Love him or hate him (and in the last few days I have read a lot of the latter) Trump got the job done and no one else did. Anybody who hopes to compete seriously in the near or far future has to figure out what happened to be competitive in that future. Maybe you’ll choose to duplicate it or maybe you’ll figure out a way to beat it, but either way, you have to know what happened – the old “lessons learned” analysis.
Final analysis must await the general and its outcomes. Final analysis will also be made by people much smarter than me. But one thing seems pretty apparent to me right now and should be discussed. For the first time in primary history, media politics mattered more than retail politics. One can argue that Kennedy beat Nixon based on media (the debates), but that is the general. Primaries have traditionally been about the candidate meeting and greeting the party faithful – they have remained a game of fund-raising, hand-shaking and baby-kissing. But not this time.
Trump’s claims to self-funding are not entirely accurate, but it is largely true. I am on those lists, and I heard from every candidate in this race with their hand out except Trump. No invitations to meet-and-greet if I maxed out; not for love nor money was I given an opportunity to get close to Donald Trump. I saw pictures of him working ropes lines, but never mingling in a crowd. There were TV townhalls, but I can’t remember any others. Whatever else you may think of him, Trump is a master of media and he used that to his advantage. Trump turned the model for how to win a primary on its head.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the general. One of the major factors in Obama’s defeat of Romney in 2012 was the strength of his ground game. (Remember the whole Orca/Narwhal thing?) Who knows if anyone, absent Trump’s years of TV experience, can play the game the way Trump did? Are we now doomed to an endless stream of TV star candidates? As I say, we have to wait for the general and much smarter people than me to figure all this out. I am far more interested in the ramifications of Trump’s primary success in other areas of endeavor.
It also appears that Trump and Clinton ran worst among groups with high degrees of what scholars Robert Putnam and Charles Murray call social connectedness or social capital. Trump was especially weak among socially connected Mormons and German-Americans and strong in areas with high opioid addiction. Both were weaker in caucuses, which favor the socially connected, than primaries.
This is a massively important observation. It is an enormous sign of the loss of religious faith in our nation. Christianity is all about social connectedness – it is at the very core of the faith. “Community” is a word you hear a lot in church. The fact that the disconnected, those outside of community, have reached significant enough numbers to win an election represents a decline in Christian understanding of the nation on the deepest of levels. Barone’s observation, along with oft-cited Pew finding of an increase in “spiritual, not religious,” should send a chill down the spine of any serious Christian out there.
What this makes clear is that while politicians may choose to try and duplicate Trump’s model in future elections, the church most assuredly cannot. Politics and Christianity share a lot in common when it comes to communication strategies and constituency building. They have traditionally learned from one another, but in this instance what the church has to learn is almost entirely in the negative. To adopt the Trump model is to encourage and affirm isolation which is antithetical to traditional Christianity – even monks live in communities of monks.
For the church this means two things. Firstly, we need to figure out a way to punch through the “Fortress of Solitude” that so many have built around themselves. Clearly reaching them through media is not the way to go, it reinforces the isolation. Maybe the “March of the Mormon Missionaries” has more going for it than we more mainstream Christians would care to acknowledge. It is time to get personal.
Secondly, churches have to find a way to become attractive communities. In my experience Protestant churches fall broadly into three categories. The large church which is nowadays so large it bears a strong resemblance to watching church on TV. This does not help with the isolation problem. The mid-sized church is generally so riven with divisiveness that people run for cover. The small church is generally so like minded as to feel excluded if one is not the of the same mind. We have to break these molds.
The future does not look bright for the church, but then God has a way of changing history. Are we willing to go along with Him?