Donald Trump: The Smackdown Strategy.

It has been fascinating watching the recent Presidential selection cycle in the USA.

On arrival, I started asking people who they were looking for as a Presidential candidate – and a surprising number of people I spoke to said, “anyone but Hillary” and Donald Trump was the person they would like to vote for. Several are serious, successful, thoughtful people whom I respect the opinions of – so it isn’t just the disenfranchised.

As a European coming to America, I was genuinely ambivalent about Trump. His candidature did not seem serious, despite the number of people who felt he was a legitimate political figure. Like many, I saw him as a celebrity critique insurgent, like Russell Brand in the last UK election; a man with support, who lacked credibility other than to inspire the disaffected and marginalised in society. His campaign made no sense. “I’m richer than these guys so I am right and they are wrong. These guys are hopeless, ugly and stupid. I will beat them to a pulp.” His policies were, “I am a tough guy and I will stop the bad guys who are foreigners, weak liberal elites, the establishment who are keeping “us” down.”

I didn’t get it.

Surely Presidential candidates are the peak of American society, experienced leaders with decades of public service serving as VP like Nixon (and Senator of California) and George H W Bush (who also headed the CIA). We want to elect the best among us, like Truman and Wilson, educated men with a firm moral compass needed  to make the hardest and most difficult decisions. Or we want the most congenial leaders, like Reagan, Roosevelt and Clinton who use charm and personality to bring people together. We want military heroes like Kennedy and Eisenhower, (among many) both of whom had demonstrated leadership in the battlefield. Even when we need the dirty stuff done, Presidents like LBJ have a firm grasp of the real world having been a teacher and public servant.

Donald Trump is none of these and unlike any other candidate.

As a student of the post-war American Presidency, I looked back at similar campaigns and the closest candidate is Barry Goldwater in the 1964 campaign. Goldwater was a southern businessman and politician, and perhaps the godfather of the southern conservative movement, of which Ted Cruz is now the flag bearer of. His policies are not so similar to Trump, but his positions were just as polarising. His bullying criticism of the Republican elites and hounding of Nelson Rockefeller, the grandest of grandees, has some similarities, but Trump is no Goldwater.

Goldwater, for all his opinions was a committed public servant, a thinker and had great rectitude. And, as we know, Goldwater lost the 1964 election by a landslide against LBJ.

And then it hit me today. Donald Trump is not following a traditional political strategy at all, he is NOT Goldwater, or anyone else. His campaign is a wrestling narrative and November the 8th is Wrestlemania. He is playing the playbook of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, a 1990s character from the WWE.

Wrestling as Life

Back in the 1980s and 90s I was a wrestling fan. Each “character” represented a segment of American life.

Hulk Hogan was the bronzed all American super-hero. Roddy Piper and Jim Duggan, the American everyman, Sgt Slaughter the turncoat, Andre the Giant, The Iron Sheikh, Nikoli Volkoff, the foreign bad guys (who became good guys depending on prevailing US Foreign Policy!).

However, something strange happened in the late 1990s. A wrestler, a bad guy, Steve Austin, after winning a match against former “hero” Jake “The Snake” Roberts (below) came up with a persona where he took on the good guys and denigrated their personas.

Because of his character’s “personality”, nobody owned him, he said what he wanted and drank beer after a fight against the rules. The ruder and more obnoxious he became, the more people loved him.

As his popularity grew, the WWE created more “establishment” figures to try and stop him, to the point where the WWE created a long running feud – as part of the storyline –  with the owner of the WWE Vince McMahon. The narrative was that the WWE as a company wanted to stop Austin, but buoyed by his grassroots support, Austin became more and more popular and won the day.

Steve Austin remains one the most iconic wrestlers in history. There were many better technical wrestlers, many more articulate and charismatic speakers, but few who managed to win as much popularity and adulation.

Austin not only earned top billing, but changed the medium of wrestling away from the black and white narrative of good guy-bad guy, but shifted the entire wrestling business to a new phase known as “Attitude.”

After injury, Steve Austin’s appearances became less frequent, but Donald Trump, a long term supporter of WWE started to appear as a guest and latterly as a character, involving himself into storylines, ultimately becoming one of Steve Austin’s victims in the Wrestling ring.

It is clear to me, that Trump has copied Steve Austin’s strategy.

Like Steve Austin, he has ridiculed his opponents in the crudest and most obvious ways to make them become irrelevant and small compared to him. With Cruz and Rubio, expect the same standard stereotyping as seen previously, and against Hillary Clinton a new wave of sexism and misogyny not seen in public debate for decades. 

And like Steve Austin, he has changed the Republican Party through insurgency; the traditional rules of politics do not apply. The voters are his and not the Party’s.

So stop talking about historical precedent or anything else that has gone before. The fight for the Republican Nomination – and indeed the Presidency – has roots in WWE and not historical political strategies.

Opponents better hit first, and hit hard, as taking from Steve Austin’s signature move, it only takes a second before they are hit by the Donald Trump Stunner – and there is no getting up when knocked down.

OL March 2016

 

 

 

Gambling Badly: WTF is going on?

Las Vegas is a curious city. It is a town built for gambling by gamblers, and if gambling is part of the human condition, Las Vegas is the most distilled version. Gambling is about hope, about luck, about aspiration, however unlikely, to win that big prize.

Indeed, today all our political campaigns centre around the message of aspiration. However, this message of bettering your life has been at the heart of some of the most pernicious regimes over past decades. Aspiration for a more equal society, aspiration for a growing economy, aspiration for extreme wealth, aspiration for change. The aspiration candidate is one who offers to make lives better, and communists, fascists as well as social democrats have played that tune.

Where casinos succeed is in selling aspiration while having effective management in controlling risk and expectations, as not every customer can be a winner. The same cannot be said in politics. Currently in global politics there are several gambles in progress, some economic and financial, the others political. Our political leadership in past generations seemed to have balanced risk and reward and erred on the side of caution.

Today, this is not the case as our leaders seem to fail to grasp that risk has downside as well as upside.

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Obama: Trusting the Gambler to Play Fair

I have written previously on game theory and the Iranian negotiations. It seems that the deal worked out by the US and Iranian Governments is not so much a fully comprehensive treaty, but the framework for a bet.

On one side we have the USA offering to ease sanctions on Iran and allow them to get on with building a nuclear capacity, trusting them not to build a weapon.

This is like giving a known card cheat free chips and a pack of cards and asking them to deal to themselves. Moreover, the casino will not monitor the security cameras routinely, but when they do, it will be the cheater’s family that will do so. If the cheater stays in the casino for a given time, they can walk away with their winnings.

The government‘s case is that the only alternative to the above scenario is that the card cheat would find a way to cheat anyway, so you might as well let them do it under your roof.

This logic is clearly flawed, however the response to the debate has been chilling; if you are opposed to the deal, you are acting against the best “interests” of America. You are shut down. An enemy voice. A dissenter. A warmonger.

Conflict with Iran is inevitable. It may be military, may be ideological or may be in trade, but the governing philosophies and ideologies of the USA and Iran are not aligned. It is not correct nor helpful to single out for criticism anyone who who states this obvious fact.

Wanting to find peace and a diplomatic solution to conflict is aspirational, but it it isn’t always possible.

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Labour: Bringing Down The House

Much as been written and debates about the 2015 Labour defeat. I have watched and read as much as anyone and am not at all surprised by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn within the Labour election process.

The British left has always fascinated me since I was a student, where I would develop strategies to counter the leftist radical groups, such as the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Action and Socialist Organiser. As a campaigner for a fair, free, meritocratic and just society, I would look at some of their policy positions and obsessions (in particular on the Middle East) and would try and understand what parallel universe these people lived in. The groups were mired with conspiracy theories and were operated like cults.

The checks on the influence of these groups; who already run the Trade Union movement and have adopted key positions in the Labour party and public sector bodies in true entryist fashion, were the rules of the UK Labour Party, which included centralised power in the hands of the MPs and a dispersed electoral base.

Ed Miliband, who looks increasingly like the worst political leader in the history of UK politics, gambled and failed many times. Each bet was a losing one. He was a loser and when eventually betting and losing the house, he walked away.

His legacy is a Bennite Manifesto for political change in the Labour Party. History has a selection of unwitting ‘morons’ who had good intentions but bad decision making. Ed Miliband was ether incompetent beyond belief or an engaged subversive in allowing radical groups control and influence in the party. This is a huge gamble for the Labour Party, perhaps the most extreme political bet in the past 100 years.

Jeremy Corbyn is the aspirational candidate in the Labour election and will be the aspiration candidate if he makes the general election. He has already galvanised the Labour Party, bringing on a new wave of support which will change the direction of the Party for decades to come. But he cannot deliver his message without destroying Britain.

Corbyn may make it to Prime Minister, he may not, but at this juncture it seems likely an entryist radical may take control of a major political party for the first time in history. It may be that the radical left could build a coalition to win an election in the UK, stealing votes from the SNP, UKIP and Labour.

Now, some may say that I am being slightly overboard here and this may not be such a bad thing to have a leftist leader framing the debate or even winning an election, but when a society becomes ambivalent on the subject of anti-Semitism this is history’s alarm bell. That “I am not an anti-Semite, some of my friends might be” is Corbyn’s position.

Watch this space.

ISIS

ISIS: Hoping their luck will run out.

Since the Nazis, there has been no greater evil in the world than ISIS today.

“How did we let this happen?” and “Never Again” are much quoted afterthoughts from the Holocaust. What made that genocide unique was that it was industrial in its conception and delivery. This is true today in Iraq and Syria in ISIS held areas.

The brutality and barbarity knows no bounds. We KNOW of the mass executions, the beheading, the drowning, the burning, the shooting, the random murder of non-believers, gays and those who do not accept the ISIS philosophy but how many thousands of deaths do we not know?

I weep for the Yazidi, the ancient sect that has been systematically destroyed, the children raped, murdered and traded as slaves, and although there has been global condemnation the lack of military response to this real time avoidable genocide is a moral crime against humanity.

But ISIS has supporters. Those who reject liberal society and embrace the truth of radical Islam. These people are no different than anyone else in that they aspire. Their aspiration is historical, religious and to a restate a modern Caliphate.

The global response to ISIS has been like the casinos view of a gambler; they them keep on playing and eventually the gambler’s luck will run out, their play will revert to the mean and they will begin to lose. Except that ISIS sometimes wins, sometimes loses, but throughout the larger campaign, the slaughter continues. Daily. Hourly.

I read an article in the Times that ISIS was bound to fail as they have pinned their economy to the gold standard! How can a terrorist group have an economic strategy? How can it possibly have come to this?

ISIS are coming to Europe. They are coming fast. They deserve all the opprobrium we can muster. Our response to evil is pathetic.

It looks like our leaders are gambling with our world and making bad bets. When there is no casino to regulate behaviour, the gaming floor can turn to anarchy quickly. I am fearful.

Electile Dysfunction Disorder

Bits of me are not working correctly. Maybe it is my age or lifestyle over the past 20 years, but I have a problem.

As a strategist I love elections and political campaigns.

Like the columnist and politician, Daniel Finkelstein, I mark key life events around general elections, but his is the first general election since 1992 where I have not campaigned. In fact I will be out of the country on election day and will not be able to vote.

In 1997, I was in the middle of my Undergraduate degree. After graduation many of my contemporaries in student politics moved in to polling, policy and politics – as did I.  Five years ago I was undertaking an Executive MBA where my main focus was strategy. Subsequent to finishing this, I have continued to research and advance my thinking in the area of Strategic Marketing and approaches to customer loyalty – which I suppose is the aim of political parties in campaigning season.

I have met with senior politicians of all stripes in the past 5 years and shared some of my insights with them, so I think I have an understanding of what goes on both on the ground and in the sky.

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Strategists and the Message

Ideological philosophy is not enough to win an election – indeed it is arguable hasn’t been for decades. Voters are looking at their political parties to present a competent, coherent and credible strategy for government and have it communicated.

A strong political strategy starts with understanding the core values and needs of the electorate and providing a policy response.

Philip Gould’s The Unfinished Revolution features this insight from Tony Blair:

“One of the most common fallacies in Politics is that you can have great communications and lousy policy and win. You can’t. People may admire the campaign, but it won’t prevent defeat. The 1987 election was a classic of this genre… Owing to Peter Mandelson’s brilliance, the campaign was stunning. We still lost by a landslide.”

Political strategists poll. In Netflix’ series House of Cards, everything is polled, from the colour of the candidate’s spouse’s hair to the use of keywords in speeches and the same is true in reality. Political strategies are created in two ways, either top down or bottom up, however even the most patrician of strategies must try and understand the voter.

Watch old party political broadcasts (I am sad enough to be an owner of the old VHS tape acquired from Politico’s Bookshop, back in the day). This was top down politics, from all parties, but with the advent of targeted polling, big data and the ability to customer segment, all political strategies now have an element of bottom up, even if they are really top down. Segmentation by not just demographics, but also psychographics.

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It strikes me that the Conservative Party’s entire election strategy is based on three tactics:

The first is the appearance of economic competence. This is nonsense. Yes the economy is improving, but after a sustained period of recession, it was difficult not to get growth, and they nearly managed that! There is a collective short memory and the coalition’s economic strategy did a 360 turn and when the cutting didn’t work, they shifted to spending to stimulate. So when the monetarist strategy failed, they went back to Keynesian-lite. They implemented the policy that they opposed when it was proposed by Labour.

Secondly, the opposition leader is unfit to govern. I comment on this below, but by painting the opposition leader as weak, then ruthless, then “red” even that strategy is comical. This is an import from the USA and Australia, however the big difference from those countries and indeed past elections is that this is no longer two or even three party politics. Indeed the last national election was won by UKIP, the SNP are the largest party in Scotland. Negative campaigning directly against a leader is becoming a zero-sum-gain as the Conservatives reinforce perceptions of their nasty side.

Finally, Identify swing voters in marginal seats and bribe them with things that will make them money. So far we have seen Conservative plans to freeze rail prices, but criticise Labour for calling for an energy freeze, to criticise Labour for unfunded promises, but promising an unfunded amount to the NHS, but worst of all, by promising renters the right to buy from private companies with state money is a scandal, if not illegal! It is like saying a Government will force McDonalds to give free food to all hungry people!

Over the past decade the Tories have hopscotched from “Are you thinking what we’re thinking”, which never really meant anything, other than appealing to people’s fears and concerns, to this opportunistic bag of tactics, rather than a coherent strategy.

Today’s Labour is very similar. Everything is polled and analysed. Labour had had time and resources to build a map of Britain. However when creating the policy responses to Britain’s problems, the response is not strategic, but tactical. And tactically wrong.

The Liberal Democrats will struggle, how can a political strategy sustained for decades as the opposition campaign as incumbent?

The SNP, UKIP, Greens and others fall into the category of identity politics, which I have written about earlier. To counter this strategy it is very difficult as the premise of debate is not even as the vote isn’t about power or even policy, but identity.

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Why I Left The Labour Party

When I cancelled my direct debit late last year, I felt, to paraphrase President Reagan, “I didn’t leave the Labour Party, the Party left me.”

Fairness, equality and social justice, not to mention opportunity, meritocracy and social mobility remain as core to my identity as they always were, but the leadership of the Labour Party no longer had resonance with me. What I saw was opportunistic, ignorant and a lack of judgement on issues that were of key importance to me.

Specifics? Well, first of all is the rejection of the Blair Government. Britain was transformed under Tony Blair’s leadership. The cities were renewed, London became a key global city and opportunities for people from all backgrounds became enhanced. The response to this from the leader was some kind of rejection, perhaps embarrassment. When the financial system collapsed, the Government supported it. If it had not, then everyone – except the most wealthy – would have been wiped out. This is the reason for the increase in the national debt. Britain got better after decades of neglect and in crisis, the Government stepped in to save ordinary families, their savings and their pensions.

Phrasing the debate as rich versus poor, bashing Stephen Hester at RBS (who did an exceptional job) and the financial sector is the politics of envy. Quite frankly, if the rich got richer, I don’t care – as long as they pay their taxes. Incidentally, I have some support for the “non-dom” argument, not that those who are not domiciled in the UK should have to pay tax on foreign earnings, but how the status of non-domiciled people are determined; that a tax benefit is inherited on a hereditary basis is nothing short of farce! But that is not the way that it is being sold, it is a “them and us” argument, which is not palatable in my view.

Likewise, the producers versus predators rhetoric is also misleading as efficient financing and capital structures are business strategy and not a matter of morality or Government. It is the role of business leaders to maximise returns for their shareholders – including the millions of investors and pension holders – and to form and shape their company’s ethics to the point that CSR is a core part of what they do, but it clearly not the role of the Government.

For over 20 years I have been aware of the rise of radical Islamism, a vicious, fascistic doctrinal movement that is in diametric opposition to the liberal views of modern society. It makes me sad to say this, but throughout history, there is no evidence that a liberal response to this type of evil works (please see my earlier post on Chamberlain).

As tens of thousands of Yazidis were murdered in Syria, what did the Labour leader do? When thousands of radical Islamists hijacked the cause of the Palestinians in Gaza and called for the murder of Jews on the streets of London, what did the Labour leader do? When a Member of Parliament leads a charge to recognise a terrorist backed State, what does the Labour leader do?

Labour took polls, it found bandwagons and the leader jumped on them. These gross errors tell me more about the Labour leader than any campaign. I don’t think he is weak or stupid or indecisive or uncharismatic or anything else thrown at him. I think his lack of real world experience does not give him the perspective to have good judgement and as a result is just plain wrong on the issues that matter to me.

As alluded to, Labour needs to keep the core base in tow especially in those key marginal seats, which includes a large amount of British Islamic votes. Labour’s leader’s response to Islamic radicalism and the Middle East tells me his thoughts are about more about those votes than mine.

I support the Labour Party and wish them well. But I cannot pay money to be a member of an organisation, which has a leader with such poor judgement.

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Analysis

I remember in 2010, I spent the day leafleting in a marginal, but winnable constituency with a first class Labour candidate. By 5pm news was filtering in that Gordon Brown had called Gillian Duffy a bigot when a microphone has been left on him. The Conservatives held the seat, Labour lost a great potential MP.

I am not a pollster with insights other than what is printed in the media.

A million things could change and what I write could be irrelevant as soon as I publish, but as I stand, with three weeks of campaigning to go, this is my reading.

Tony Blair claimed of David Cameron’s Conservatives, that “If we can’t beat this lot, we don’t deserve to be in politics”. He was right.

Labour will not win this election. They don’t deserve it.

Neither do the Conservatives.

The electorate is far more sophisticated than of yesteryear. I don’t believe that their argument surrounding economic competence is such a major driver as the Conservatives want it to be. Ed Miliband is proving he is not a weirdo now that as he has direct media exposure and on reflection voters see right through the bribes on offer as they can’t reconcile the language of “austerity” with unaccounted giveaways. This is bad strategy.

Labour has the best candidates and the best communication. However, their strategy is flawed.

Creating a strategy to win an election is about understanding needs and providing the policy response that works. Neither party has provided a clear policy response. The Conservatives are cynical. Labour’s leader has demonstrated terrible judgement.

This entire election campaign is dysfunctional. I am not enjoying it.

I am delighted to have no emotional investment in this election campaign and even happier to be abroad for the final weeks of it. However, I don’t think it will be long until we will be having another one, hopefully with a different dynamic and different outcome.