Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton might be political opposites, but they have a common gift.
Both can tell a good story, empathize with voters’ woes and comfort America with solutions to our problems, say speechwriters for candidates and presidents.
Trump voters hear they’re hurting “in a Bill Clinton ‘I know your pain’ kind of way,” said former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet.
But the tenor of their solutions is dramatically different: Clinton offered hope and Trump stokes fear, said Kusnet.
For decades, conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Sarah Palin won votes and captured the nation’s attention by positioning themselves as the antidote to Washington insiders and the liberal media.
Now, former presidential speechwriters say, Trump has increased the number of villains.
“He is giving you many villains to choose from,” said Lindsay Hayes, a former senior speechwriter for Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. “It could be people who are coming to the country illegally and stealing your jobs. People who signed trade deals that took away your jobs. It could be a system in general that is rigged and set up against you. It could be the 1 percent. So he’s got a villain for everybody and a story for everybody.”
He’s got a villain for everybody and a story for everybody.
Former Mitt Romney speechwriter Lindsay Hayes on Donald Trump
During a speech-writing conference at Georgetown University earlier this week, Hayes, Kusnet and former Clinton speechwriter Andie Tucher argued that Trump had created a dangerous playbook for political rhetoric. Hayes is a Republican while Kusnet and Tucher are Democrats.
All three agreed that Trump is a good storyteller, even if the story is dangerous.
“The thing about the story is it has no policy point,” Hayes said. “He’s building a hero character, which is ‘I win. I win in polls. I’m a big businessman.’ Everything he does can be understood in that narrative framework, and Palin had less of that.”
Hayes spent the 2008 campaign working for Palin, a folksy Alaskan who was seen as a political outsider as she ran for vice president.
Eight years later, Palin’s speechwriter says Trump has gone too far.
“Both he and Palin are similar in the sense that they’re able to tap into this feeling of anger in the country,” Hayes said. “With Palin it was always Obama. It’s Obama and the Democrats.”
Trump gives speeches that say, “We are in this horrible mess. Only one man can solve it, and I am that man,” said Kusnet, the chief speechwriter for Bill Clinton during his 1992 campaign. “He pursues a line of . . . very dark emotional logic that goes from talking about street crime to talking about immigration.”
Trump’s senior speechwriter is 30-year-old Stephen Miller, who spent seven years writing speeches for Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama who is also a Trump adviser.
“When I hear Trump speak, I often hear Stephen speaking, especially when he talks about immigration and trade,” a House of Representatives staffer told The Wall Street Journal in July.
Miller has an unusually public role in the campaign. He frequently warms up the crowds before Trump takes the stage at rallies. He also attacked opponent Sen. Marco Rubio in the buildup to the Florida primary.
“All the folks who have been driving this country into the ground have been opening up their wallets to give to Hillary Clinton,” Miller said to the crowd at a Trump rally in Sunrise, Florida, in August.
Hayes, the senior speechwriter for Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, said Trump’s primary rivals didn’t do enough to capture raw emotion in their speeches. She recalled an impromptu Jeb Bush news conference in McAllen, Texas, on border security.
“The sleeves were rolled up and this was not planned,” Hayes said, adding that Bush displayed emotion that would excite Republican voters.
Hayes said she’d called a friend working for the Bush campaign and urged the former Florida governor to display more emotion.
“You never saw it again,” Hayes said.
In a field of 16 primary candidates, Hayes said, it was easy for Trump to stand out with voters who craved authenticity. Many of his opponents were worried about making gaffes. Trump out-shouted and out-mocked them by creating that cast of villains.
“We’ve gotten what we want, and I don’t think we like it,” Hayes said. “If this is authentic, I’ll take fake every day.”
All three speechwriters argued that extensive face time with the candidate is necessary to create authentic speeches that resonate with voters.
Hayes said that some of the speechwriters who worked for Trump’s primary rivals rarely spoke with their candidates, did not travel with them and didn’t coach them before major speeches.
“I just want to shake all these candidates and their people and say put your writer in the room,” Hayes said. “Your writer should be living out of a suitcase. They should be at every single campaign stop, because they are learning opportunities.”
Tucher, a deputy speechwriter for Bill Clinton, shared a similar experience about when she’d worked for another Democrat.
“He said, ‘Write me some jokes,’ ” Tucher said. “I’m not a comic. That’s not what I’m here for.”
The unnamed candidate lost.
Trump’s most important speech, Hayes said, will be the one he gives on election night. If he loses, the villain rhetoric needs to disappear so he can help restore trust in democracy.
“I’m hoping his best speech will be his concession speech,” Hayes said. “Which is odd as a Republican to say publicly in the middle of an election cycle.”