaign you’re a storyteller), you can’t avoid the opposite.
For sure, Trump told the people what they wanted to hear, but we all have to admit he is a charismatic storyteller. I am not a political person, and after years as a Washington DC resident, surrounded by people who ARE politically minded, I have learned to generally keep my mouth shut. Yet it’s nice to find as a writer, to find a blog like this one where I can share ideas without getting blasted (I hope). Facebook is a sea of emotion right now and I am avoiding posting my views. I have never seen such sensitive emotions as I am seeing right now from people I thought I knew. One of my friends is a political insider and she is still “reeling from the effects of the election, shocked, sickened”. She is taking it personally….and I just don’t understand it because who else do we have to blame but ourselves as a group? We are more divided than we ever were and the solution as it appears to me, should be to accept the results of a system we created and now try to move on and stop complaining until we really have something to complain about. I am not a Trump supporter, however, in terms of government action, he hasn’t really done anything yet to change our daily lives. Don’t we have to watch and wait versus trying to change something that has already happened? Joe’s analysis of the situation as Trump as a storyteller is amazing and spot on.
Well said, Joe. Laura
Thank you Laura. I appreciate your time reading it.
Great article, Joe.
Thanks Pilar. I know a lot of people are feeling hurt and disillusioned today (personally, I am). I hope adding a little meaning and understanding can help. Appreciate you taking the time to read.
A story you say? Maybe its about ability to communicate, and this is why the candidate you want to have a beer with ALWAYS wins. It’s easy to figure out why after the fact. The people who actually understand why are the ones who where talking about it yesterday. This is just one of the ones who got it wrong trying to use it to their advantage.
A story. Or in other words, a world view. I honestly think a lot of people who voted for him wouldn’t have had a beer with him if you paid them. But he offered them a better world view (or at least a different one).
I guess I am the opposite. I would have a beer with him, but he didn’t get my vote.
What a fascinating perspective Jeff. Glad you shared your insight with us on this. What a journey we’ve been on as Americans. And what an ending. There is much to learn for all of us. I’m looking forward to becoming a better story teller, better writer, and a better American, too. As i get ready to launch my first book, Im assessing my own story line with the measure you have outlined here. I think I accomplished this and I will keep this concept front and center moving forward. Thanks Jeff! And blessings to you on your fiction writing project. I look forward to it.
I just realized Jeff didn’t write this. Oops. Lol. So kudos to you Joe!
Ha! Yep, just me. Hope I didn’t disappoint. Thanks for reading Betsy.
This is one of my favorites.
You nailed it!
Wow. That makes a lot more sense now. I totally agree. Thanks for the great info Joe!
p.s from the write practice 😉
As piece of write up…I say SUPERB.
Am also trying to write an article on the trilemma from Trump Triumph and what we should learn.
Wow! Great blogpost Joe ~ never saw the election in that light before 🙂 And great insight into storytelling… it’s super helpful with the story I’m working on for NaNoWiMo.
This was such a fascinating take on the election result. It hits such an emotional cord and makes perfect sense. As a writer, I thank you very much for posting this, Joe. These are excellent points to remember as I write my stories.
Thanks. Maybe this is a synthesis that will make it possible for me to write today.
Joe, I loved it. Even as this piece was instructive in its object lesson, it had the unintended effect of a good grief counseling session.
Always tell the story, create the tension by stating the problem, but do not worry if you’ve all the solutions for every one of the problems. Understand that the solution itself needn’t be “canned,” or close to perfect. Keep the emphasis on the story by shining a critical light on the problems.
That’s my takeaway from your article, Joe. Am I on point?
Thanks for this unique perspective. To me what you are pointing toward is the difference between reporting facts as opposed to creating a narrative. So much of what was offered to us confirmed a conclusion- Trump can’t win, Hillary is the answer- rather than reporting facts and observable indicators. Thanks from t this great reminder about story telling.
I read your post yesterday, and since then, it’s been on my mind and a topic of conversation in my house. I agree with you on much of what you said about story–especially the importance of focusing on problems vs. solutions because once the problems are solved, the story is kind of over, huh? And Trump either consciously or subconsciously knows this. For him, there was more to be gained from keeping people focused on the problems because it gave them a voice.
And that’s the second thing I want to mention. Barry Manilow (stay with me here) once said he wasn’t that gifted of a singer, but what he was gifted at was “interpreting a lyric.” I don’t think Trump is a good storyteller, but I think he’s very good at interpreting a feeling. (Angry, frustrated feelings are likely the extent of his gift.) It’s kind of like when your toddler is having a tantrum and you get down on the floor with him and you talk in a voice that mirrors his emotions and you say, “You’re angry aren’t you? You’re angry because Daddy took the dog’s food bowl away from you. I know you’re angry.” And quite often, mirroring those emotions AND giving those emotions words and facial expressions is enough to calm him down and refocus his energy. Trump excels at that. And no, I’m not calling Trump supporters toddlers. I’m saying that they have stories and emotions that they don’t feel like they can share and Trump shared them. Trump mirrored them. What did he change their focus to? Him and what he could do for them. And he won.
And here’s my point finally: how do we make space for everyone’s stories, so that we all feel safe sharing them? How do we share all these diverse American stories so that no one feels vilified, everyone feels heard, AND they’re told in such a way that we can each see and hopefully learn from the themes in each of them? Is it even possible? (And I’ll be honest here, I’m not talking about the folks who are blatantly and proudly racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, etc. I’m talking about the folks who voted for Trump and third party who keep saying they don’t feel any of those aforementioned things, and the folks who voted for Hillary who are terrified of a Trump presidency.) So, Mr. Bunting, what say you? 🙂
You just absolutely must know I had to do this.:)
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.
Sitting where I sit, I do fear that some of the things that were important to me will be affected. You know I am gay so yes, there is where a lot of my concerns are. Hillary was indeed my white knight, but post election I realize she was riding an ass with Sancho Panza as a side-kick just looking for a windmill.
I’m English but have watched the campaign as closely as most Americans. Your comments on the different tactics of the candidates and whose story was the most effective in gaining votes are fascinating. I found myself relating your theories to my own stories, especially the current novel I’m writing. It made me examine my protagonist’s problems and her struggles to face and overcome them. A very useful, intelligent analysis of what good storytelling is all about. Congratulations.
Loved this article ! Thanks for sharing
Very interesting, and probably the best explanation I’ve read of an election result that, to most non-Americans, seems inexplicable.
It’s always about the story. In the end it was Trump who had better the smart page turner. He picked up on the hankering that some have for yesteryear (nostalgia) with the “again”. The theme of conspiracy, the schoolyard bully persona … all placed him in a story as you’ve noted he told better. We are all wired for story. Michael Moore and David Wong saw the spiral of this story too. It is a story that left many readers unhappy and feeling hoodwinked while others thought it was not so bad. The next installment by a Luke Skywalker or Katniss Everdeen who understands America loves a Cinderella story (Kurt Vonnegut) better than the saga of a politically incorrect gaslighting narcissist cannot come soon enough.
Joe, your thoughts offer a fascinating view of a truly complex question (which you phrased in such a focused way, right there in the first sentence). So many others have grappled with that same thought, but they have seen and answered through the prism of their own political or social bias.
It is difficult, if not outright impossible, to remain apolitical and objective in this endeavor. To examine it as an exercise in observation and practice of an act of storytelling by an instructor in that art causes me to more fully appreciate your unique perspective.
I am anxiously awaiting the sequels —- his, AND YOURS!
I applaud you, Joe! This is by far the best political article I have read since this election started! I’m saying that not only because you brought in the writer’s side – which I can completely relate to, for I too looked at the election this way – but also because you didn’t bad-mouth anyone. Like any good writer, you got into “character” and told the story from both sides. I agree completely that Donald Trump’s “storytelling” of America was by far better. He did throw rocks at an America stuck in a tree, then told how he’d get us down. I always respected him for that, because it was real. Because our problems are there, and he wasn’t afraid to point them out.
Thanks Reagan! For reading and for your own analysis. Glad to hear other writers are seeing the same thing.
Nailed it! Drop the mic
Thank you for the great synopsis of storytelling and good advice for my future projects.
I wish your post would go viral. It is truly a message all Americans need to read. It would break down the barriers that now exist between people for and against Trump. It is so true about “I wouldn’t sit down and have a beer with him, it is about change.” It isn’t about the ill felt emotions that he shouldn’t have talked about, it is about change from someone who isn’t tied into who and what caused the problems in the first place.
Being the first women president isn’t going to solve anyone’s problems.
Thank you so much for writing this post.
Excellent. I learned a lot from this. Thanks Joe!
“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.”
Can anyone call himself a serious writer, or a serious lover of stories, who wishes for a whole wealth of stories to be discounted?
Great explanation of something I felt but couldn’t explain. Let’s try to help a Democrat find the story on the next go round.
Joe, with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of myriad external influences (think Russia and Americans conspiring with them) do you still believe your original story and conclusions?
That said, I do agree that Trump was an effective campaigner and the better storyteller. Hillary, even though I voted for her, was not. She never learned to be an effective campaigner like her husband. Hillary and her team were absolutely tone-deaf to pain points in swing states. Quite simply, the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign did an appalling job. Parties have one task: To win elections. The Democratic Party failed and even now, one year hence, appear to have learned nothing.
Thanks for your insightful article. Politics aside, if your article were about selling a new book, a box of detergent, or positioning yourself as an author, many of the rules would still apply. Its lessons are a reminder to me as a writer what matters to my readers.
Great Article! Very convincing read. Thanks for sharing.
This comment is a little late to the 2016 election cycle, but your points about political campaigning resonate so clearly. And, the game isn’t over. We’re staring down 2020, today!