Find speakers by:
Request more info

How the Attacks on Trump Reinforce His Strategy

A champion of innovation, cross-disciplinary study, and learning-by-doing, Roger Martin is the leading proponent of Integrative Thinking—a bold new approach to the business problems emerging in the global economy. As the Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management, Roger presents a model for strengthening integrative thinking skills. In this column for the Harvard Business Review, Roger looks at what President Donald Trump did right when it came to winning the ballot:

One of the tricky things about strategy is that good strategies end up seeming inevitable, and that makes them difficult to analyze. After the fact, we have trouble distinguishing cause from effect, or strategic choices from good luck — and as a result, we draw suspect lessons from the exercise. This is especially true when the success in question was a surprising one.

For a sterling example, look no further than Donald Trump. Ex-post-facto rationalizing has portrayed his rise as being largely the result of Hillary Clinton’s strategic fumbles (not enough campaigning in the Rust Belt) and bad luck (James Comey). In this telling, Trump won the election not through his own actions but because he happened to be up against a particularly incompetent opponent. Another line of thinking argues that Trump’s win was a function of external factors: the media’s obsession with celebrity, the large field of GOP primary candidates, the interference of Russian hackers, an electorate that wanted change above all else. The factors here are very different, but the upshot is the same: Trump somehow won the election despite himself, not because of anything he actually did.

The problem with both of these views is that they portray the Trump triumph as inevitable, and it just wasn’t. It was one of the longest long shots in modern U.S. presidential history. So it’s worth asking what Trump did — strategically — that made it possible.

When he entered the race, Trump had zero political experience and was reviled by the Republican establishment. The normal thing to do was to follow the path of a typical “outsider” candidate, accepting the boundaries of the category and attempting to be sufficiently distinctive within that category to overcome the outsider disadvantages. For example, see Bernie Sanders: “I am a Democrat, but I bring a much more compelling liberal view than my establishment opponent.” Or Ben Carson: “I am a Republican candidate, but as a successful surgeon, I bring a fresh perspective.” In fact, this was such expected behavior from Trump that during the primary the media largely covered him as a classic outsider candidate, even though he was doing something radically different.

What he was doing was creating with precise and relentless consistency an entirely new category in the minds of voters: the politically incorrect candidate. He has since monopolized that new category.

To establish the legitimacy of the category, he made a consistent and devilishly tautological argument: In the category of traditional presidential candidates, the politicians are all politically correct. When they get in power, they fail you. Hence you don’t want a leader in that category — you want one in a new category called politically incorrect presidential candidates. I have been a huge success in business by being politically incorrect. Therefore: political correctness = failure, and political incorrectness = success.

It doesn’t matter whether he consciously set out to pursue that strategy or whether it was the result of his personality and instincts. The outcome is the same in either case.

Trump used an approach to attract primary and general election voters that businesses use to attract customers. Customers create categorical boundaries in their minds – e.g., Chinese restaurants, sporty cars, blue jeans – and within those boundaries they are disproportionately inclined to choose the product that feels the most natural, familiar, and comfortable to them. Because the mind craves simplicity and consistency, the product that feels most comfortable tends to be the one with which people have a long and dependable experience. For example, someone’s favorite Chinese restaurant is their favorite because they have gone there the most often and know the people and the menu and the layout best. Former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley and I have termed this “cumulative advantage,” and it is an underappreciated way of attaining sustained leadership in a market.

It’s also why every time Trump acts politically incorrectly — which he often points out, in case anyone missed the fact that he was acting politically incorrectly — he demonstrates that he is in a different category from other politicians. And because he did it continually during the campaign, he helped voters find him increasingly comfortable and familiar. This is why he never apologizes for his political incorrectness: It would undermine his consistency and be a disaster for him.

When he was excoriated for doing extremely politically incorrect things, like criticizing John McCain for being a POW, lambasting a Gold Star family, mocking a reporter with a disability, maligning Megyn Kelly, repeatedly refusing to release his tax returns, or, more recently, causing international incidents with China and rebuffing intelligence briefings on Russian hacking, the politically correct thing to do would have been to apologize and attempt to retreat diplomatically from his faux pas. Nope. Instead of showing remorse, he has gone on the attack.

Apologizing would have tossed him back into the “traditional” category, where he would have been an ineffective player, like Carson or Sanders. Instead, political incorrectness piled on top of political incorrectness reinforces the fact that he is in a different category and makes him an ever more familiar member of that category.

During the entire campaign, detractors asked how long Trump could “defy gravity.” How long could he keep doing and saying these outrageous things and get away with it? Just asking the question reinforced in voters’ minds that Trump was in a different category and gave him the opportunity to be even more politically incorrect by doubling down. When Democrats, the media, and even mainstream Republicans criticized Trump for his political incorrectness, it simply reinforced his domination of his separate category — a category he was able to make big enough to win the presidency.

His detractors keep on asking how long Trump can keep on defying gravity. They are asking the wrong question. They should be asking how their form of criticism is strengthening Trump.

This all illustrates four important points about strategy. First, understand and empathize with your customers. When they are doing something that you think is crazy, don’t blame them. They aren’t a “basket of deplorables.” They are your customers. Don’t explain why they are making a terrible choice when they choose your competitor’s product. Understand why they are buying it and give them a compelling reason to buy yours instead.

Second, don’t underestimate your competitor; it is dangerous. A smart competitor will gleefully allow the underestimation to continue, and may encourage it. Trump understood that it was essential to keep his competitor from waking up to his strategy, so he worked to reinforce her blindness by unfailingly acting infuriatingly politically incorrect.

Third, when things don’t go your way, don’t blame your downfall on events outside your control. Every strategist faces these issues; the best strategists learn not to scapegoat them. But what has the entire Democratic-leaning universe done in this case? They have blamed Russian interference. Russian interference didn’t win Trump the election; a bland Democratic strategy interacted with a clever Trump strategy to put Trump in a position where, under just the right circumstances, he could squeak out a narrow victory.

This leads to the final lesson: Strategy really matters. Clinton ran an exceedingly competent campaign, with lots of experienced managers, an abundance of planning, high levels of investment, and careful attention to best practices. However, the strategy was underwhelming. She sold customers what she desired them to want: a product that was compelling to her and her management team. She underestimated her competitor until the middle of election night. And there is no sign that she or her team even now understands what really happened.

Of course, a critic could say I’m falling into a different logical trap, one that is particularly rife in the world of business strategy analysis: looking at a winner and reverse engineering his causes of success with the benefit of hindsight.

So, for the record, let me say that I laid out this exact argument in the initial draft of this article back in early March 2016, while the GOP primaries were under way, and submitted it to a major newspaper (which rejected it as being pro-business). Undeterred, I was sufficiently confident in my analysis to put my money where my mouth was. On June 25 I made a bet with a professorial colleague at a leading U.S. business school for $10,000 at even odds that Trump would win the presidency.  Had I cared about the economics of the bet, I would have gone to Vegas, where I would have received 7-2 odds that particular week, but the money wasn’t the point. The point was that Hillary Clinton supporters weren’t seeing the threat from the underdog. (After Clinton’s concession, I emailed my friend to tell him I didn’t want the money. Gallantly, he insisted on taking his medicine, so we agreed that he would donate $10,000 to his favorite charity.)

My view on this matter as a strategist, not a political partisan or pundit, is that Trump’s election strategy was brilliant. He understood that there was only one way to win the nomination against entrenched competitors in a crowded field: He had to create a new category and dominate it, building cumulative advantage. He understood that there was only one way to win the presidency: He had to work for the entire campaign on being as consistent as possible to become the most familiar and comfortable choice he could possibly become. And after all of that, he had to hope for an entirely improbable win, because that was the best he was ever going to get. But an improbable win is still a win.

He is still using the same strategy today, and it continues to work. If his opponents want to outmaneuver him, they will have to try a different strategy. Theirs is not working.

Roger Martin/HBR/January, 2017