How you can win an election despite being seen as incompetent

Donald Trump in front of a huge flag

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash.

Written about the forthcoming US Presidential election, this point from The Message Box newsletter about how perceived strength can trump competence comes with some obvious echoes for British politics too:

Trump conducting his convention illegally from the White House was a very specific choice. In addition to providing images that would have made Hugo Chavez blush, it reminded voters that norms and institutions are too weak to stop Trump from doing what he wants…

Progressives sometimes confuse competence with strength. George W. Bush was one of the most incompetent people to ever walk the face of the planet, but he was reelected because he convinced voters that he was strong and John Kerry was weak. As former President Bill Clinton once said “When people are insecure, they’d rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who’s weak and right.”…

Most of us respond to Trump’s dictatorial cosplay by expressing horror at his power grabs and worrying (often publicly) about the fate of democracy. While this reaction is logical and understandable, it is also counter-productive. The more we describe Trump as an authoritarian capable of anything, the more we reinforce his appeal with a core set of voters.

None of this is to suggest that we should ignore Trump’s offenses against democracy. Far from it. It’s not IF we talk about Trump’s authoritarianism. It’s HOW we talk about it. The key is to emphasize that Trump operates from a position of weakness, not strength.

Listen to the Liberal Democrats and British politics being discussed by myself and a wide range of experts from inside and outside the party on my podcast, Never Mind The Bar Charts.

3 responses to “How you can win an election despite being seen as incompetent”

  1. The problem is the nature of American democracy, of which the electoral college is just the tip of the iceberg, and that the Democrats have so many vested interests in the status quo that they won’t do anything about it.

  2. Is the Trump phenomenon also a direct result of the two party system in US politics? I know there are other parties in the election but they usually amass too few votes to be significant. Two party systems are essentially Us v Them, and so they naturally tend to promote extremes – We have to appear as different as possible from Them to avoid confusing the voters. For the UK the situation emphasises the value and importance of being in a multi-party state, and for LibDems this reinforces the need to promote the party as much as we can to ensure that there is a middle voice of reason that can help avoid extremes. The problem is that the middle must seek to appeal to all sides, which makes generating policies more difficult.

    There are other flaws in the US system which are not present in the UK system, such as the electoral college, which works against third parties, the voter registration system, which is insufficiently independent of the main parties, the primary system, again not independent of the parties, and the voting district boundary setting system, which enables gerrymandering. New dangers have also recently emerged, such as political compromise of the US postal voting system, the role of social media in political campaigning. But the biggest historical problem has been money – lack of campaign spending caps – which also helps to stop third parties emerging. The point in the article about the power of a President is also relevant – Could Mr Trump seek to remove the two term limit on the Presidency?

    Our UK system is better on many counts, but before we start crowing ours is a very flawed system simply because it is first past the post, which places a high bar against third parties gaining any seats, and helps to perpetuate incompetence through its tendency to generate safe seats – the December 2019 GE perhaps illustrated this well. That is why a primary focus on for LibDems, Greens and even the UKIP faction (if it still exists) is to achieve the adoption of PR.

  3. The recent work on how to solve this suggest that humour rather than outrage is the way to deal with it. “Strong people don’t get laughed at” – the key is to frame the joke in a form that the current supporters of the “Strong man” will find funny not insulting.

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