President Trump’s recent Washington Post interview where he discussed his relationship with his late brother Fred, who passed away in 1982 at the age of 41, was a rare look into the personal side of our 45th president. As the president’s poll numbers in key swing states, particularly with suburban voters, continue to lag behind the Democratic field, opening a window into Trump the man can be key to his reelection success.
The president has a likability problem. Polling data has consistently shown that people often agree with the president’s policies, particularly on the economy, but don’t find him personally appealing. Those in the middle who decide elections don’t “like” him. The media tirelessly amplifies the tough and manic aspects of Trump’s personality to drive up his unfavorable ratings. The president’s own reactions often compound the problem.
For his base, the brash, direct, undisciplined and sometimes inappropriate Donald Trump is part of what attracts people to him. The president talks the way that people talk. He revels in the fact that he’s “not presidential.” It has contributed to the development of his “blue-collar billionaire” persona. It is, however, lacking a more emotive, relatable component.
There is an inherent contradiction in today’s American politics. Voters are looking for leaders who embody success and achievement that serve to inspire others. After all, our political identity as a nation is tied up in the presidency, for better or worse. They also want presidents who are relatable and can identify with the challenges Americans face. In essence, they want someone who is more like them on an emotional level.
The rational side of the brain of the American voter is looking for policy they agree with and a candidate with a strong resume or record. The emotional side of the brain is looking for likability and relatability. The emotional side is stronger.
Here is where Trump is coming up short. The Twitter tirades and exacting bravado must be balanced with a more human side. Opening up about his brother’s challenges with addiction, his feelings about his relationship with him and the complex dynamics within a competitive Trump family, were personal and relatable for the average American. There was even a rare glimpse of contrition from the usually strident Trump.
It was a step in the right direction, and importantly, it didn’t diminish his toughness. Clinton, the Bushes, and even Obama weren’t shy about emotional displays. We shouldn’t expect Trump to start getting all teary-eyed but showing a more personal side would be powerful.
We have a president who has faced enormous pressures and significant challenges, yet we know so little about them. He’s a father and grandfather, a husband, and a son. He’s had the highest of highs and low lows. He has a compassionate side that we rarely see. We often see the president’s scowl. The media makes sure of that. We rarely see him really laugh.
To win suburban voters and narrow the gender gap, he has to be more than a bull in a china shop. Just like most other people, he needs to be multi-dimensional. Maintaining a position of leadership requires relatability. It takes being more open, more personal, compassionate and at times vulnerable.
Democrats understand how to tug on the emotional side of the voter’s brain.
Joe Biden is a gaffe machine and a political chameleon, but it can’t be denied that Joe Biden is a survivor. That’s attractive to people. Joe Biden hasn’t had it easy. He was a young, newly-elected senator when his wife and daughter were killed in a horrific car accident in 1972. He would later deal with the loss of his son Beau, an up-and-coming star in the Democratic Party. His grief would be the public reason for his passing on the 2016 presidential election. In the 1980s he survived a brain aneurysm and returned to work in the Senate after months of recovery.
Personal struggles make someone relatable, even more likable. Personal narratives are essential to making an emotional connection with voters. Democrats are masterful at leveraging them.
Mitt Romney made this mistake in 2012 and it may have cost him the election. Generous, good-hearted and affable, the Romneys, who as newlyweds lived in a basement apartment, refused to talk about (or have others discuss) their philanthropy and personal lives for much of the campaign. As a candidate, he was easily painted by the Obama machine as a rich white guy who fires people. By the time the Romneys got personal at the Republican convention, it was too late.
Where’s the Donald Trump who met a down-on-his-luck guy and his daughter on the street and gave him a job that got his life back on track? Stories like this one are true, but virtually nobody knows it.
On the Democratic side, given the emerging, radical nature of the party’s platform, and focus on so-called social justice and identity politics, they have the opposite problem. It’s been their playbook since Obama. All form and little substance.
The Trump team needs to learn fast that 2020 isn’t 2016. Opening up and a more personal narrative will help build the voter coalition necessary to win. To be sure, it won’t be easy. But not doing it may mean counting too much on the other side losing.