Guest Columnist

Trump won't be beat with plans alone

2020 Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Marianne Williamson speaks at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., August 9, 2019. REUTERS/Scott Morgan
2020 Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Marianne Williamson speaks at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., August 9, 2019. REUTERS/Scott Morgan

Marianne Williamson may not have “the answer.” But she’s the only one who has framed the right questions. Whether or not that qualifies her to be president, it clearly qualifies her to be a campaign strategist. Those who trivialize and mock her do so at their party’s and America’s peril.

Here are the questions: “What strategy is President Donald Trump using?” and “What strategy does that require of Democrats?”

At the June 27 debate, she warned the party that plans are not enough: “Donald Trump … didn’t win by saying he had a plan.”

She doesn’t advocate abandoning 20th century political strategies. Democrats still need to meet party members who now stay home or vote Republican — especially the ones living in the 80 percent of American counties that Trump carried in 2016. The candidates must show up, really listen to voters’ challenges and needs, and propose plans that at least outline solutions.

But Williamson closed that debate by answering the first question: “Donald Trump is not going … to be beaten just by somebody who has plans. He is going to be beaten by somebody who has an idea what this man has done. This man has reached into the psyche of the American people and he has harnessed fear for political purposes.”

She’s right about that. Trump won, and may win again, by personally utilizing the same strategy in speech and that he and the Russians use in their social media campaigns.

Trump may or may not believe in climate-change science, but he sure believes in the neurological science of the amygdalae, limbic cortex and brain stem, some of the most phylogenetically primitive regions of the brain. He believes in the science of reward and addiction that increase smartphone, video game and slot machine players’ TOD (time on device); advertisers manipulating consumers into buying things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, to impress people they don’t like; gaslighting, social psychology’s findings regarding groups’ influence on individuals; and the science behind propaganda.

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In short, he understands the role of fear, anger and hatred of “the other.” He knows the presidential election will be won more by targeting the most primitive regions of the brains of voters than by what’s aimed at their cerebral cortices.

So, “What strategy does that require of Democrats?”

Williamson says, “I have had a career harnessing the inspiration and the motivation and the excitement of people.” And in her closing statement said that Trump has “harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out ... I’m going to harness love for political purposes.”

Her use of the word “love,” with its romantic associations, was neither a precise nor helpful choice in this political context. The Greco-Christian term “agape” would have been only marginally better.

The challenge is much more complex. Trump is strategically increasing the emotions of hate and fear. What can Democrats do to excite even greater emotional responses involving compassion, empathy, and feelings of community?

Marianne Williamson’s questions are a major contribution that deserves understanding and appreciation. Now it’s up to Democrats’ candidates to craft and apply the answers.

• Nicholas Johnson is a native Iowan and three-time presidential appointee; his latest book is “Columns of Democracy.”

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