As both fans and critics await the next Donald Trump controversy, those of us who actually want to beat Hillary Clinton find ourselves trying to channel advice to him.
We sit in front of the TV, whispering: “Stay on message. Find some discipline. Revisit the issues where you are clearly better than she is.”
That’s quite a list. And if he deploys it with skill, we can spend less time wringing our hands over his word choices, and more time enjoying a message that can resonate broadly.
This did not turn out to be a year that welcomed a traditional conservative as the Republican nominee. This annoys many conservatives who wanted a standard-bearer more consistent and more energizing than John McCain or Mitt Romney.
Mr. Trump is definitely energizing, but in a scattershot way that may not be cohesive enough to beat Hillary Clinton. While he is never going to champion a list of purely conservative solutions, he can appeal to conservatives and disaffected voters elsewhere on the spectrum by connecting with a widely held impression: Some of the changes in America have been for the worse, and formerly shared values are now scattered to the wind.
Back when we had a crowded Republican field, I began compiling a list of things that just weren’t going well in America — not just the usual conservative complaints of “government is too big” or “we haven’t beaten ISIS yet” (although those are valid), but a far wider net of things that seem to have soured.
If Mr. Trump offers himself as a president who can secure some loosened American moorings, his appeal can spread across party lines.
Do most Americans think health care is going well? Have you checked your premiums?
Have we noticed that Europe’s porous borders are inviting a nightmare?
Isn’t it about time we got serious about fighting global jihad?
Wouldn’t it be great to see a burst of new job creation, and the willingness to harness American energy sources?
These are just some of the arguments I make in “Upside Down,” focused on themes where vast cross-sections of voters simply know that the country is mightily messed up.
This is one of the reasons the vagueness of “Make America great again” has actually resonated. Of course, it is a platitude, suggesting no specific policy. But it suggests something far too few politicians have seemed to believe — that it is time to focus on American jobs, American borders and American security.
A raft of wordy politicians from both parties have lulled us for decades with their favored solutions; waves of voters this year have weighed in with a report card that suggests they are not pleased.
This is a sentiment Mr. Trump can exploit to immediate benefit if he can stay on message. Plenty of Republicans, myself included, wanted a candidate who would embrace conservatism and sell it as well as Ronald Reagan did. Well, that’s not where the marketplace led this year. It led instead to a nominee who has tapped into the disconnect and discontent felt by millions of Americans who feel government doesn’t even listen to them any more.
Mr. Trump has proven he can talk. Now it is time for him to convince skittish voters that he is also listening: to advisers who can fill in his experience gap, to strategists who can maximize his positives while suppressing his excesses, and most importantly, to an American lament that our nation feels like a train that has derailed.
Hillary Clinton has no chance of projecting herself as the leader to get the nation back on track. She is the picture of a sad status quo, weighed down further by the prospect of taking us back to the vagaries of a Clinton White House where rules are bent to various dark purposes.
The Trump campaign should radiate that it is different in many ways, all of them better, all of them promising, all of them optimistic, and all of them responsive to voters eager to feel better about our nation’s direction and priorities.
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