Lessons From Trump’s Controlled Agenda

Back in October, Alan Siger — former chairman of United Fresh and longtime chief executive of Consumers Produce in Pittsburgh before selling the company and star PRODUCE BUSINESS columnist – wrote a column in this magazine about the presidential election campaign, which was then going hot and heavy. The gist of the column was that the election should be about competence and, by that measure, Hillary Clinton’s long resume and the very fact she had been tested in the public eye for so long made her the obvious candidate.

Yet it struck me even then that the argument for competency would not likely be a winning one. Competency is a funny word and, in politics, a competent opponent to one’s philosophical or policy values is far more likely to bring into effect policies that one would abhor. So, if you believed Ronald Reagan’s core values called for increased military strength and lowering taxes, and you also thought his eight years as governor of the largest state had imbued him with the skills and finesse necessary to get his preferred policies through Congress and into law, and you wanted these policies implemented, you would endorse him.But if your personal values or policy preferences called for, say, reduced military spending and higher taxes, this assessment of “competency” would be a powerful reason to oppose Reagan, not endorse him.

In this election, if what one felt was that the country was going down the wrong path and one wanted dramatic change, it was reasonable to think that Hillary was not likely to provide a path dramatically different from that established by President Obama. So if one was certain that one did not want that path, then the vote was obvious— it was a vote for Trump. Just one glance at the red and blue county maps appearing everywhere post-election indicates that it is highly likely many of the grower-shipper base that I know Alan respects a great deal voted this way in the election.

Of course, victory itself defines a kind of competency. There is some irony here in that Alan was a “kitchen cabinet” adviser to Rick Santorum back when Alan was working on the Republican side and Mr. Santorum was active in Pennsylvania politics, becoming a U.S. senator and presidential candidate. Trump read a book, Blue Collar Conservatives, Recommitting to an America That Works, written by Santorum, and he invited him to Trump Tower for a discussion. It was identifying that book and giving credence to Santorum’s theory that a Republican could break the “Great Blue Wall”of Midwestern and industrial states that laid out a road map for an eventual Trump victory.

Trump’s campaign statements about building a wall and so forth doubtless offended many and probably led to a drop in support among college educated whites. But in politics, for every action there is a reaction, and Trump bet that what he would gain with blue collar workers in the Midwest and industrial states was more important than what he might lose in some other demographics that were concentrated heavily in New York, California and other states he wasn’t going to win anyway.

Trump won that bet, and when someone wins primaries he was not expected to win, and a general election he was not expected to win, and his party holds the House and Senate and does it while spending a fraction of what his opponent spent, wise people need to reconsider their assessment of the competency of the man.

Moving forward, for the country we think it important to not assume ill will. One reason Trump was able to triumph was that many commentators and politicians on the left had gotten in the habit of comparing all Republicans — Romney, Bush, McCain, etc. —to heinous Nazis. Like the boy who cried wolf, their arguments no longer had any impact. Indeed, Bill Maher came out during this campaign to express regret for comparing Romney, Bush and McCain to Nazis because he acknowledged this effect on his credibility.

The whole Mexican wall business was treated in a similar manner. Many people who have not the slightest animosity against Mexicans think it reasonable to have a secure border. Indeed, my own discussions with growers who depend on Mexican labor indicates that, in many cases, they have no particular problems with restrictions on illegal aliens; what they want is a legal path to get workers who will do work that few U.S. citizens want to do.

Trump’s success teaches us many things. One is that we live in a world in which communication in brief snippets — such as a 140-character Tweet — is very powerful. And our challenge as a society is how we use the conditioning of people to think this way as a portal to deeper understanding. Another is that the primacy of network TV advertising in persuading people is being superseded by social media. There are real problems in this for the country as so much of social media is reinforcing one’s own ideology via selective friending and “liking” and connecting. Yet, there are also real benefits as the mandarins of big media lose the ability to control the agenda.

It also means that Trump has proven that with not too much money, organizations can directly connect with people. That has important implications for brand-building, and that means the forces that enabled a Trump victory also could enable a transformational age in produce. It all starts in 2017.