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Trump’s Triangulation (and How To Not Fall For It)

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Yesterday, leaders of the building trades unions went to the White House, to meet with Donald Trump.  Trump was just signing the executive orders to move ahead with the Keystone XL pipeline, and the Dakota Access Pipeline, both projects that many of those unions support.

When they came out, the union leaders spoke glowingly of Trump, who just delivered two projects to them.  In fact, North America’s Building Trades Unions put out this release, which positively gushed about Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is, if nothing else, an avid salesman of himself.  He got what he needed – the unequivocal praise of unions, for the price of just two projects.

Meanwhile, he is pushing through a harshly anti-labor nominee for the Labor Department, opposes any minimum wage, and supports so-called “Right to Work” laws that will end unions. Nowhere in their press release was any warning from the unions that they’d oppose Trump on such moves.

Looking at the whole exercise, I was reminded of the 1990s, when Bill Clinton engaged in what became known as “triangulation.”

What is triangulation?

That’s a great question – I’m glad I asked it for you!

There is some confusion about what political triangulation is.  Many people confuse it for “centrism” – the ideology that places a politician the middle of the policy spectrum.

If you were to graph it, centrism would look like this:


Triangulation is something wholly different.  It’s a strategy, not an ideology, first used in the US by Bill Clinton, when his adviser (and future FOX News fixture) Dick Morris turned him on to the idea.

Essentially, it means taking some popular individual proposals from both ends of the spectrum, reaping praise from either side when you poach from them, and then letting the sides fight out everything else, so you appear above the fray.

Essentially, that’s Donald Trump’s labor policy so far:  Support building projects, while also plotting to achieve the conservative dream of killing unions.

If graphed out, it would look like this:


Sounds pretty good, right? Well, not so fast.  Here’s George Stephanopoulos, who served in the White House at the same time as Morris…

“It’s empty of substance. It’s amoral.”

That it is.  Essentially, you’re standing for nothing but yourself.  Only seeking praise as a means to make it seem like everyone likes you.

Boy, does that sound familiar right now.

Now, does Trump understand that he’s triangulating?  God only knows.  But I can tell you who likely does – Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, who cut her teeth in 1990s DC, watching Bill Clinton triangulate, using her Republican clients.

How Do We Fight Triangulation?

So, the thing about triangulation is that both sides need to be willing to play ball.  In the 1990s, liberals obviously praised Bill Clinton when he promoted their agenda, whether it was on abortion, some elements of welfare, or child tax credits.

As nasty as he could be, Newt Gingrich and Republicans actually stood with Bill Clinton, too, when he poached ideas from their side.  On things as ticky-tack as promoting school uniforms, or on more major things like conservative elements of welfare reform, Newt and the Republicans actually did praise Bill Clinton.

In fact, Newt still goes out of his way to praise Bill Clinton on those things, today:

Triangulation is predicated on both ends of the spectrum acknowledging and praising you for taking their ideas.  That’s how you look above the fray, get the media accolades, etc.

If you don’t have that, the triangle falls apart.

That is why it is absolutely, positively imperative that liberals do not give Donald Trump what he needs to succeed.

Building trade unions are hardly the only ones to be propping up Trump.  No less than Bernie Sanders is setting himself up to be a pillar for the Trump strategy when headlines like this appear:


Chuck Schumer, likewise, continues to edge closer to the trap when he says things like this:

Schumer: Trump’s trillion dollar infrastructure plan sounds good to me

So what should liberals do?  Simply: Stop.

If you need to vote for something in a Trump proposal, then vote for it. But there is no need to praise him.

There’s damn well no good reason to support him for only paying lip service to causes you may support.

And if Donald Trump invites you over, and tosses you a bone, tell him that if he’d like a press release praising him, he has to do 15, 20, 50 more things on your agenda.

The rest of the time – you oppose, oppose, oppose.  Loudly and frequently.  You deny him the poles of the triangle.  You deny stories about how he’s getting support from “unlikely places and people.”


A Final Note

Now, I can already hear you.

“But Eric,” you ask.  “Why should it matter if he reaps the benefit? Isn’t it important to get the good things out of him that we can, which might help people in real ways?”

If we were talking about a normal politician, in the normal bounds of decency, yes.  But not when “success,” in this case, will be used as political capital to further the darkest parts of Donald Trump’s agenda, which are far outside the norms of any previous Republican or Democratic president.

If you played ball with Bill Clinton in the 90s, as a Republican, it helped him further things like liberal health insurance for kids.  Maybe it was against your ideology, but it wasn’t the end of America.

But once you give Donald Trump the mantle of popularity and praise, you’re going to find it is very, very difficult to stop him from ramming through programs that target Muslims, immigrants, and more.

Above all, remember this:  Donald Trump is not your friend, and he doesn’t want to help the people you care about.

He wants to use people you care about, today, to enrich himself, in the same way he wants to kill those same people tomorrow… to enrich himself.

That’s how triangulation works.  But it only works if you let it.

Author: Eric Schmeltzer

That progressive guy. Very different from that Progressive Girl (aka "Flo"). Also an independent PR consultant.

One thought on “Trump’s Triangulation (and How To Not Fall For It)

  1. You want win election. Do opposite of what Hillary Clinton do.
    Opposite will win big election.
    As my Baba says; New broom sweeps in new way.


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