It is difficult to understand the metamorphosis that transformed the America that was once beloved by the world into one that is now perplexed by it. It was the country that promised so much to those who came here in the pursuit of their American dream. The America from days past placed its mission statement on the Statue of Liberty, the Mother of Exiles, who welcomed the world, stating proudly “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse…the homeless…”. The America of today, however, couldn’t be more diametrically opposed.
To this point, it was President Trump who asked, “why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?” He went even further by ordering the separation of asylum seeking and illegal immigrant families, detaining their babies and children in concentration camps while deporting them as a deterrent to any future attempts. He then trumped it up by banning immigration and travel from seven Islamic nations under the premise that they were posing a threat to America’s security. Prohibiting the entry of desperate people seeking safe haven and the possibility of a life in prosperity – that is not the America I had become a citizen of!
The American dream is evaporating, morphing into a national nightmare. The America I was drawn to was founded on truly high moral ideals respecting the essential humanity of those who are striving for a better life. Yet it seems to have forgotten that and replaced it with greed and predatory capitalism, exploiting and subjugating its own people.
What is happening in America now has happened many times before in history. However, we never seem to learn from any of it, no matter how many museums, monuments and memorials are built, books written, or movies made. We can introduce laws to protect us ‘so this may never happen again’ – a favorite phrase – while it is already happening somewhere else. There are so many parallels to events that occurred at the beginning of last century which should be guiding us to avoid making the same mistakes, yet they are being ignored or denied. Let me explain.
I was born in Tehran when the Shah of Iran ruled the country. Under his dictatorial governance, political freedom was restricted, and dissent was repressed. His secret police brutally suppressed any opposition by means of torture, imprisonment and death. The Shah’s ambitious reforms aimed at thrusting the country into the 20th Century by furthering western-oriented secular modernization whilst nurturing its Persian historical identity of glory and world domination. Towards the end of his reign, he became increasingly nationalistic, authoritarian and even more abusive of the power invested in him. He abolished the multiparty government in favor of his own party which, like the royal family, was plagued by corruption and lavish extravagances, while their brutal measures suppressed the people. Those who dared to speak in opposition would stand to lose everything – their income, social standing, freedom and even their lives. A state of fear and daily terror would subdue the nation. Barring external crisis or internal chaos, people can only be held down for so long until they revolt. And thus, the stage was set for the Islamic Revolution resulting in the Shah’s overthrow. There always comes a point where suppression and extreme inequality come to a head.
It usually happens when the gap in wealth disparity widens progressively, benefitting the few at the expense of the masses, the forgotten people.
When I moved to Munich in the early 60’s, Germany was still reeling from the effects of World War II. I remember the visible wounds of the hollowed buildings, the remaining skeletons that were silent witnesses to Germany’s both famed and infamous past. People were still traumatized by their memories and by their decisions – to either go along with the flow of rising nationalism, fascism, racism, and hatred or to choose the risk of standing up to the greater evil that was taking hold of people’s minds. Germany was already politically and economically unstable in dealing with the financial and economic crisis left by World War I, therefore it could not withstand the fallout from the Great Depression. With public discontent and unemployment, hunger and real poverty soaring, Hitler became its beneficiary. He was a charismatic speaker, who used simple language with strong slogans to sell his message of returning Germany to its former glory, prosperity and rank. He knew how to incite the masses by further enraging and agitating them with hateful messages, by directing their frustrations at a particular group, the Jews, and by promising them that he would bring back jobs and income, thus making Germany great again. He vilified the press calling them the “Luegenpresse”, much like today’s fake news. What was to follow was the submission of an entire nation, enticed into believing the propaganda and empty promises delivered through endless rallies, speeches, and state media as well as the real threats by the Gestapo and SS. Germans, so overwhelmed with their own survival and fear, gave silent consent to rising anti-Semitism, the persecution of their Jewish friends, neighbors and citizens leading to the “Final Solution” by means of deadly concentration camps. The confiscation of their possessions would finance the remilitarization, emboldening Hitler into expanding his threats to other countries and allowing him to initiate yet another world war.
The parallels between these previous events and the recent ones in America are irrefutable. The Great Recession, caused by unthrottled greed in the form of financialization and predatory capitalism, brought with it high unemployment, underemployment and stagnating wages for the majority of Americans, creating a new class of the nouveau poor. However, as the middle class became poorer, the rich got even richer. As a result of the bailout of the very institutions that had caused the recession, social programs and support would be diminished, the quality and availability of healthcare reduced as its cost increased, and lower educational curricula leaving behind an impoverished nation.
Naturally, a sense of hopelessness and despair developed having Americans look for a strong leader who would bring back jobs and help the industry to flourish. Donald Trump rose to the occasion, promising that he alone could fix it and that he would place America first to make it great again. He knew to zone in on the needs of the forgotten people, the ones who have been left behind by technological change, wealth inequality and the slow-down of the global economy. He addressed their real pain and anxieties, promising to drain the swamp, to return the by now defunct industries to their former standings and reverse perceived unfair global trade deals. Concurrently, he placed the blame for America’s woes on illegal immigration depicting
those people as rapists, murderers and thieves stealing jobs from taxpaying Americans. As his final solution, he proposed the building of a wall, as well as border restrictions and detentions, both of which he has implemented by now.
Like other authoritarians before him, President Trump loves his campaign-like rallies and speeches, where he uses simple but highly inflammatory language, laced with punch lines and easy to remember slogans. He bullies opponents and critics alike, denigrates the press as fake news and the spreader of lies. He shames, ridicules and disparages minorities, women and even the sick. His attacks on political rivals go so far as to demand them being locked up and looking to foreign aid, even by so-called enemies, to find incriminating material to do so. He thrives on a singular, nationalistic view painting America as the victim in need to take revenge on those who have abused it. He has already initiated one war, although only a trade war, but a war nonetheless. He is throwing the country into ever-greater isolation and separation from the rest of the world as he is breaking friendships and alliances alike which have been beneficial to all for seven decades. Instead, he is turning to rogue nations, ruled by autocrats, seeking questionable new ties and partnerships.
So far, his promises have fallen short - his tax cuts have been profitable for the rich with minimal trickle-down effects, his swamp draining turned into swam hiring, and his healthcare plans have evaporated into the ether. Hate and negativity are on the rise as are the number of mass shootings and clashes. Our government is polarized to the point that there is nothing they can work on in harmony by embracing their opposite views as alternate possibilities leading to better outcomes. Although an opioid drug epidemic has been declared, nothing much has been done. On the contrary, the pharmaceutical industry is still continuing to flood the market with its highly addictive opioid prescription pain-killers, poisoning Americans just to increase revenues and profits. Equally, the gun industry is stronger than ever as the need for real protection is only growing in these times of uncertainty. It also helps their bottom line.
It comes as no surprise that there is a silence and an apathy amongst Americans. That is usually the primary reaction, yet there are voices that are speaking up warning of what may befall us if we continue to sleep. America is experiencing a time of national challenge and as with all challenges, this is also the time of great opportunities for growth. This is the country that has been created as a response to what held people down in the old world. It believed in “E Pluribus Unum” – “Out of Many, One,” so much so that it put it on its official seal. It’s time to return to those values and introduce new thinking, embrace change and hence creating new industrial possibilities. It is time to invest in the people again, to invest in our environment and to treat them with respect and with the future in mind. America can only change the outcome of what is happening now by radically changing its collective thinking.
Our collective consciousness has to shift from what works best for the individual to what provides the greatest good for all. In the final analysis, we are and become what we think. Let us aim high and consider this our moment to bring forth great positive changes.
Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.
When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.
2016: What rules?
Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.
Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.
And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.
And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?
Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.
Digital policies for 2020 and beyond
While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.
Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy
Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:
- If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
- While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
- If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
- Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
- Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?
Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.
Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply
The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:
- Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
- Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
- Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
- Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
- Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
- Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
- Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
- Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.
Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles
Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.