I was reading the great chess master and human rights activist Garry Kasparov’s brillant book on strategy called, “How Life Imitates Chess” and came across something relevant to strategizing against Trump.
1992: Bill Clinton vs. George Bush Sr.
Kasparov described the presidential election in 1992 when Bill Clinton faced off against George Bush Sr. All the time, Kasparov noted, a new slew of accusations came out against Bill Clinton. Much like his wife Hillary in the 2016 election, Bill found himself on the defensive. What would he do? How could he possibly win with all of these new accusations being thrown against him constantly?
How Bill Clinton Overcame 90s Wikileaks
While new accusations were constantly coming out against him, Clinton was in a defensive situation.
He had, it seems to me, three options…
The first would be to ignore the accusations completely. This seems to be what Hillary did in 2016. She thought she could run out the clock… that there was no need to respond to the Wikileaks emails. She thought staying on message alone was the key.
But the stories got away from her. The media kept talking about it despite what she said. They weren’t airing her vision as much because she didn’t comment on the stories of the day which included the newest accusations from Trump and/or leaks from Wikileaks.
Clearly, this was not a successful strategy.
2. Defend primarily
Responding seems like a better response, right? If you are on TV directly refuting the accusation the dialogue isn’t going on without you. But then the entire news cycle is just about the accusation. Not very good press. It doesn’t paint you in a positive light even if the accusation was completely false.
This, says Kasparov, was Michael Dukakis’ mistake from the prior election, “people only heard him [Dukakis] defending himself, not presenting his own message.”
3. Defend & redirect with a compelling vision
Here is what the great strategist Garry Kasparov says helped Bill Clinton win the election. Not only did Clinton respond to accusations rather than ignoring them, he used the opportunity to redirect the discussion to the economy.
He knew the economy was the issue that they decided the election could be won by so it wasn’t just a random choice. Unlike Dukakis, Clinton wasn’t only heard defending himself. He was able to respond and then focus on his alternative vision. Kasparov sees this as a focused strategy.
How to respond to Trump accusations & Wikileaks
If we take Kasparov’s advice in his 2007 book, how would we apply it to beating Trump at the polls today? It’s not hard to imagine every politician opposing Trump facing their own accusations from Wikileaks given Russia’s interest in helping Trump and their influence over or control of Wikileaks. Even without Wikileaks it seems like Trump always has new verbal attacks his opponents must respond to.
1. Don’t Ignore Trump’s Accusations
His opponents shouldn’t ignore them. Sometimes we think, and understandably so, that responding to Trump’s objections lets him determine the debate. But we have no choice. He is like an (overly) aggressive player in chess. If he moves his pieces towards our king we can’t just ignore them. We must deal with the situation as it is.
If you wan’t to beat Trump it seems that you must respond to his objections. We can’t help that Trump makes the news and often determines the stories. We have to face them. Hillary tried to ignore them and they slowly ate away at the public’s already limited trust of her as time went on. We must do something different.
3. Redirect **with purpose**
We shouldn’t spend too much time responding so the audience doesn’t get the feeling Kasparov noted that they got with Michael Dukakis… that he was always on the defensive. We should shortly redirect to a compelling alternative.
But other crucial considerations must be made. Here are some…
You need a strategy and compelling alternate vision
I’m not convinced Democrats have this yet. What will appeal to rust belt voters? Maybe the Democrats have put too much energy into their most radical base and so have scared off moderates. Maybe they too need to try to skirt the culture wars and appeal to the economy and oppose globalization. Maybe they need new leadership.
You can still laugh off absurd objections
Responding to objections doesn’t mean you treat crazy like it was sane. Bring facts but sometimes you have to call crazy crazy. Even humor can be a useful tool in this area. For more on this see our article, Debating the Absurd: Trump & Lessons from Phil Hendrie?
Study even absurd objections
Even while sometimes using humor, do your homework. You can easily lose a debate to an absurd claim if all you can do is express disbelief while being uneducated on the topic yourself. Study reliable sources and evidence. When that isn’t enough, call a spade a spade.
Don’t mince words
Don’t mince words, “the truth shall set you free” as Jesus famously said. If they are gaslighting, say so. If they are lying, say so. Much of the failure to do so by both Trump’s Democratic and Republican opponents has partly led to Trump’s election.