What Trump did right – and wrong

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He is the co-host of the podcast, Politics & Polls. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

Story highlights

The way Trump connects with voters is something that future politicians could learn from, writes Julian Zelizer

Zelizer: His victory may pave the way for others, even progressive candidates who could learn from Trump's successful techniques

CNN  — 

Donald Trump, the president-elect, has changed the way presidential politics will be played in America.

Of course, there are large numbers of Americans who hope that many of the things he’s done will not recur, and that somehow they would not be part of his presidency. His performances in the debates were undisciplined and dangerous. The appeals to nativism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and sexism, the gutter rhetoric employed against opponents and the chaotic game plan that seemed to shape his day-to-day operations are all things that most future candidates will leave in the political dustbin.

But professional politicians will surely focus on what Trump achieved and how he did it.

In any major campaign, particularly one that defies the status quo, there are elements that could prove useful for future candidates. To understand these lessons, it is essential to unpack the key parts of the “Trump Style” in 2016.

Talk directly to voters

Twitter was a pillar of Donald Trump’s campaign. From the start of the Republican primaries, Trump made sure that media organizations like cable news networks no longer have solid control over the communication between candidates and voters.

The Internet and social media have created many ways for candidates to talk directly to their supporters and to their opponents, as well as to reporters, without filters. Just as legislators like Newt Gingrich learned in the 1980s how C-SPAN enabled them to talk directly to the public, Trump has demonstrated how Twitter offered this possibility on an even bigger scale.

Future candidates on the left and right will certainly look to these kinds of mechanisms as a way to get their message across to the public regardless of how the major media outlets treat them. Twitter is only the tip of the iceberg. Candidates will certainly find new mechanisms for direct interaction, challenging the ability of party leaders to control events.

All news is usable news

One of the most distinctive aspects of Trump’s campaign has been his belief that no matter what story emerges in the news, there are ways to spin that information to your advantage. This means more than believing that all publicity is good publicity. It also means more than Bill Clinton’s famous war room mentality in 1992, when the Democratic team insisted that they had to counterpunch against every attack.

For Trump, there are ways to look at even the most critical or scandalous story and turn it into part of the campaign narrative. We saw this in the primaries where he used his loss in Iowa to develop a narrative about an unfair system and a “Lying” Ted Cruz. “Ted Cruz didn’t win Iowa, he stole it,” Trump tweeted out to his believing followers.

When the New York Times published an article this spring alleging he made inappropriate comments to women, Trump used the story to talk about one of his favorite themes – the “politically correct” media. Trump did the same with the Times’ piece about the $900 million loss reported in his tax returns, using it to talk about how unfair the tax system was and contending it showed he was a good businessman.

When FBI director James Comey announced Friday that the Bureau had come across new evidence in the Hillary Clinton email investigation, the news instantly fit into Trump’s longstanding narrative about her alleged corruption.

Even without any information about what the FBI was looking into, Trump had crafted such a narrative in the media that some Americans instantly saw the story through his prism. Comey then announced there was nothing new in the emails, but Trump suggested that the announcement reflected political pressure to avoid a real investigation.

When numerous allegations of sexual harassment and assault emerged before the second presidential debate, Trump used this as part of his argument that the media was biased against him.

In the age of overflowing and constant information, this approach serves as an effective way to deal with the charges and countercharges and news events that develop in a campaign.

Feed the 24-hour media with content

The 24-hour Internet/cable media world needs content. The “campaign-industrial complex,” as some observers have called it, depends on political news stories as its lifeblood. This is one of the most distinctive aspects of the modern media environment that Trump’s team has understood. His team has made a sustained effort to provide that content with controversial statements, pointed attacks and constant new narrative lines.

Tapping into his experience with NBC’s “The Apprentice,” Trump always made sure that cable news shows have a relentless flow of fresh stories, controversies and appearances.

Through this strategy, he has demonstrated how far a candidate can go with free media generated by news coverage of the campaign rather than relying primarily on paid advertising, which has been the heart of campaigns for decades. In May, there were estimates that he had received the equivalent of $2 billion in airtime through his media appearances.

Trump showed that free can sometimes be more effective than paid.

Exploit intra-party divisions

The conventional wisdom in politics has been that parties are polarized and there are not many outliers within each party. Most politicians and voters will follow the party line when push comes to shove. This is certainly true, and several generations of social scientists have now shown how the divide between Democratic and Republican voters has become starker than ever before.

From the start, Trump rejected that formulation – and as it turned out, he was on to something. Rather than searching for ways to broaden his coalition to make sure that everyone in his party was happy, he instead searched for divisions that were looming within the GOP and brought them to the forefront of his campaign. The party was not as united on issues as all the experts argued.

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    There were serious and deep divisions within the GOP that had been papered over after President Obama won the White House. Trump has revealed the potential for future party candidates to test some of the policy orthodoxies of the party and to move in new directions.

    From the start, Trump perceived the potential to remake a Republican Party around blue collar and middle class Americans. He has insisted he would protect Social Security and Medicare although many Republicans have endorsed cuts to the programs. He has blasted free trade even though the fight against protectionism has been a core principle of Republican politics. He has admitted he would raise some taxes in a party where such positions have been anathema. He has won the support of many evangelical voters despite a personal life and public rhetoric that doesn’t mesh with the moral claims of religious Americans.

    Most troubling, Trump has consistently exploited the divisions by playing to the anger, the hatred, and the fears that exist within these parts of America. But even here his goal was to capitalize on divisions rather than to try papering over them.

    Politicians would be smart to take a look at Trump’s tactics, whether or not they agree with his stances and whether they cheer or mourn his victory. Although many believe Trump has used these tactics for dangerous ends, the methods themselves could be put to use by politicians of all orientations – even very progressive Democrats.