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The Battle of Contrasting Narratives

I recently had the opportunity to teach courses and present at the Australian Institute of Professional Intelligence Officers (AIPIO) conference in Adelaide, Australia. The question everyone asked is “What is going on in America? Are you all going crazy?” As the sole conference attendee from the United States, I felt obliged to respond. After reflection, I concluded that America is experiencing a clash of competing narratives: several mostly false and the others firmly rooted in reality.

Narratives are stories that are compelling and coherent in their structure. Key drivers that enhance the power and adoption of narratives are the growing impact of social media, Confirmation Bias, and the phenomenon of echo chambers.


PAST: The Republican Party has been increasingly radicalized to the point it has been transformed from a political party to a cult of personality. Former President Donald Trump refuses to accept the fact that he lost the election and has convinced his followers to adopt the false narrative that massive fraud occurred and Trump actually won the election. The radicalization of the movement is certain to intensify, cementing the false narrative in the minds of Trump followers.

PRESENT: The current false narrative is that President Biden and various Attorneys General/Prosecutors are weaponizing the halls of justice to illegally “bring down” the former president. The former President claims President Biden is using the criminal justice system to deny Trump time to campaign for reelection. Trump supporters regard his indictments as proof of his victim status which he can leverage to his advantage. Such false confidence explains why Trump supporters are not protesting the indictments. The jailing of 6 January protestors has also made many Trump supporters less inclined to protest, fearing that they will suffer a similar fate.

FUTURE: Most Trump supporters believe the former President will easily win a contest against a barely competent incumbent. Once back in power, Trump will arrange to have all his indictments and convictions overturned. This will free him to retaliate against those he deems disloyal. He will use the Justice System to lock up his opponents and bring retribution against the Deep State and anyone who has proved disloyal in the past. His transformation of the United States to an authoritarian/ undemocratic state will be justified on two grounds: the need for retribution against the disloyal and the push from his supporters to return America to an operating culture they are “comfortable with.” 

These narratives are likely to remain unquestioned unless Trump loses the presidential election. An election loss denies Trump the ability to issue pardons, impose an authoritarian form of government, and probably avoid imprisonment.


PAST: President Biden won the 2020 election and has shown strong leadership in international affairs, rallying NATO to support Ukraine and almost bringing Putin to his knees. His primary focus was to enact laws and executive orders that improved the lives of middle-class Americans. He has managed to get several major bipartisan legislative packages passed that lower health care and drug costs, fight climate change, expand mental health care, and invest in American manufacturing and infrastructure.

PRESENT: Biden’s strategy is to avoid any appearance of trying to influence the judicial process that surrounds Trump. As part of his campaign strategy, he will soon showcase his list of middle-class policy initiatives to be enacted if he is elected and contrast it with Trump’s agenda. Emphasis will be given to substantial progress in creating jobs and bringing down inflation. A key theme will be the institution of Bidenomics which involves building the economy from the “middle out and the bottom up.” 

FUTURE: Looking to the future, the primary narrative likely to be promoted by President Biden is the need to preserve democratic institutions. A key subcomponent of this narrative will be the commitment to pass two voting rights laws: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. Other issues likely to receive attention will be wrapped around the theme of freedom: freedom of women to seek an abortion, of minorities to vote, for LGBTQ community to live without restrictions, for students to read books of their choice, and ultimately for all citizens to continue to be governed by democratic institutions.  

President Biden’s narrative has had trouble gaining traction and would collapse if Trump became President. In order for the narrative to gain footing, the Democrats would have to obtain control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress. Democrats could further the narrative if they retook control of several state legislatures. 

You can learn more about methods for evaluating contrasting narratives in Chapter 9, “Analysis by Contrasting Narratives,” in

Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, 3rd edition.