Going into 2016, it felt strange that after all these years, two big-heave O.J. Simpson projects would be landing at the same time. What was relevant about this dated tabloid monstrosity? Why would anyone care now?
It got stranger still when both were so enthusiastically received, as reflected by the recent pile-up of awards nominations for FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson and ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America.
The conventional wisdom is that the O.J. story is about race, and that’s why it still resonates today. But I don’t think that’s all of it.
Here at the end of 2016, after the election of Donald Trump, the astonishing resurgence of O.J. makes almost perfect sense. In fact, the clash of tactics and personalities at his 1994 trial provides a chilling template for the election we just experienced. It’s almost as if the entertainment industry was sending the country a heads-up about Trump.
It all starts with the singular genius of Johnnie Cochran.
As O.J.’s top lawyer, Cochran masterfully flipped legal orthodoxy on its head. Message and narrative trumped facts and evidence. Style trumped substance. He turned the whole thing into a spectacle, and the media played right along. Punditry, commentary and celebrity overran the process. Those savvy enough to realize and adapt to it came away as winners and those clinging to the way things always had been done, well, they got angry and upset. Because they lost.
The prosecutors, led by Marcia Clark, meant well. They were prepared. Experienced. They worked very hard. They had all of the facts on their side: mountains of physical evidence, from blood samples to eyewitnesses to incontrovertible proof of where O.J. was and where he wasn’t. But what they didn’t realize until it was too late was that the case wasn’t being tried on the old standards, that everyone involved had their own agendas and ambitions, and that the jurors’ underlying experiences, biases and fears mattered more than what they were hearing in the courtroom.
The defense, led by Cochran, understood this from day one. Early in People v. OJ Simpson, Cochran tells O.J., “If we have even one black juror, I’ll get you a hung jury.” Cochran’s key maneuver was to shift the focus of the trial — it wasn’t O.J. being tried, it was the Los Angeles Police Department, still under a cloud of resentment and suspicion following the Rodney King beating in 1991 and the acquittal of the white officers involved.
So Cochran played offense rather than defense. By staying on the attack at all times, even when publicly confronted with his own history of domestic violence and adultery, he had the prosecutors chasing the plays that he was calling.
Or put another way, Cochran ran a campaign — in the courtroom, in the media, in the black community.
Which brings us to 2016. Like Marcia Clark, Hillary Clinton had the facts on her side. Like Clark, she had the support of right-thinking people everywhere. Like Clark, she had the infinite resources that come with being the establishment choice. And like Clark, she had a single imperative that overrode everything else — don’t mess it up. The odds are hugely in your favor. All you have to do is not lose.
In football, they call this the “prevent defense.” It’s an oxymoron.
Heading into the primaries, as we all remember, Trump’s odds of winning the presidency looked every bit as long as O.J.’s odds for an acquittal. Trump was wildly unqualified, wildly intemperate and wildly ignorant of everything Hillary (and many of his primary opponents) knew. Like Cochran, however, Trump took the ball and never let the other side have it. Like Cochran, Trump played fast and loose with the facts, the truth and reality. Like Cochran, Trump brushed aside allegations about his past, every scandal the media or his opponents unearthed, every reason why no one should vote for him. He kept up the attack. “Make America Great Again” was his answer to everything, just as “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” was Cochran’s.
The jury probably knew O.J. did it, but they were so fed up with the LAPD’s history of bias that they didn’t care. They wanted to send a message. Similarly, Trump’s voters weren’t blind to his flaws. Many found his behavior objectionable. They didn’t all vote for him because they’re unreconstructed racists and sexists. But they were willing to overlook Trump’s unsavory qualities because they were so fed up with the status quo that they were willing to send a message at any cost.
The parallels between O.J. and Trump actually provide a glimmer of hope for Democrats and advocates on the left. After his acquittal, O.J. made nothing of the second chance that the jury gave him — he lived what looked to be a tortured life, then committed a stupid crime and went to prison. Cochran worked a couple of high-profile cases involving cops, but largely became enamored of his own notoriety then died of a brain tumor. A message-savvy celebrity can capture attention and drive action, but politics is a sport with no off-season. Every day is another game. There’s not much time for victory laps. You gotta put in the work.
That’s Trump’s challenge and the Democrats’ opportunity. But they’ll also have to curtail their infatuation with polling, focus groups and data and groom their own versions of Johnnie Cochran — leaders who can capture how people truly feel and articulate those feelings in ways that resonate emotionally with as much power as they do intellectually. If not, the Democrats are going to be playing defense for a long time.
Tusk, the CEO & founder of Tusk Ventures, served as Mike Bloomberg’s campaign manager, guiding Mayor Bloomberg to a third term and in 2016 advising him on a potential presidential run. Tusk previously served as communications director for U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer. From 2003-2006, he was deputy governor of Illinois.