Donald Trump sought to evoke Ronald Reagan from his first answer in the presidential debate, but as he has throughout the campaign, he left out Reagan’s elemental quality: optimism.
In Trump’s words Monday night, American jobs “are being stolen from us,” blacks and Latinos are “living in hell” and America is “being ripped off by every single country in the world.”
The economy was “in a bubble,” he said, warning that it was “going to come crashing down” because of what he said were overly political actions being taken by the ostensibly apolitical Federal Reserve to buttress his opponent.
No uplift, no patriotic patois, no morning in America — not even a quick quip broke up the sequential references to a country falling apart at the seams. There was nothing, that is, of the deft style that characterized the man Trump has evoked as a role model.
Trump’s unrelentingly bleak assessment comports with the views of many of his ardent followers, who feel marginalized by economic and cultural changes afoot in the country.
Polls repeatedly have shown white voters to be more pessimistic than members of minority groups, older voters more pessimistic than the young, and non-college-educated whites — the group that has given Trump the strongest support — the most pessimistic of all.
Even in bad circumstances, Americans have been an optimistic people. Successful candidates, whether Republican or Democratic, have always taken heed of that in framing their political approaches.
While Trump’s negativity is common in the kind of populist campaign he has waged, it is unprecedented in the annals of successful modern politicians. And it contradicts what research shows: Voters almost always will take optimism over pessimism.
Trump has espoused “a hammering, dystopian vision of what America is doing without much hope for what the future is going to be,” said Stanford University professor Neil Malhotra, whose research has looked at the connection between how successful candidates are and how optimistic voters perceive them to be. Candidates whom voters see as optimists generally do better, his work indicates.
Trump has compounded the danger of his pessimism by casting himself as a sole solver of America’s problems, albeit without much detail as to what his solutions would be.
That means he has brushed aside, at least to this point, another tactic used by successful candidates: rallying his fellow citizens together on behalf of shared goals. That flies in the face of a second political truth: Voters want politicians focused on voters, not on themselves.
Over the course of the campaign and again on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton has sought to upbraid Trump for his views.
“I’m excited about where we are in this country,” Clinton told reporters Tuesday before flying from New York to North Carolina for a campaign rally. “He talks down America every chance he gets. He calls us names, he calls us a third world country. He talks in such dire and dark terms.
“That’s not who America is — we are the best problem-solvers in the world,” she said, appearing almost intentionally buoyant. “Our diversity is a strength. I am excited about helping to pull our country together.”
Malhotra’s research shows that among the most successful candidates at imbuing their politics with optimism were Reagan and Bill Clinton, both two-term presidents. Trump, by contrast, is more negative even than Richard Nixon, he said. Nixon is thought of in caustic terms because of the bitter way his presidency ended, but he ran on a platform of unifying the country during riot-torn 1968.
Trump’s approach evokes that of Pat Buchanan’s losing Republican challenge in 1992, Ross Perot’s independent campaign that same year and George Wallace’s doomed campaign in 1968, Malhotra said.
“Populist campaigns, where people are running against the political class, tend to have these features,” he said. “But they haven’t gotten as mainstream as they are right now.… In the 1968 election, Trump looks more like the Wallace campaign than the Nixon campaign.”
With humor and poetic rhetoric, Reagan set the standard for eviscerating an opponent while maintaining an optimistic mien. In his farewell address in 1989, he alluded to his frequent evocations of America as the “shining city” sought by all.
“Her glow has held no matter what storm,” he said. “And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”
In tone, that is almost the direct opposite of Trump’s call to wall off the country because of the threat posed by illegal immigration and terrorism.
Trump may be proceeding pessimistically in part because that’s how he’s succeeded so far. In the primaries, he successfully claimed the negative ground with a fierce attack on conventional politicians whom he accused of defending trade and other policies that he said had destroyed the middle class.
Other contenders — particularly former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — put forward sunnier, more inclusive rationales for their candidacies, but were trounced by Trump.
“Clearly he was tapping into an attitude that people have — an attitude that things are broken,” said Marist College pollster Lee Miringoff .
Part of the negativity that those candidates renounced — and that Trump profited from — has a racial component.
Trump has been blunt in his comments about Latinos and Muslims, among others. That has put a gloss of controversy on perhaps his most optimistic appeal, his “Make America great again” slogan. In the context he has layered into the campaign, that looks to some like a wish to return to the era before civil rights and women’s rights, rather than as a unifying leap into an upbeat future for all.
Malhotra, the Stanford political scientist, said that studies he undertook between 2010 and 2011 showed that Democrats valued optimism slightly more than Republicans, befitting a party that rallied behind the “Happy Days Are Here Again” theme even in the depths of the Great Depression.
But Republicans, too, reacted positively to rose-colored visions.
It didn’t matter, broadly put, whether voters had a fully positive view of where the country was headed, or felt confident or not in the economy of the moment.
“One thing … was pretty constant,” Malhotra said. “People want their politicians to be more optimistic than themselves.”