The 2020 Election Will Be a Competition of Two Stories About America

Early on in the 2016 presidential election cycle, Jon Favreau wrote something that has always struck me as a fundamental truth. He said that “every election is a competition between two stories about America.”

Favreau went on to describe Donald Trump’s story about America, which is perhaps best captured by his slogan, “make America great again.” It is fundamentally based on a myth about our past as a country and is designed to instill fear among segments of the population who resent the inevitable changes that are underway.  Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, suggested that Trump tapped into “nostalgia voters.”

Trump’s campaign—with its sweeping promise to “make American great again”—triumphed by converting self-described “values voters” into what I’ve called “nostalgia voters.” Trump’s promise to restore a mythical past golden age—where factory jobs paid the bills and white Protestant churches were the dominant cultural hubs—powerfully tapped evangelical anxieties about an uncertain future.

Trump appealed to nostalgia voters, not with policies to address their concerns, but with lies designed to exploit those anxieties and instill fear. That is precisely the kind of campaign described by the leaders of Cambridge Analytica.

The two fundamental human drivers when it comes to taking information onboard effectively are hopes and fears and many of those are unspoken and even unconscious. You didn’t know that was a fear until you saw something that just evoked that reaction from you. And our job is to get, is to drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really deep-seated underlying fears, concerns.

It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion. The big mistake political parties make is that they attempt to win the argument rather than locate the emotional center of the issue, the concern, and speaking directly to that.

Regardless of whether Trump survives to become the Republican nominee in 2020, that captures the basis for the kind of story of America we’re likely to hear from the GOP in the next election. It will be one based on lies that are designed to exploit fear.

In a profile of Bernie Sanders, Jason Zengerle documented how the senator from Vermont acknowledged the challenge that poses for Democrats.

Sanders had begun his day in Nogales, along the Mexican border, where he’d met in a budget motel conference room with about a dozen or so immigration and environmental activists. Trump, and cable news, were talking nonstop about “the caravan”—the group of migrants slowly making their way across Central America toward the Mexico-U.S. border—and Sanders wanted these people’s advice about how to respond. One of the activists suggested that Democrats ask Trump what he’s done to help the Central American countries improve the conditions of their citizens so that people don’t feel compelled to leave.

“You’re talking rationally,” Sanders said. “But I want you to put yourself in Trump’s head and what he cares about, and his job is to simply win votes and pit one group of people against the other. You already gave me a rational answer. All right? But I need a political answer.”

Sanders continued to be unsatisfied with the answers he heard that day and, when pressed privately by Zengerle on his own response, pointed to the lies Trump told his supporters about what he would do to address their economic plight.

I asked Sanders if that wasn’t just more rationality. How would any of that counter the visceral nerve Trump touched in some voters when he talked about the caravan?

“Well, I mean, it’s difficult if you are not a pathological liar,” Sanders said. “It is difficult if you will not say anything at any time, just to get a vote. So what your real question is: How could one do politics that are honest, that are respectful, and beat somebody who is an authoritarian demagogue, who is a pathological liar, who will say anything at any time? That’s your question.”

Yes, that was my question, I said.

Sanders paused and suddenly, for the first time on the campaign swing, he seemed tired. “The answer is, it is hard,” he said. “And we better damn well find the answers to that pretty soon.”

I would suggest that the reason Sanders was unable to come up with an answer to his own question is because he got caught up in the need to address the lies and failed to see that the underlying issue that must be addressed is the fear mongering. Until Democrats are able to do that, they’ll be playing on Trump’s home turf and giving him the advantage. In other words, they’ll fail to provide an alternative story of America.

After watching Kamala Harris’s speech to launch her candidacy on Sunday, at least one GOP political consultant saw something important.

As I’ve noted before, the only thing stronger than fear is hope. Of course a candidate’s history, their policy positions, their ability to learn, and their worldview are important things for voters to assess. But the candidate that is most likely to prevail against the fear mongering of Trump and the Republican Party will be the one who tells a story of America that instills optimism and hope.

I’m not talking about the kind of false hope that is more a function of sentimentality than reality. After articulating many of the difficult truths this country needs to hear during her speech on Sunday, Harris put it this way, “America’s story has always been written by people who can see what can be unburdened by what has been.”

There are now a handful of Democrats who have announced their intentions to run in 2020, and several more to come. The one who tells a compelling story of optimism in America to compete with Republican fear-mongering is the one most likely to produce the kind of victory this country needs both up and down the ticket to address the challenges we face.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.