What you say to win and what you do in power

Donald Trump was elected US president yesterday.

This was a surprise to most pollsters, and a surprise to me. The reason why I was surprised is because Trump ran a campaign which touched on Americans’ fears rather than their hopes. For as long as I’ve been alive, the US has been synonymous with hope. It’s therefore surprising that more Americans voted to elect someone who promises to prevent their fears from materializing rather than someone who promises to help them realize their hopes.

However, despite the outcome, I’m not concerned with the future of the US. The simple reason is that there’s a difference between what you need to say to win an election and what you do when you’re in power.

Normally, you win elections by painting a hopeful picture of the future. After you win, a few of the ideas resulting from these hopes play out in practice. However most of them hit and are grounded by cold hard reality. Candidates know that this will be the case but this doesn’t prevent them from campaigning with these ideas because it helps them persuade voters.

What Trump recognized was that, in order to have a chance of winning this election, he needed to paint a fearful rather than a hopeful picture of the future. The reasons for this were the overwhelming public mood at the time of the election and Trump’s status as a political outsider. He wouldn’t have had a chance to win by sharing the same message as an establishment candidate, and he was fortunate that the timing of the election was such that the overwhelming public mood was ready for a different message than hope. So Trump gave voters the message of fear.

Voters wanted to hear the message of fear so bad that they overlooked many of the personally offensive things Trump said about different groups of people. Some of his voters believe those things but most of his voters including those who belong to those groups don’t. They just willingly overlooked these personally offensive outbursts due to the appeal of his broader message of fear.

However, now that Trump has won, most of the ideas resulting from these fears will hit and be grounded by cold hard reality. Trump knows that this will be the case. In fact, just like previous candidates who campaigned based on hope without intending to follow through on most of their hopeful promises, Trump never intended to follow through on most of his fearful promises.

If someone smart really harbored Trump’s intentions, they wouldn’t tell you openly as Trump did. And, despite all the criticism about Trump’s inherited wealth and poor business practices, Trump is smart.

Trump simply recognized the difference between what you say to win an election and what you do when you’re in power. He built a campaign strategy that’s a means to an end. That’s no different than every politician who has come before him. The only difference is that he started with fear rather than with hope. This departure from the norm caught many of us off guard and made us uneasy.

What follows will be cold hard reality.

Also published on Medium.