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An American Tragedy

How is it that an erstwhile B-movie actor, regional sports commentator and Democrat voter ran as the US Republican presidential candidate – and, more importantly, won?

Why, a good story of course.

At Aesop we’re inspired by storytelling from every arena, and last week, we were lucky enough to host policy and communications professional Neil Stockley, who spoke to us about storytelling in politics. He told us how that ex B-movie actor (known to you and I as Ronald Reagan) was also a consummate storyteller, and how the storytelling prowess of other political figures has shaped their success.

Ronald Reagan shot to political stardom on somebody else’s ticket. A floundering campaign for presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater roped in Ron, then the reassuring face of General Electric, to inject a little smooth-talking charm into the Republican operation. Reagan subsequently starred in a TV spot for Goldwater (back in the day when all you needed for a presidential campaign ad was a slow zoom and a tub of Brylcreem).

He also gave a televised speech, later known simply as The Speech’. Peppered with anecdotes and colloquialisms, it told a simple story of the Republicans as the safeguarder of individual liberty against ‘those who would trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state’. It has been heralded as the most successful political address in history, despite the fact Goldwater suffered a landslide defeat – partly thanks to the most famous presidential campaign commercial of all time (another story for another day):

‘The Speech’ rocketed Reagan into the political sphere, wherein he (mostly) kept his story straight; sweeping up not one but two electorates in his own uniquely American personal metamorphosis, the freedom of the individual, and his vision of America as that ‘shining city on the hill’.

Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, the stories woven by politicians – from Thatcher to Obama to the Leave campaign – are not only compelling but world-changing. And right now we have one of the most astonishing political stories ever told unfolding before our eyes.

What are the ingredients for a great political story?

A story of ‘me’, a story of ‘us’ and (perhaps most germane to this campaign) a story of ‘them’.

Trump’s story is undoubtedly compelling:

Once there was a man who fought against the ‘Establishment’, as well as allegedly harmful minorities, and didn’t care who he hurt along the way.

Clinton’s is less so:

Once there was a woman who wasn’t Trump.

However, in recent weeks has the Trump narrative begun to eat itself? A story that seems to resonate so strongly with some of the much-persecuted white male demographic has now begun to isolate some of its lynchpins. Major Republican figures are now finding, at least outwardly, that the story of Trump is recursing into dark self-parody. Many others say, and have always said, that a denouement where Trump wins is fantasy. Yet, when we look back at the political upheavals in the UK during the past 18 months, can any of us trust a poll or predict a political ending ever again?

The story of Clinton and Trump shows us how far political storytelling has come, where not only the nature of the message but the medium has been overturned. It is no longer possible for one man to sit on a stool, cross his arms and address a nation through its living room. Stories must be told by attrition, on an ever-expanding number of platforms to audiences that seem more unpredictable than ever.

I don’t need to tell you how fundamentally the world’s narrative will be affected by the outcome on November 8th. Yet both candidates, and future candidates (bomb-permitting) should always remember the power of a good story, even if politics increasingly seems stranger than fiction.