How Harry Truman Outworked Certain Defeat in 1948

If Harry Truman had listened to the pundits in 1948, he may well have imposed on himself a constraining, self-fulfilling prophecy not of his own making. One commonality of the truly great men in history is that they don’t play by anyone else’s rules. They recognize that these “expectations” and “certainties” are the inventions of others and have no bearing on their own actions. Indeed, what makes you a hero (“he who is worthy”), a great man, is that you do things others thought weren’t possible. Harry Truman is one such example, and his spectacular campaign of 1948 is certainly worth celebration in song and story, for he defied all the “experts” and stumped his way to a “stunning” upset. Let me now tell you the tale.

Thomas Dewey was the governor of New York from 1943-1954. New York was the country’s most populous state (it would remain so until the 1970’s) and he had previously run for president in 1944, so he was a well-known, familiar figure with something of a personal brand. Though Thomas Dewey lost in a landslide that year, he can be forgiven. His opponent was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a living legend in his own time, a master of charisma and flame control, and who was running in the midst of a great war in which he had proven himself a successful leader. Against such an opponent, Thomas Dewey can be forgiven for his defeat, and the public saw it that way too. 1948 was a whole different ball game.

Harry Truman vs. Thomas Dewey Election 1948 outworked

Though he successfully oversaw the conclusion of World War II, Harry Truman was very unpopular in 1948. Here was an accidental president who had the double misfortune of succeeding the legendary FDR. These two things undoubtedly cast him in a negative light by default.

In addition to these two problems of social proof and an overshadowing frame cast on his personal brand, Harry Truman also had the bad luck of being at the center of the transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy. This saw high inflation and a massive wave of destabilizing labor strikes. But he also created brand crises on his own accord. In what was seen as political suicide, he began the modern civil rights revolution in 1948, ending segregation in the armed forces and civil service. This forced the recency effect against him. Truman badly needed a united Democratic Party, but his civil rights initiatives deeply alienated many Southern Democrats, who split off to form the short-lived Dixiecrat Party in 1948, with Strom Thurmond at the helm. Additionally, there was also a leftward split in the Democratic Party, and a new Progressive Party formed that year. It was headed by Henry A. Wallace. This only served to further dilute the Democratic base.

With all of these catastrophes embroiling his opponent, Thomas Dewey would be forgiven by most for thinking that he would inevitably coast to the presidency, but that’s precisely why most people don’t succeed.

As a result of these environmental cues and this sense of inevitability, Thomas Dewey basically withdrew from the race in 1948, even though he was still running. He seemed to believe he could be a spectator and win, rather than having to do the work of actually running around the track. In effect, Thomas Dewey felt comfortable with coasting. He became complacent.

Thomas Dewey Harry Truman 1948 Trump

Thomas Dewey’s absentee status in 1948 also came as a result of his defensive strategy of avoiding mistakes, figuring he didn’t need to do anything else. Yet, as is so often the case, taking a defensive strategy made him more prone to making mistakes. To quote Steven Pressfield on the matter:

Always attack. Even in defense, attack. The attacking arm possesses the initiative and thus commands the action. To attack makes men brave; to defend makes them timorous. If I learn that an officer of mine has assumed a defensive posture in the field, that officer will never hold command under me again.

And indeed, Thomas Dewey’s timorous conduct left him prone to making gaffes:

1. You know that your future is still ahead of you.

2. Agriculture is important.

3. Our rivers are full of fish.

4. You cannot have freedom without liberty.

5. Our future lies ahead.

These hilarious gaffes were made worse as a result of Dewey’s limited public appearances. In effect, Thomas Dewey was now concocting a negative recency effect for himself, doing Harry Truman the favor of providing a not-so-appealing comparison to the bad memories the public already had of its president. Thomas Dewey was imposing a frame on himself as a buffoon. What, therefore, was the incentive for change? Why choose Dewey instead of Truman? I suspect that many a person in 1948 pondered these questions unconsciously.

In the meantime, Harry Truman went on a whirlwind speaking tour across the country. He delivered speech after speech, getting himself out to the public, giving people new memories to hold in their mind’s eyes. This built up Harry Truman’s social proof and made him more charismatic. How could Thomas Dewey build a following and connect with his supporters if he only came out of his shell every once in a while, and then only to make gaffes?

Additionally, by being so insular and trapped in a fortress (a violation of Robert Greene’s 18th law of power), Thomas Dewey was unable to dominate space in 1948. With the possible exception of the rivers having a lot of fish, Thomas Dewey couldn’t dominate enough space on other topics in order to make an offer to the electorate. This was in stark contrast to the crisscrossing Harry Truman, who went to city after city, dominating space on issues and cleverly creating a hated out-group in the unpopular Republican-dominated congress, bypassing Thomas Dewey entirely.

In creating this out-group and ignoring Dewey, Harry Truman used tactics that could have come straight from Scott Adams. He created a “linguistic kill shot” with eerily modern undertones. He coined the term “do-nothing congress.” Truman then challenged congress to take up his 1948 legislative agenda. This basically gave him, again to quote Scott Adams, “two ways to win.” Congress could either pass his legislation and thus give Harry Truman victories he could take to the public, or they could reject it and buy into the frame that he had imposed on them, affirming his linguistic kill shot. Congress chose to do the latter.

Finally, Harry Truman took on something of a Jacksonian persona – a barroom brawler style of campaigning. As he went on his nationwide stump tour, he demonstrated grit and fight – attacking his opponents vigorously and firing up massive crowds. In contrast to the absent and stiff Thomas Dewey, Harry Truman was now being perceived as a fighter.

Despite all that was happening, the pundits in the ivory tower and the press still believed that Harry Truman had no chance of winning and refused to believe otherwise. On Election Night, various papers made their own gaffes. Those gaffes need not be described in words:

Dewey defeats Truman 1948 Stumped Trump outworked

How did this come to be? Harry Truman won in 1948 for a lot of different reasons – he built up his social proof, he cleverly imposed frame on his opponents while retaining a strong one for himself, he connected with his followers to build charisma for himself, he dominated space, he portrayed himself as a fighting, tribal leader, and so on.

But all of these things occurred primarily because of one reason – Harry Truman simply outworked Thomas Dewey in 1948. Truman faced a daunting challenge, as the pendulum was squarely against him, but he accepted the challenge and blew the pendulum right back in Dewey’s face. As he could expect nothing and certainly had no laurels to coast on because his personal brand was tarnished, Harry Truman had to fight, work, and fight some more. He proved his mettle and his work ethic with his hard and brilliantly fought campaign in 1948, winning a term for himself in his own right. Harry Truman could be called a lot of things, but after 1948, no one could accuse him – then or now – of being an accidental president. He proved himself a winner, and posterity has been far kinder to him than the people in his own time were.

Thomas Dewey on the other hand, distant, abstract, and stiff, treated 1948 as a coronation. He grievously underestimated his opponent, took on an isolated, defensive stance that required no grit, no effort, and no creativity, and it cost him a race that by all rights he should have easily been able to win.

1948 serves as a reminder of the primary importance of two things:

  1. Those “experts” who deny the importance of persuasion are grievously incorrect. Harry Truman ran an almost perfect Stumped campaign despite his severe disadvantages at the outset.
  2. No amount of skill or environmental advantage will help you unless you put those things to use through hard and consistent labor.

When you cultivate an unrelenting work ethic and combine it with the skills to influence people, there’s very little in life that you won’t be able to do. Get started today by reading Stumped.

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