“Donald Trump is a rhetorical genius. People don’t like to hear that. Unfortunately, I’ve got bad news for you ’cause he is.” — Dr. Jennifer Mercieca, Communication Expert
2016 election night. Donald Trump faces Hillary Clinton in the fight for the presidency.
The election was quite frankly a shitshow. Trump’s candidacy took everyone by surprise. People thought it was a joke. Maybe a cheap shot to gain some publicity for the Trump brand. They’d be in for a surprise.
Over a few months the Trump campaign proved surprisingly persistent. The “clown car”, as the campaign was called by some, committed blunders after blunders, demonstrated radical views, and said things that would’ve kicked every other candidate out of the race. Not so Trump. Instead, his opposing republican candidates dropped out one by one and he won the primaries. Suddenly, he was facing Hillary Clinton in the final election.
People still weren’t taking him seriously. Alright, he won the primary but he’ll never make it to the presidency. After all, his views seemed too radical, too ludicrous. The most trusted election forecaster in the US — Nate Silver and his site FiveThirtyEight — estimated Trump’s chances of winning at 28.6% on election day. We all know what happened then… he won.
How could this happen? How could everyone be so wrong?
Was it because of the support of working-class whites that were underreported as mentioned in a New York Times article? CNN even came up with 24 possible explanations, ranging from Facebook and Fake News to bad strategies and strategic decisions on the Democrats' side.
One person predicted Trump’s win long before everyone else. Scott Adams, author, and cartoonist put forth a different theory back in 2015 to explain why Trump was successful against all odds. Adams was convinced, Donald Trump was a Master Persuader.
Adams wrote a lot about Trump’s persuasion techniques in his book Win Bigly. There is also a multitude of Youtube videos that describe the various methods of persuasion he uses. I distilled the most important ones.
There are three things Trump does extremely well. He creates and leverages his personal brand, he knows how to communicate effectively, and he knows the art of communicative warfare.
You might dislike him as a person. You might dislike his communication style. You might disagree with his policies and politics. But it doesn’t matter, because the communication principles work. Knowing and using them allows you to be less affected by these techniques on the one hand, and on the other you’ll get better at bringing your own message across.
You don’t have to be Trump, but you do have to use his principles if you want to have an impact.
The Trump brand
Trump is a businessman who doesn’t limit himself to any particular industry. While he’s most famous for real estate, over the years his name appeared on an online University, steaks, home furnishings, and apparel. The interesting part is that most of these companies are not owned by him, they are owned by other people.
After a couple of heavy losses because of failed real estate projects he invested in, Trump changed his strategy in the 90s. Instead of building his own ventures, he started to capitalize on something else — his name. By that time, he acquired some fame around his person through illustrious real estate projects and portraying himself on TV. His name became associated with the image of a successful businessman and he licensed it to real estate around the world as well as a number of consumer products.
Even though most of the products with Trump’s name failed (only two remained by 2018) and most real estate isn’t owned by him, he’s considered by many a super successful businessman. Obviously he had some success, otherwise, he couldn’t have financed large parts of his own projects and presidential campaign. The question of Trump’s success as a businessman is not the point. The point is that the Trump name makes many people overestimate his success and skills. Trump has effectively made himself a brand.
Why is this relevant you ask?
Because one large part of persuasion is what Aristotle called ethos — the ability to convey your credibility. This comes down to two factors, expertise and trustworthiness. If your public persona manages to convey these factors, your arguments and message will automatically seem more convincing.
Ethos helps you to establish yourself as an authority, which is one of the fundamental principles of influence. In times of uncertainty we want someone that knows what he is doing and has a plan. We want a person of authority — a leader.
Over the years Trump managed to create a powerful image through big public real estate deals, media appearances, and reality TV shows such as The Apprentice as well as through the book The Art of the Deal, written in his name. All of these are artifacts that portray Trump as a successful dealmaker and businessman. Trump is well-positioned as an authority figure in management, business, and negotiation. All of these skills could also be considered helpful for the job of the president of the United States.
He has the best words
“We don’t win anymore. We don’t win anymore in our country Sean. We don’t win anymore. We used to win. We don’t win anymore. We don’t win with trade, we don’t win with war… we can’t even beat ISIS and… we gonna win. If I… win. I will tell you if I win we all win because we’re gonna win.” — Trump on a Fox News Interview
Have you ever read a Trump speech? It often doesn’t make much sense. He’s rambling a lot and parts of it are incoherent, sometimes even non-sensical.
This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t get his message across. Because verbal communication offers much more leeway than if you put the same message in writing.
Communicating effectively follows some basic principles. Trump uses some of them to the extreme, which makes his message not only stick but inevitably persuasive for many.
Make it simple stupid
Trump does two things to make his message convincing.
First, he uses simple language to get his point across. From the last 15 presidents Trump’s language is rated lowest with regards to vocabulary range, namely on a 4th graders level on a Flesch-Kincaid scale.
This is something he got ridiculed for but people miss the point. When it comes to persuasion simplicity works better. Just take the academic field. Most of the papers written don’t get read much. Not even inside academic circles. People rarely get past the executive summary and maybe the conclusion. I’ve talked to a lot of postdocs and professors about this fact.
Using simple language doesn’t only mean being understood, but it also makes your message memorable.
Second, he repeats a lot. He repeats a lot. Just take the quote at the beginning of this chapter where he uses the word “win” a whopping 12 times! The repetitions don’t add any additional informational content. But that’s not the point, because what gets repeated gets remembered.
Our brain pays more attention to what it encounters more often. Social scientist and persuasion expert Robert Cialdini found that we attribute higher importance to what we pay attention to. Through repetition our attention naturally goes to what is being repeated and our brain raises its perceived importance. You can bet that after hearing the above answer, the only thing stuck in your subconscious is the word “win” and all the good associations coming with it.
“Repetition is persuasion.” — Scott Adams, Win Bigly
This effect is not only limited to what Trump says. It’s also how he used the media to his advantage during the campaign. Through his controversial and bold statements, Trump has received an estimated 2 billion dollars of free media coverage for his message. That’s a lot of free persuasion.
Trump’s words are not only simple they are filled with emotions as well. By using emotionally charged and visual language Trump manages to invoke a favorable response from people. Cialdini explains in his book Pre-Suasion how much our emotional state makes us more susceptible to persuasion attempts.
Analyzing a question of Trump in an interview with Jimmy Kimmel in 2015 shows how much Trump uses emotionally charged words. He often does so at the end of his sentences, because from a persuasion aspect this is prime real estate. We tend to pay disproportionate attention to these words, especially if the rest of the sentence is confusing or incoherent.
The audience is king
Trump was confronted in an interview about his low approval ratings in the Hispanic and Afro-American population during the primaries. How could he possibly think he’d win without these voters?
His answer was telling. He said he had not tried to win them over so far. He was fighting against other Republicans in the primaries and didn’t need to convince the primarily Democratic Hispanic and Afro-American parts of the population. Now that he’d face Hillary Clinton his approach would naturally change.
Many people missed this, but Trump’s message became much less intense and controversial after the primaries and even more so when he became president. Yes, a lot of it was still controversial and dividing but considerably less so than at the beginning.
During his campaign he always customized his message to the audience he was addressing, either in the moment or during the different phases in the campaign. He adapted specifically to the audience. Hence, while his initial support in many minority groups was low he managed to increase his support quite a bit (the magnitude of this effect might be debatable but not the general direction).
Trump and other Republican candidates at a primary debate
Trump knows how to brand himself. He knows exactly what words and language to use for maximum persuasive effect. However, where he really shines is in communication warfare. I mean debates, interviews, and media appearances. In these situations it’s about knowing how to defend oneself against the criticisms of opponents and how to attack them in return to make them look incompetent or weak.
The linguistic kill shot
Scott Adams coined one of the techniques Trump uses in debates, he calls it the linguistic kill shot. This term describes the various unfavorable nicknames Trump used to describe his opponents during the campaign. You know what he’s talking about:
- Crooked Hillary
- Lyin’ Ted
- Low-energy Jeb
“Trump assigns one sticky nickname after another to his opponents. It seemed as if each new nickname was a winner. Clinton’s team tried a few nicknames for Trump, but they failed. Badly. None of this is a coincidence. Trump’s nicknames were deeply engineered and then tested in front of live audiences.” — Scott Adams, Win Bigly
What Trump did right, according to Adams, was that he used memorable, visual, and inevitably accurate descriptions that appeared to be matching the person he was describing.
All of the nicknames were easy to remember and once heard stuck in the mind. Trump field-tested different nicknames during his campaign rallies. He compared the reactions he got from the audience and if the names caught on by being broadly used on social media for example. He simply kept on using the best ones.
The other factor of a good linguistic kill shot is how they play into confirmation bias. As humans we have a tendency to seek confirmatory evidence for our held beliefs. In the case of Jeb Bush for example, labeling him low-energy leads our minds to focus on all the instances where Jeb does appear to be low-energy. Same with Lyin’ Ted. Every politician inevitably lies, labeling one as a liar just makes people focus on it more. The nicknames become self-fulfilling.
The double bind
Trump sets up situations where he can only win. He does so with another offense tactic — the double bind. With this tactic he creates a situation where his opponents have limited options and it doesn’t matter which one they choose it always ends up with them loosing and Trump winning.
It’s best to describe this with an example. Here is a transcription of an exchange between Jeb Bush and Donald Trump in a Republican debate in December 2015
Trump reacting to interruption from Jeb: “Am I talking or are you talking Jeb? You can go back!”
Jeb: “I’m talking!”
Trump: “You can go back!”
Jeb: “I’m talking!”
Trump: “You interrupted me. Are you apologizing Jeb? No. Am I allowed to finish?”
In this exchange Jeb has only limited options to react, all of which are bad for him.
- By not apologizing he does what Trump predicted and looks like a bully
- If Jeb chooses to continue interrupting he looks like a bully too
- Lastly, if he actually did apologize he’d end up looking weak in this exchange
It doesn’t really matter which option Jeb chooses, Trump set it up in a way in which he wins every time. This is a double bind.
Humor and deflection
But Trump isn’t only capable of attacking his opponents, he knows how to defend himself as well. His go-to tactics to any kind of criticism or attack are humor and deflection.
Probably the most famous example of using humor to mitigate a dangerous attack was during another Republican Debate where Megyn Kelly started asking Trump the following question:
Megyn Kelly: “You called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals. Your Twitter account…”
Trump: “Only Rosie O’Donnell.”
At this point most of the crowd broke out in loud laughter. Trump managed to frame the situation and question in a way that makes it look ridiculous and hence, successfully retorted a valid and dangerous critique. Megyn Kelly’s follow up correction, that it hasn’t only been Rosie O’Donnell, didn’t matter to most of the people listening.
Is this and other comments of him outrageous?
Yes, they often are. But that’s exactly the point. Making outrageous comments is an easy way to deflect people’s attention to another topic. It’s one of his go-to-tactics to get out of a dangerous position. Trump’s Twitter account is a prime example of this. He uses it to deflect attention from issues he doesn’t want to be discussed.
The New York Times published an articleinvestigating potential conflict between Trump’s international business dealings and how they might impact his decisions as president. The article was at the top of the front-page. On the same day Trump wrote the following tweet:
“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally”
You might imagine what the number one topic was in the news for the rest of the week… The media simply cannot pass on such a statement.
This is a classic misdirection tactic to deflect people’s attention away from critical issues. With a sensational Trump comment or story dropping basically every other week, no single one of these criticism stays in the public eye for long.
To be clear, Trump isn’t the only politician applying those tactics.
Every politician uses these tactics to some degree, Trump just does it better.
As I said in the beginning, you don’t need to copy Trump’s style, but you can benefit greatly by using some of the tactics and principles behind them for yourself.
- Create and cultivate a public persona or brand that supports your goals indirectly by shaping people’s image of you before they even know you.
- Communicate more effectively by adjusting your message heavily to your audience. Don’t just adapt your arguments but also the language and words you use in a way that fits your audience.
- Use simple and concrete language as well as words that make things emotional and visual. This ensures that what you say is understood and remembered both consciously and unconsciously.
- Beware of cheap tricks like the linguistic kill shot and double binds. Avoid falling into these traps and don’t let your opponent deflect your criticism.
Soon the 2020 election reaches its final phase. Donald Trump and Joe Biden will go head to head for the presidency. If nothing else, I hope that you’ll have a new perspective to judge the debates, speeches, and public exchanges. Politics is a game of public perception, and Donald Trump is a master in it. We’ll soon see how Joe Biden measures up.