A Salesman’s Ghost Haunts the Trump Campaign
“Be liked and you will never want.”
— Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller, 1949
In the Pulitzer-winning play Death of a Salesman, the suicidal main character — 63-year-old Willy Loman — dwells in both the outward lie and the inward delusion that he’s successful, despite his meager circumstances. He also firmly believes the key to his imaginary success is being well liked.
Over the last four years or so, a number of commentators and pundits have equated Donald Trump to Willy Loman. Mainly in the sense that he also seems inordinately concerned with being liked (especially by dictators), and unable to accept his own shortcomings — both to the point of delusion, or nearly so.
Whether this assessment is fair and true or not is irrelevant.
But what may end up being very relevant to the 2020 election is the undoubtedly widespread perception that Trump sees himself as being universally adored — and virtually without fault. I’m no psychologist, but I think it’s safe to say that this makes him viscerally unlikable to many people. And I believe that could end up killing his chances for re-election, ironically…
That’s because in order for Trump to win, a whole lot of Americans are going to have to ignore their intense emotions about the man himself and vote rationally, based on his actual track record of accomplishments. The problem is that this just isn’t how we humans are hard-wired to make a lot of our decisions, even big ones.
What’s even more ironic is that if people were fundamentally wired to keep their emotions out of decision-making, the American electorate might be very likely to grant Donald Trump a second term in the White House. That’s because he’s got a formidable track record to run on:
- Consistent economic growth and historically low unemployment before coronavirus — and surprisingly strong ongoing recovery since
- A robust, resilient stock market, both before and during the pandemic
- Aggressive crisis stimulus and relief spending — the most in U.S. history
- Higher wages and lower taxes for almost everyone, and every business
- Equitable rebalancing of trade contracts with our allies and adversaries alike
- Rejection of shakedowns like the Paris climate and Iran nuclear deals
- Multiple peace accords in the Middle East, and a rethinking of our lopsided involvement in NATO
- Reduced regulation — and a renewed focus on domestic industries like energy, farming, and manufacturing
- Real action on illegal immigration, despite Congressional roadblocks
- Lower real-world costs for gasoline, drugs, and other essentials
- Dedication to a strong, capable, but sensibly deployed military
- Historically low interest rates and a turbocharged housing market
Much of this is no doubt appealing to voters of both parties, and independents. And there’s a lot more I could say to make that case.
Point is, doesn’t it seem like Trump’s re-election chances should be way better than average on the strength of this record? Some key statistics would tend to indicate that, too. For instance, a recent Gallup survey found that 56% of voters polled said they’re better off now than they were four years ago…
Compare that to the only 45% who reported feeling this same way at the end of Obama’s first term — and 47% who felt similarly at the end of Bush’s first term. I don’t need to remind you that both of those presidents won second terms.
Yet despite all this, I fear the 2020 election will come down to the sitting president’s likability, much more than his actual actions. To this point: Joe Biden now has an 8.5-point lead in one of the few national polls to correctly call Trump’s win in 2016. Over the last four U.S. presidential contests, this particular poll has been the most accurate one in the country…
And by virtually all indications, it might prove the ghost of Willy Loman right about the power of likability. Because I can’t imagine Biden’s lead is about his bafflingly inconsistent track record, or the far-left policy platforms he’s running on.
Pretty much anybody looks likable next to Hillary Clinton, but not so with Uncle Joe
When Donald Trump — a political outsider with his own money and off-the-charts name recognition — borrowed Reagan’s brilliant campaign slogan and adopted the simple, populist core promise to “drain the swamp” of American government…
Was it really such a big surprise that he got elected, in hindsight?
Especially against Hillary Clinton, one of the least popular presidential candidates in modern U.S. history?
But now it’s four long years later — and between the Tweets, press conferences, coronavirus briefings, rallies, summits, and endless, endless, endless headlines and newsfeeds, Trump’s about as over-exposed as you can get. I actually think America has seen so much of the man, around the clock, that it’s become a liability.
Think about that, from your own personal experience. Is anything worse for your opinion of someone than being sick to death of seeing and hearing him, or her? The last four years have been a Trump-a-thon. You literally can’t get away from him. And I’ll bet a lot of people, including many former fans, now just sort of want him to shut up and go away. That’s not a good re-election vibe.
Furthermore, unlike Hillary Clinton in 2016, Joe Biden consistently scores high on the likability scale. Substantially higher than Donald Trump, in fact. And by keeping a relatively low profile, Biden has starved the public for contact and made them want to see more of him, any way they can. By cancelling the second presidential debate, Trump played right into this hand. Not smart.
To win, the president needs the public to see more of Joe Biden, not less. He needs voters to see the challenger’s gaffes, flip-flops, shaky thinking, incoherent (and sometimes downright creepy) riffs, borrowed rhetoric, and extreme policy positions. That can only happen if Biden’s out there laying it down, in his own unique and sometimes incomprehensible way.
Bottom line: Evidence suggests that the more Donald Trump talks, the less people like him — especially women, and the undecided/moderate voters who are really going to decide this election. On the other hand, the less Joe Biden talks, the more people seem to like him. That’s a really difficult dynamic for an incumbent president to contend with in the final weeks of an election cycle…
And it’s got the GOP worried, quite rightly. Not just for the White House, but for the Senate as well. The beating they’re taking right now at the hands of the media and Democrats over the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation isn’t helping their prospects, either. Her ascendance to the Supreme Court could prove to be a costly victory, politically (but worth it, in my opinion).
Requiem for a dream of freedom and prosperity?
Back in December, I wrote a Whiskey article full of satirical versions of popular Christmas songs. “Twistmas carols,” I called them, and the piece ended up being a big hit with readers and staff…
Well, as I was writing this piece, the popular funeral song Danny Boy kept popping into my head for some reason or another — along with the seeds for a twisted version of my own for this election season.
I call it Donny Boy, and here it is, for your enjoyment:
Oh Donny boy, the polls, the polls are falling
From sea to sea, glens low and mountains high
Though summer’s past, the virus is not stalling
Your foes grow strong, your allies hedge and fly
Can ye come back and triumph o’er these sorrows?
The bookies say, they say the odds quite low
But with each Tweet, you hand the left more ammo
Oh Donny boy, oh Donny boy — the win you blow!
You’ve overcome their snare of Russian spying
Redrawn our deals with NATO and President Xi
You’ve taken out al-Bagdhadi and Soleimani
And staked our courts with guards of liberty
Yet despite what good you’ve done our country
(And there’s much more I could spell out for thee)
If you lose to a bunch of closet commies…
Who will then our guide to greatness be?
As with my twisted Christmas carols from last winter, please take this in the humorous spirit in which it’s intended. But as everyone knows, there’s truth underlying all humor…
And from where I’m sitting, the truth is that Trump and the GOP could be in big trouble this election. Last week, Ted Cruz said Republicans could experience “a bloodbath of Watergate proportions,” depending on the people’s collective mood come Election Day. I agree with him.
Maybe that’s why Danny Boy kept invading my mind as I wrote this — perhaps I see it as a requiem, somehow, for my liberty and money if the Democrats sweep? For the sake of our country, I really hope I’m overestimating the chances of that.
More than anything, though, I hope the American people can set aside their personal feelings toward the president and cast their votes based on his actions, not their affections for him, of lack thereof…
But that sort of seems like a long shot, doesn’t it?
Because being well liked counts for a lot in this life — just like Willy Loman said.
Freedoms Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder