Persuasion is a learned skill. It involves a well-understood set of science-tested tools. For whatever reason, Donald Trump is bristling with talent for persuasion and Hillary Clinton has none (that I can detect) except for basic political skills and her gender identity. Persuasion is not the only talent you want in a president, so I won’t try to oversell it. But let’s see what kinds of issues are susceptible to a president’s powers of persuasion.
I can think of two types of problems that can be solved with persuasion:
1. The Economy
Economies need two things in order to function. They need resources, and they need an optimistic mindset. Optimists with access to resources invest in new ventures, and they spend for consumption. That’s all you need for a robust economy, so long as you have an educated citizenry, no natural disasters, no big wars, and the government stays out of your way.
I realize that sounds like an oversimplification of economics, but it isn’t. If you have optimism and resources, (and no huge outside problems) almost everything else takes care of itself in time. Capitalism does the rest.
To a large extent, the mood of citizens determines the future of the economy. In the United States of 2016, resources are plenty. All that matters is how we use those resources. And that depends on our collective psychology. In other words, the entire economy can be persuaded.
Obviously you don’t want too much optimism in an economy. That gives you housing bubbles and stock bubbles. A properly persuasive president would move citizens to the middle of the optimism range where things work well.
A President of the United States also has to cajole Congress to get things done. And a president needs to negotiate with other countries over trade deals. Both situations require persuasion in all its forms. Hillary Clinton has the political-form of persuasion (old school) and Trump as president would have all of that plus a range of extra persuasion skills on top.
Here I remind you that persuasion is not the only talent you want in a president. But on this one dimension, Trump is in a league of his own. The odds are good that a President Trump could move the economy more than could a President Clinton because of persuasion skills alone. But to the extent that Trump is more unpredictable than Clinton, you would have to accept some risk for his greater persuasiveness.
Now let’s talk about terrorism.
ISIS, and terrorism in general, are persuasion problems masquerading as military problems. You can’t bomb an idea. (We know because we keep trying.) Somehow we have to change the psychology of terrorists before they get nukes, and biological weapons, and their own drones. Psychology is the domain of persuasion. And persuasion is the only way out. Trump has those skills whereas Clinton (so far) has not demonstrated any mastery of persuasion.
But again, persuasion is not the only skill that matters. Trump is less predictable than Clinton (and intentionally so for the sake of negotiating, he says) so you have to count that as extra risk. The reality might be that Trump’s intentional lack of predictability makes him a better negotiator on the world stage. But we don’t know that to be true, so for now it counts as a risk.
Let me give you an example of how persuasion could be used in the service of ending terrorism. I will play off of yesterday’s blog post in which I suggested we treat terrorism as a medical (mental) problem.
As things stand, a terrorist can kill hundreds of innocent people while feeling he is doing something noble for his cause. If your future looks like nothing but bad times ahead, dying now as a martyr feels like a good deal. It gives you purpose, feeds your ego, and makes you immortal in a way. Terrorists feel – in a word – important. So the psychology favors terrorism. It has a real pay-off for the terrorist in terms of ego.
But suppose we (the victims) stop acting as though we are at war with a capable foe and start treating them with the sympathy we accord to any sick person. That changes the frame. An enemy needs you to act like an enemy or it ruins the entire game.
Obviously we need to maintain all the military and defense systems we have in place, and improve them over time. But the way we talk about terrorism can change to a framework of mental health. A persuasive president with a good linguistic kill shot for terrorists could change the game.
Trump famously suggested that we target the families of terrorists. Suppose we target them for shame instead of violence. Imagine a scene in which a terrorist does something bad and we know his name, so we can identify his family.
Now imagine a fully-briefed President Trump talking about the losers in that terrorist’s family, by name. That’s world news. It would get back to them. Imagine Trump talking about how many cousins have inbred in that family. Imagine Trump humiliating the terrorist’s family in ways that only Trump can. Ordinary insults would have no impact. But the weapons-grade humiliation that Trump wields can definitely leave a mark. It might take some testing to find the most humiliating approach, but some form of persuasion would have a permanent impact on the family’s reputation, even coming from an enemy like Trump. He’s that good. (Or that evil, depending on your point of view.)
The most likely outcome of a Trump presidency is that it looks a lot like other presidencies. Our political system has a way of constraining options. But we also know the current approach to terror is not working. The only option for stopping it is to change the psychology. And only one candidate has those tools.
Again – and I can’t say it too often – Trump adds risk in terms of unpredictability. But if you have tried all of the non-risky paths and they don’t work, it is sensible to increase your risk to introduce new solutions.
I’ll remind you here that my political views do not align with Trump’s or any of the other candidates. My interest is in Trump’s persuasion skills.
If you found things you don’t like in this blog, imagine how many you would find in my book.