I’m not a Trump fan.
I’m not a Trump fan.
Earlier this week, however, I listened to a really interesting podcast between James Altucher and Scott Adams – creator of the Dilbert comic.
In it, they discussed all things persuasion, including the 2016 US Presidential Race.
One of the themes that floated to the surface was Trump’s persuasion skills.
Could it be these skills that helped Trump win the race?
Scott Adams certainly seems to think so.
The following is a clipped transcript of some of the things they discussed.
Trump had a set of tools for the race that were insanely impressive.
They were also a little bit invisible which was the fun part.
If you look at his talent stack (the number of things he can do really well but not the best in the world), you can say ‘well, he’s not the smartest person in the race but he’s really smart.
‘He’s not the best public speaker but he’s really good.
‘He’s not the funniest person you’ve ever met but he’s really funny.
‘He might not be the best negotiator you’ve ever met but he certainly knows how to negotiate.’
You can keep going down the line and he’s sort of an A-, B+ or A in a whole range of things from reality TV to business.
He brought the whole package, and I didn’t see anybody who I thought could compete with him.
Micro skills come together and if you take one or two of them out, the overall ‘thing’ falls apart.
Basketball, for example, isn’t a meta-skill. Michael Jordan had to be good at shooting hoops from a certain distance and running around basketball courts, avoiding other people.
These are two completely different skills from each other and he had to be the best in the world at both to be the best in the world at the intersection.
He’s one of the most complete athletes the world has ever seen.
Sometimes in his campaign, Trump would take extreme points of view, often making statements he may or may not have known were inaccurate just so that everyone would end up debating ‘that was true’ or ‘that wasn’t true’.
As you can see though, all they were really talking was Trump.
He drew all of the oxygen out of the room from the other candidates by making these wildly inaccurate statements.
He may or may not have known them to be inaccurate.
That doesn’t matter.
Facts don’t matter.
His goal at that point was if something was on TV, he wanted it to be him.
Obviously, in some cases, facts do matter. If you walk off a cliff, for example, you die.
However, when Trump was making people go crazy with his factual inaccuracies (PolitiFact had page after page of statements like this tweet isn’t accurate, this tweet isn’t accurate), there was one thing they had in common, along with getting your attention:
All of his wrongness was in the right direction.
In other words, the things he said were inaccurate but were still a sale for the thing he wanted (which was generally good for the country if you were of the conservative mindset).
You would see him use this on virtually every topic. People would argue about the specific details of what he said but the direction of what he was trying to promote was a lot more compatible.
People would say ‘yeah, maybe the gun deaths in Chicago aren’t as bad as he’s saying – maybe people aren’t being gunned down every time they walk outside – but it’s really bad!
‘Something needs to be done about all this violence.’
In a lot of cases, he tended to state his case in the extreme and then backed off to appear more centrist but the direction was still the same as he believed.
What’s more, it was enough for half the country to say he’s ridiculous whilst for the other half to get afraid of border patrol.
He stayed in the news.
This isn’t something he tends to be credited for but he has amazing discipline.
Just look at the discipline it must have taken not to clarify specifics every time he talked about his wall – the fact there would have to be a patchwork of solutions given the terrain and you don’t really need it in certain areas.
He just very wisely said ‘it’s going to be a wall’.
Just a wall.
It’s simple, it’s visual, he repeated it and the “error” of it all contributed to the fact people were still talking about it.
They were thinking past the sale.
They had already decided this was an important question and were spending their time on it.
They were debating it.
Before this election, I had never even heard of this issue!
Having said this, immigration was an issue with a lot of his supporters and he figured out what people cared about.
This in itself is really, really hard.
If it was easy, more people would do it.
You could say this is part of his talent stack.
Hilary’s policies were sort of lawyerly and probably made sense and added up – maybe they were compatible with her base and stuff – but they didn’t have any emotional content.
They just sort of laid there.
Try to think of one of her policies…
He was imagining this great success in the future and he was so engaging he could paint a picture of it so that people could start moving towards the picture he painted.
His certainty, his clarity and his optimism are just really attractive traits.
What’s more, he never backed off. One’s got to praise his consistency in the face of non-stop negativity towards him.
Just look at his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”.
It’s simple, it’s inspirational and it speaks to people on a personal basis.
It works on every level.
Every word in it is positive.
‘Make’ speaks to building. It’s creative. It almost seems like an American word; ‘I’m gonna make something’.
Same goes for ‘great’ and ‘America’.
Put them together and it almost sounds like a drum beat.
“Make America Great Again.”
“Make America Great Again.”
Even ‘again’, although it might seem negative, works in this context. It calls back to Reagan whilst also providing a contrast that says we’re not where we need to be.
Now smart people could argue, “what the hell does this mean?
“Weren’t we already greater than we’ve ever been?”
America’s arguably never been less great this year and last year and the year before that.
But Trump sold that; the idea that America was greater before.
As an objective measure, it just sounds false. Maybe in some defined areas America’s not as great as it was.
Overall, he really had to sell that.
And he did.
Now let’s compare this to Hilary’s “I’m With Her.”
For one, it doesn’t seem to make any one’s life better.
Although she might have wanted it to sound like she wants everyone to come together, it almost gives the impression she wanted people to work for her.
The ‘her’ in it also called out gender and that somehow this was important to running the country.
A lot of people didn’t appreciate this.
Sure, it might have appealed to some but certainly not to everyone.
Did you hear things like “Crooked Hilary”, “Low-energy Jeb” and “Little Marko” throughout Trump’s campaign?
There’s a reason.
These ‘linguistic kill-shots’ are very visual.
There’s also a lot of engineering that goes on to construct them.
Here’s what you see across all these nicknames which make you realise they’re not an accident.
First of all, he picks a word which is uncommon for the context he’s using it (Politics in this case).
Calling someone “low-energy” and “lyin'” and “crooked” – these are just things you don’t hear a politician say out aloud about another.
Another thing they had going for them is they call out a physicality which you’ll be reminded of for sure in the future.
Before he said “low-energy Jeb”, for example, people probably thought he’s quite calm, collected and executive – the sort of guy you might want in an emergency situation.
However, every time you saw him after the kill-shot and compared him to Trump’s high-energy campaign (nobody doubted that), you couldn’t see Jeb in the same way any more.
The contrast sealed his fate.
People tried to do the same against Trump.
“Cheeto Jesus” was one. Pretty funny right?
You think this must be good!
It’s hilarious, it’s an insult.
But here’s the thing:
People like cheetos and people like Jesus.
Put cheetos and Jesus together and that’s not the insult you were hoping for.
Some operatives also tried “Donald Duck”. The idea here was that he was ‘ducking’ his tax returns and ducking questions and stuff.
But Donald Duck is an awesome character who’s very popular!
It wouldn’t have worked at all.
Another thing Trump talks about a lot is how ISIS is coming for the Vatican and the like. ISIS cuts off heads.
If this was all he talked about, it would be pretty grim. Even if he had good ideas, people would be warn down and would say “ahhh, I can’t cope with any more horrible ISIS.”
However, fear is the strongest persuasion factor.
You have to bring up ISIS in an election for the fear, along with the ‘Make America Great Again’ contrast.
In this vision, he was saying things are wonderful, the economy is zooming and ISIS has been defeated.
He was drawing a picture that was pretty positive.
He could then mention something horrible which would create the contrast which, in itself, would be powerful.
However, if he lived the negative stuff and built his brand around it, that might have been a mistake.
Trump often got accused of lying during his campaign. Fact checkers had a field day.
As mentioned before, however, facts don’t matter.
You can’t find an example where he’s not persuading in the direction people would think is a good idea (at least the people who voted for him).
If someone said “you’re lying about the number of crimes committed by immigrants”, he could basically turn that around and say “I am saying a lot of horrible things being done by immigrants because this is what’s happening here, here, here…”
He could just kind of own it and then keep going along that thread.
As Mr Adams admitted in the interview, it’s hard to say whether Trump planned any of this or whether they’re coincidences.
When you look at some of the crazy stuff he said and did, though, it’s hard to dispute.
It pains me to say this but I think Trump might be quite a good persuader.