The imperfect storm: 10 ways Trump swift-boated America

Has Trump targeted Hillary's weaknesses to defect from his own?

The imperfect storm: 10 ways Trump swift-boated America

Image: Evan Vucci AP/Press Association Images

Swift-Boating is a political campaigning technique of deflecting your most vulnerable weakness by attacking your opponent on the same grounds. It was pioneered by Roger Ailes, a Nixon advisor who became head of Fox News before resigning in the face of accusations of sexual misconduct in the workplace, and given its name by Karl Rove, chief advisor to George W Bush.

In 2004, Bush was faced with the story of having dodged the Vietnam War with a cushy gig in the Texas National Guard arranged by his father, and then having gone AWOL on that gig to work in politics. The story broke in 2000 when the Boston Globe's infamous Spotlight team investigated it but it didn't gain much traction nationally. CBS' 60 Minutes followed that up with a second investigation in 2004, which looked likely to cause Bush's campaign some harm - especially since he was running against John Kerry who had been decorated for bravery as a swift boat skipper in Vietnam.

Rove's solution was to attack Kerry's war record, claiming Kerry had fabricated his heroism and exaggerated the wounds that won him two Purple Hearts. The story of the candidates' military records dissolved into a 'he said, she said' argument, lost in the political antipathy of 'they all do it'.

And that is what you call swift-boating. 

Sound familiar?

Donald Trump has proven an instinctive and effective swift boater, turning the tactic on his opponents one by one in the primaries and giving it to Hillary Clinton with both barrels.

Trump realised that the odds were stacked against him, as an outsider with limited loyalty to the Republican party. He would not only have to run against 'the government' as virtually all Republican candidates have done since the Reagan years, he would have to turn the system against itself. His campaign became a Super Swifting Boating of America itself, and propelled him within a whisper of the White House. Here's ten ways how he did it:

1. Super Swift Boating America

Ronald Reagan ran against Washington, and Trump took the assault a step further, honing in on the 'elite' with his slogan 'Make America Great Again,' turning everything the political system threw at him into further evidence it was corrupt. In an echo of the Brexit campaign in Britain, 'experts' became the very con-men they were showing Trump himself to be.

Judges who ruled against the millionaire accused of fraud became 'haters' trying to keep the standard-bearer of the 'little guy' out of office. It was as if Trump, who would stiff Joe the Plumber out of his payments if Joe worked on a Trump building, had become Joe the Plumber on steroids. Or orange makeup.

Trump was running not against Hillary, but against the America that had produced her. The America that had also produced...

2. Reality TV 

Ever since John Kennedy 'defeated' Richard Nixon in 1960 after a famous televised debate in which style mattered far more than substance. As television assumed a bigger and bigger place in American life, so too in American politics.

Trump, who played a successful businessman in his reality TV show The Apprentice, realised that the process of selecting a president was no longer a political one, but a relentless reality show, where he had a huge advantage over the '16 Dwarves' opposing him on the Republican side.

While Ben Carson literally stood dazed in the wings, having missed his cue for introduction to one debate, Trump marched past him and commanded centre stage. Trump's outrageous comments not only stirred his core audience, their very outrageousness guaranteed they would attract media attention, and his performing skills guaranteed he'd be covered far out of proportion to his opponents, granted interviews as part of the 'news' cycle, and not need to buy the hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising US campaigns require.

The networks played along because Trump drew ratings. As CBS president Leslie Mooves said in February, 'it may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS'.

3. The Republican Vacuum

The 16 Dwarves collectively were preferred over Trump, but individually could not beat him one on one. The party's lurch to the right in the years since Southern democrats had migrated to it, in protest of Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts in the mid-Sixties, had been intensified by its amplification of Reagan's mantra that 'government was the problem'.

In the Democratic presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Republicans had virtually shut down government functions, and the Tea Party faction wanted this to continue. Trump was the only candidate who was not beholden to the Tea Party, but could offer it the vision of a demogogue who could bring the structure down.

Like evangelicals awaiting the armageddon of the Second Coming, Trump offered a political Rapture that would create a post-apocalyptic golden era.

4. Back To The Future

Reagan had sold America on a vision of the nation as it seemed to be in the 1950s: prosperous and powerful, where there was a place of sorts for everyone, and everyone knew their place.

'I'm gonna make it so good again' is not much of a policy statement, but it played to the vestigial memories of those who were not even alive in the 1950s, but whose identity politics was anchored not in economics but in opposition to protest, to feminism, to abortion, to gun control and other issues which could pull them emotionally to Trump's coded message.

5. The Dog Whistle

That's what those codes are referred to, in that they are only heard, and understood, by those in the know. When an American politician says 'states rights', he means 'racial discrimination'. When Trump said 'our second-amendment friends', his audience understood he meant folks with guns who might be willing to use them.

Sometimes the message wasn't coded: his attacks on Mexico and his infamous wall were a call against immigration, and a way of reminding his audience that the Democrats were the party of immigrants, the folks supposedly stealing jobs from hard-working Americans in the industrial wastelands of the rust belt.

6. Fractured Democrats 

Those were the voters who used to be solidly Democratic. But since Bill Clinton realised that he could take advantage of the Republican lurch rightwards to attract middle-class voters with his 'third way', the Democrats have grown increasingly out of touch with what once was their core support. It's no surprise Britain's Labour party faces the same dilemma post Tony Blair, whose strategy echoed Clinton's.

When asked if he were worried about losing the working class support, Clinton was supposed to have said 'where else will they go?' Trump provided an answer to that. The paradox being that the disappearing jobs in America are the direct result of corporation taking advantage of Bill Clinton's free trade agreements, not the agreements themselves.

Though the Republicans remain the party of big business, Trump offers the illusion of re-setting America to that earlier age. The Democrats meanwhile are left with urban liberals, minorities and increasingly, women, as their core.

7. The He-Man Woman Hater's Club

Trump was lucky in running against the one candidate whose disapproval ratings were nearly as high as his own. Part of that was Hillary's being seen as the 'establishment' candidate, the choice of the 'elite' simply, as many Republicans put it, because she was Bill Clinton's wife. Did I mention back to the Fifties?

The Party that had twice elected George HW Bush's son, and was prepared to run another of his sons, wasn't bothered by their own elitism. But Trump also played the misogyny card from the start.

Seeing the public displays of anti-Hillary slogans calling her 'the bitch' and much worse was a frightening lowering of the level of discourse which was encouraged from the speaking platform at Trump rallies.

There is little question that a man with Hillary's political history would not spend years being pursued over the use of a server. But Hillary was swift-boated by Trump right from the first moment of the campaign.

8. Crooked Hillary

Swift-boating at its finest. You are a man with a chequered business career that includes mob ties detailed by biographers; multiple bankruptcies leaving investors out to dry; literally thousands of law suits; federal charges of racial discrimination and pending trial for fraud. You claim to be financing your own campaign, but much of that money is being paid to yourself, for using your own plane, your own hotels.

Your backing is coming from political action campaigns whose donors remain hidden. Your businesses may well be in debt to Russian investors. So how do you characterise your opponent? As 'crooked'. You do it constantly, in virtually every reference you make, and then you call her a 'nasty' woman who's run a 'nasty' campaign.

You threaten to put her in jail if you are elected President. Trump is a negotiator who considers every negotiation a zero-sum game. He begins by taking an extreme position, and following it with more extreme positions, until what becomes a final 'compromise' is something his opponent cannot live with.

Were Trump elected he might magnanimously offer not to jail Hillary, but not until a huge investigation had probed every inch of hers and Bill's lives.

When FBI director Jonathan Comey was forced to 'walk-back' (e.g. admit there was nothing there) his bombshell about new emails that 'might be connected' to Hillary's server, Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway was asked if the candidate would apologise, for calling it the 'bigger than Watergate'.

Her reply encapsulated Trump's technique: 'Well, the damage is done to Hillary just doesn't change what's in voters' minds right now.'  

9. False Equivalency

The descent of politics into reality television was accelerated by the change in what major networks termed balance in their coverage. The 'fairness doctrine' which required equal time if stations ran 'opinion' was removed during the Reagan years. The growth of cable news channels, primarily the agenda-led Fox News, is exacerbated by the fact that many people now get their news from the filter of their internet feeds: seeing only the programmes that reinforce their views.

In the face of this, network television, still the surest way of reaching the biggest audience, considers fairness given equal time to both 'sides', while ignoring facts or refusing to challenge lies. As Fox's Chris Wallace, preparing to moderate a presidential debate, explained: 'fact-checking isn't my job'.

Simply putting the message out there, true or false, is the candidate's job. In his debates with Clinton, Trump simply ignored many questions, homing back in on his attacks on her, moving back to his bullet points, knowing their veracity would not be challenged.

Trump had benefited immensely from the structural bias of television, yet as his campaign waned, and as the media, now with a two-horse race, actually began to investigate him as the race came down the stretch, he actually claimed 'mainstream' media was rigged against him, he played the final swift-boat card.

10: The System is Rigged

Trump saved the best for last. If he were to lose, he claimed, it would be because the election was rigged against him. Ignore years of gerrymandering that overwhelming benefits Republicans, ignore the Florida debacle that saw George Bush elected with a minority of votes; ignore the voter suppression which has intensified since the Roberts court nullified protections from Johnson's voters rights act; the theme became 'election fraud' in Hillary's favour. Which brought him full circle back to the idea that he was running against America. It was as if he were asking America to vote for him to prove it was still a democracy.

A Trump presidency is seen by many as a first step in to an Orwellian government by a demagogue. In reality, a Trump presidency would be more likely to be the last step. The first ones have already been taken.