During the past few weeks the presidential polls have shifted from a lead for Hillary Clinton of more than 5 points to a lead of at most 1 or 2 points.
The Donald Trump phenomenon has flummoxed many. After all, how can someone who makes such outrageous claims nearly every day be taken so seriously by a growing percentage of voters?
The answer lies in the nature of value arguments. Usually when we tussle over our values, we are not out to decide something once and for all, the way a boxing judge decides which fighter won a match. In this year’s campaign, it’s only the true believers for and against Trump who have made this kind of definitive call.
Many voters agree with a certain number of Trump’s claims. And many more find his brashness refreshing. But Clinton’s response to Trump has been ineffective because she’s been barking up the wrong tree.
If Clinton wants to regain a healthy lead in the final stretch to the election, she needs to respond to the qualities that voters find attractive.
Trump’s campaign has been supremely successful at exploiting the relativity of value arguments. He has chosen a clever set of scales on which to be judged: novelty, fearlessness, candor and success.
He tells people who are fed up with gridlock that he will smash through it. He tells people who fear that change is happening too quickly that he will stop it in its tracks.
Supporters are unhappy with the old and familiar, the status quo. This outrageousness raises Trump on the novelty and fearlessness scales. So protests that he is unfit for the job sound completely irrelevant, especially coming from officials and journalists who seem too invested in the establishment.
Trump seems candid and outspoken because he is constantly spouting new claims that are given inordinate attention from the media. They attract attention in part because they go beyond the narrow range of platitudes considered acceptable by the two major parties. Most politicians’ speech is bounded by a desire for accuracy and an avoidance of offending anyone.
But for many people, Trump’s apparent candor is more important than the fact that what he says bears little relationship to reality. Because the public likes hearing such a wide range of blunt remarks, they pick out and hang on to the ones they feel are most plausible while excusing the preposterous ones that quickly get discredited.
This is the reason Clinton’s response has not been effective.
She repeats Trump’s newest outrages to show that he isn’t changing to a more mainstream position. That approach disregards Trump’s appeal to novelty — his supporters don’t want him to move to the middle. Democrats also expect the public to judge Trump by his worst remarks.
But people won’t do that if they agree with some or count others as plausible.
For Clinton, the most effective response to the novelty claim will be graphic illustration of what happens when the system breaks. For example, she could remind voters how much pain they suffered during the last government shutdown or how badly FEMA responded to Hurricane Katrina when it was led by a shady lawyer instead of an expert.
Trump’s claims to candor and fearlessness seem even easier to undermine. Every time he evades a question, Clinton should point out that he is ducking or devious. She should make him seem cowardly for failing to release all of his documents including medical records, tax returns and financial statements from the Trump Foundation.
Pushing Trump to disclose the facts is the most promising path to undermining his ultimate appeal: his apparent successfulness.
Trump’s opponents have no time to lose in changing the weights and resetting the standards. His line in hokum is moving very well.
Davida Charney is a professor of rhetoric and writing at The University of Texas at Austin and the author of “Persuading God: Rhetorical Studies of First-Person Psalms,” published by Sheffield Phoenix Press in 2015.
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