A New Narrative for Hillary Clinton

[This was written in May 2016]

Despite what the pundits say, it is possible for Hillary Clinton to change the conversation.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are arguably the most and least qualified candidates ever to run for President of the United States. But the polls show them in a dead heat. Why?

The issue is not one of qualifications, likability, or even policy positions. It’s a problem of narrative. Trump has one and Hillary doesn’t.

Trump’s narrative is that he’s a successful businessman who will bring “the art of the deal” to Washington and clean up the mess that politicians have made at the expense of working families to “make America great again.”

Hillary’s narrative has been that she’s “a champion for everyday Americans” and is “fighting for you.” Recently her narrative seems to be that’s she’s “not Trump.”

As I’ve written about elsewhere, a good narrative needs to have a shared purpose, an explanation of how that shared purpose will be fulfilled, and a description of how all stakeholders can contribute to that purpose. It also must be an expression of one’s personality, values and culture. It needs to be inspiring, authentic, and create a shift in thinking.

For Hillary’s campaign, there is no real sense of where we are going, how we will get there, and why she’s the one to do it.

Few would doubt that Hillary will “work hard.” In fact, that might be the problem. Trump supporters also think he’s fighting for them. The difference is not who he’s fighting for, but who he’s fighting against. And Hillary is seen as one of those to be fighting against.

In the “who’s got a better story” battleground that is a Presidential campaign, Hillary can’t win on who is going to fight more and work harder. She needs an Aikido-like narrative in which the opponent’s force is used against them, and one’s own strengths are used to disarm rather than damage.

The first step is to stop what’s not working. Hillary has to stop calling Trump a bully. His supporters know he’s a bully. That’s what they like about him. He’s strong and he’s going to protect them. When you feel picked on, you want a bully to be on your side against the bullies that have been picking on you. It’s like telling someone their pit bull is vicious. That’s the point of having a pit bull. You are only making them feel better about their decision.

A good narrative reveals an underlying truth. So what do we know about bullies? Underneath they are cowards.

Donald Trump is a coward. It’s why he leaves everyone else holding the bag on his failed business ventures. It’s why he lies so compulsively. It’s why he has no advisors and doesn’t take advice from anyone. His ego is far too fragile.

Meanwhile, Hillary is anything but fragile. There is probably no one else in politics who has taken as much criticism, scorn, and accusations as Hillary Clinton. And yet she holds her head high and keeps on going.

So here’s the first part of the narrative about the candidates:

“Donald Trump is a coward. He looks tough, but he’s actually scared. It’s why he wants to build walls. He’s too afraid to deal with the really difficult issues. He’s afraid to go out into the big bad world and leave the safety of his manicured golf courses. When things get tough, he either quits or changes his story. The truth is he looks tough but has a thin skin. And nobody knows better than me that you need a thick skin in the White House.”

In this age of social media, narratives need to boil down to a hashtag or headline. Erik Bergstrom made a great connection between Donald Trump and the Cowardly Lion. But the resemblance is more than looks.

Dorothy had it right in the Wizard of Oz. It’s time for Hillary to channel her inner Dorothy and call Donald out for being the Cowardly Lion:

Dorothy: My goodness, what a fuss you’re making! Well naturally, when you go around picking on things weaker than you are. Why, you’re nothing but a great big coward!
Cowardly Lion: [crying] You’re right, I am a coward! I haven’t any courage at all. I even scare myself.

So that’s the first part of the narrative: #CowardlyDonald, designed to pop his bluster-bubble and reveal the cowardice behind the confidence.

One essential tactic: stop calling him Trump. It only plays into his rebranding of America strategy. Let’s only call him Donald. As in “Donald Duck.” After all, he’s a master of ducking responsibility and ducking the truth.

The #CowardlyDonald strategy is only part of the solution. People want someone and something to believe in. They need a cause and purpose to rally around. Obama had “Hope.” Donald has “Make America Great Again.”

Hillary has said her slogan is “Stronger Together.” The problem with this is that people don’t see Donald as weak. Dangerous, yes. Narcissistic, yes. But not weak.

Donald has said that he wants to go back — to “make America great again.” But it’s more than going back. It’s going backwards. Donald’s world is a Hobbesian world in which life is “nasty, poor, brutish and short.” It’s caveman democracy that unwinds the progress we have made as a society.

But this argument can’t be made rationally. It has to be emotional. And it has to be American. Because any good narrative aligns with the founder’s story.

One thing we know for sure: America doesn’t go backwards. We only go forward. In the language of Detroit, there’s no Reverse in the American transmission.

There’s something else as well: We go together. We are a land of individual freedom, but we protect those freedoms together.

That’s what it means to be an American. And that’s what Hillary’s slogan should be: “Forward Together.”

Now she can talk about all of her policy proposals. Not as evidence of how hard she is fighting for us, but because it moves us forward. And she can point to how Donald’s policies move us backwards.

Hillary has to redefine the dimensions of the campaign. Right now the dimensions are about about decency, strength and effort. Who’s a bully. Who’s stronger. And who will work harder. working hard. None of those are working.

With a new narrative, Hillary can shift the conversation to be about courage and progress. Every statement and action can be weighed against whether it comes from fear or courage, and whether it moves us forward or backward as a country.

We need the courage to move forward together.


Published on Medium.com on March 25, 2016