We’ve all been waiting for Hillary Clinton’s narrative to emerge; and after Monday night’s Presidential Debate, we’re finally beginning to see it.
Ever since Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic Party nomination, I’ve been waiting for her political narrative to emerge. Just like when you’re waiting for a bus and it’s taking an age to appear, I was starting to feel a bit anxious about whether this narrative would turn up at all. In the meantime, the Trump narrative has been spiraling into uncharted depths of hate with a mix of lunacy and apocalypse. It became obvious a while ago that the overarching theme of Clinton’s narrative would have to be a message of hope, to juxtapose against Trump’s narrative of despair.
But the question I’m sure Clinton’s team have been working on, and finding quite difficult to answer, is how to use hope to argue against the message of despair when the media, like magpies collecting shiny trinkets for their 24-hour-news-cycle nest, give Trump all their attention. Even those journalists who don’t agree with Trump, and don’t seem to like him, still play his game and give him a free advertising campaign, which takes up all their time, leaving less time, and sometimes no time, to cover Hillary’s message, and policies, of hope.
But the good news is, it would appear that Clinton’s campaign has found a way around this problem. Now let’s just hope it works!
So, what is Clinton’s narrative? Here is a link to three of her Trump attack ads which have been running over the past few months. The most recent video shows young girls looking at themselves in the mirror, with the misogynistic words of Trump overlaid denigrating the appearance of women and treating them as objects. Another uses the same style of message, but this time with injured war heroes and families of American soldiers killed in war, alongside Trump’s comments denigrating war heroes. The third ad similarly shows children watching TV as some of Trump’s worst calls-to-violence and hateful statements are made. The overarching narrative in this campaign is, “The President is the ultimate role model; so what type of role model is Donald Trump? And if he’s not a good role model, he’s not a good leader.”
This narrative is clever for three reasons.
The first is it’s almost impossible to argue with this framing of Trump as a bad role model. I’m sure he will try, as will his supporters, but it’s a pretty tough argument to make, in both an emotional and rational sense, because of its link with children, bad behavior, and values. Put simply, everyone knows that children should be brought up to be good people and that positive role models help them to aspire to be good. Trump can’t exactly turn around and say, “I hope your children swear and curse just like I do.” Well, he can, but I’m not sure it will go down that well. The best political narratives present arguments which are difficult to argue against. In my study of Labor’s mining tax narrative [in Australia], my results suggested that from the naming of the mining tax policy “Resources Super Profits Tax” to the entire narrative of “a fair share,” Labor missed the opportunity to frame the policy in a way that would have made it much more difficult for the Liberals and the mining industry to counter-argue. For instance, if the policy had been called “Mining Dividends for Australian Shareholders” and had been justified as “a future wealth fund for all Australians,” it would have been much harder for the big miners to claim the policy was an assault on Australia’s way of life and was going to ruin us all.
The second reason the narrative is clever is again through its link to children and, in turn, a focus on a more positive future. David Penberthy recently, and surprisingly in a News Ltd paper, contrasted Pauline Hanson’s much-reported maiden speech—which he described as vain, insecure, and racist—with the the hardly-noticed-by-the-media maiden speech from Labor’s Northern Territory Senator, Malarndirri McCarthy, which he says showed humility, pride, intellect, decency, and effort. The two speeches boil down to exactly the Trump and Clinton narratives I’m describing as fear and loathing versus hope and renewal. Everyone is acknowledging that things aren’t exactly great right now, but they are also offering very different reasons for why this is so and arguments about what we need to do to fix them. Clinton’s focus on children, which echoes Michelle Obama’s brilliant convention speech, reminds Americans that children represent hope for a brighter future, but only if those children are good people. This contrasts with Trump who is doing a lot of complaining, but is failing to offer anything good for children to aspire to, representing his lack of positive solutions to fix the problems he complains about.
The last reason why Clinton’s narrative is crafty is because it’s an attack ad framed in a positive way. Although political strategists seem to ignore all the research that says negative advertising puts voters off (and although the election of Tony Abbott on the most negative agenda Australia has ever seen would seem to disprove this research anyway), the fact is, you can’t have a consistent narrative of hope cloaked in negativity and fear. Fear belongs to Trump, so Clinton has to do something different. By dressing her message of hope in not only a positive narrative but also a counter-narrative against Trump, using Trump’s own words no less, her narrative kills two birds with one stone and helps to finally give her campaign the overarching thread that it needs to rise above the nasty noise of the Trump circus.
So, there you have it. The narrative is there. The next question is, will the campaign stick to this message? And, of course, the $64-million-dollar question that comes next is: will the message work?
The November poll will be around soon enough to give us the answer.