If I Were Trump (July 2020)
A time capsule where I explained what I’d do to get Trump out of his summer 2020 slump
A lot of design critique is boring because people spend all their time finding problems and not enough time explaining how they’d do better. For example, maybe you don’t like Apple Maps. It’s easy to write a snarky post about it, but very few people sit down and really analyse the ways they’d do better.
I think the same is true with politics. We’re all Monday morning geniuses when it comes to analysing what politicians are doing wrong. But what would we do in their shoes? If you woke up and you were Donald Trump, what would you actually do?
The glib responses are easy: quit. Jump off a building. Become a fundamentally different person overnight. But when you get beyond the superficial retorts and get into policy, I think there’s a lot of interesting analysis to be done. So here’s what I would do if I were Trump, despite the fact that I have been fighting against Trump’s agenda for three years.
A Mask Pivot
Until now, countries around the world have presented themselves with a false choice: economy or health. But it’s increasingly obvious you can’t have a strong economy if everyone is terrified to go outside. The very first thing I’d do if I were Trump is to reverse course on the mask thing.
Now, everyone in the universe knows that Trump has been anti-mask so far. So the change would be a big deal. It would dominate news headlines, scramble the political calculus, and provide an opening for Trump’s message. The message would be “Economy Masks.”
By clearly aligning health to the economy, Trump would be playing to the only strength he has left in the latest polling. People still trust Trump more to handle the economy, so every message should be framed that way. Everything Trump is doing is to get more money in your pocket. And it starts with masks.
The Trump Act
It’s totally cheesy and probably illegal to name an act after a sitting president, but it’s very on brand for Trump. His people should introduce the framework for bills to the House and Senate that would provide more stimulus for the economy, and his PR folks should make sure everyone knows this has strong input from Trump himself.
Make every payout, every deferred payment, and every interest rate cut all tie back to the same thing: The Trump Act, which is helping you buy groceries, keep your job, subsidise your business, etc. So far, all of these things are being driven by Pelosi, meaning she’s getting the credit.
Start a war with Russia
Not a shooting war. But pick a fight. Say what most Americans believe, which is that Russia’s bounty program for killing Americans is an act of war. Authorise what most of Washington wants to see: a punishing response. The American people want to see, at minimum, a president that that cares about protecting them. And not looking like a Russian spy would be a nice bonus. Sanctions work. Use them.
(Anyone who has studied Russian politics, and Putin in particular, comes to the same conclusion: the Kremlin loathes shows of weakness. If Trump wants Russia’s respect, he needs to fight back. He can kill two birds with one stone.)
A surprisingly candid Oval Office speech
Trump gets himself into trouble when he’s allowed to riff instead of following his teleprompter. But when he stays on message, he sounds wooden and bored. Also, there are rumours he should be wearing glasses but thinks they make him look nerdy. I’d combine all three of these factors into a single tv event.
First, he’d show up on camera with glasses. And he’d explain them right off the bat. He’d say some folksy and humanising thing about how his eyes aren’t as good as they used to be, but he really wanted to get this speech right. Something like that. Something new.
Then he’d talk about race, and he’d show some element of humility. He’d say these last few months were hard for the whole country, and that he was learning a lot about race in America. Then he’d explain that while he had made mistakes, and he wasn’t perfect, he felt that the protests were a classically American expression. And that he supported every single peaceful protester. Because this is what makes America great. And so forth.
Then he’d openly say, without any room for debate, that he doesn’t want racists voting for him. If you have hate in your heart against any group of people at all, he doesn’t want your vote in November. Full stop.
Double down on the message
Trump haters won’t buy it. And actual racists will be annoyed by it. But it will change the debate in a way that benefits Trump. Because the way you win is through the middle of the mainstream. And the middle of the mainstream can still be reached if Trump manages to stop sounding racist and sexist for at least one news cycle.
Which is why he’d need to double down. He’d know that people will be incredulous, and that the press will ask for details. So he should take each suspicious question as an opportunity to keep hammering the message: I have done my best. I am not perfect. I need to earn the right to have a second term. And that’s what I intend to do.
Have a clear vision for a second term
He should come up with a series of popular bills that have broad support. For example, he could say the second term will be about Education, Health, and Economy. He could go to Pelosi and say he wants only bipartisan legislation, and he wants lots of it. He wants results for the American people, and he’ll fight hard for them.
But we all know none of this can happen, because Trump hasn’t shown an ability to rise to the occasion. It’s not like this sort of advice is hard to come by. Plenty of Republican strategists tell him things like this all the time, he just refuses to listen.
I think Trump believes he will do whatever it takes to win a second term. But unfortunately the way to victory will require him to sound more like a Democrat, or at least a moderate. And he’d apparently rather lose than do that. He might just get his wish.