Let’s talk about Trump’s foreign policy speech from a persuasion standpoint.
Trump read from the teleprompter and acted more “presidential,” whatever that means. And he softened his position on Muslim immigration to “extreme vetting.” That was a good strategy for rebranding himself as less scary, but I doubt many people will watch that speech, so it won’t have much impact.
Anyway, let’s talk about what else Trump got right – or wrong – persuasion-wise.
I thought it was a big mistake for Trump to use the word “vicious” when talking about the search for potential terrorists in the homeland. That only makes Trump look scarier. And scariness is his biggest problem right now.
It was also a big mistake to talk about taking the oil from Iraq to pay for the wounded soldiers and their families. Trump could have sold his “take the oil” idea by clarifying that the funds would pay for our military presence to keep Iraq secure, for the benefit of Iraqis. And part of that budget could go to wounded vets and military families. That would sound better.
I watched Clinton surrogates on CNN criticize Trump’s speech, and their criticisms were mostly these two:
1. All of Trump’s foreign policy ideas are crazy and uninformed.
2. Obama is already wisely doing all of those same things.
That would seem absurd in any other context. But keep in mind that we voters believe we can assess foreign policy ideas by listening to biased liars talk on television. So the entire situation is ridiculous, but we play along.
Trump talked about cutting off ISIS from the Internet. Pundits scoffed at this idea because the Internet is everywhere and you can’t really turn it off for some people. Trump could have headed-off that criticism by explaining that we can turn off the Internet in selected areas, such as within the ISIS Caliphate, where it matters most. I blogged about doing exactly that in this post, so we could A-B test “historical Islam” within the Caliphate and compare it to the heathen world elsewhere. Let young folks see both experiments and choose for themselves. That should take care of recruitment.
Trump seemed to emphasize the use of persuasion to end ISIS recruitment. I think he called their version of persuasion propaganda. I assume the Obama administration is already doing plenty in this realm, but I also assume that Trump, The Master Persuader, would put even more emphasis on persuasion. Persuasion is the only sensible path for ending ISIS. Trump is right on that, although the details obviously matter.
When Trump talks of “extreme vetting” of Muslim immigrants, that sounds a lot like using technology to detect bad intentions. I blogged about that here. It seems feasible to me.
The genius of “extreme vetting” is that it means whatever you want it to mean. Clinton supporters will say we are already doing it. Trump supporters will say it’s a clever trick to block all Muslim immigrants. No one can disagree with “extreme vetting” because it has no specific meaning. Perfect.
I liked the clarity of Trump’s idea that anyone who wants to fight ISIS is our ally. Agree or disagree, the clarity of that thought is stunning. In the real world, things are never that simple. But as a message for the voting public, it is extraordinary in its persuasive simplicity. Your brain reflexively interprets the simplest explanation as the smartest one, even if it is not. Trump’s super-simple formula for picking allies is persuasion genius even if you think it is impractical in the real world. It sure sounds good. And it sounds like it came from someone who has a clear vision.
People keep asking me if it is a mistake for Trump to act so friendly to Russia. I keep asking in return who in America hates Russia in 2016? On an intellectual level, we recognize Russia as a rival. But on an emotional level, Americans seem to have some affection for Russia, and vice-versa. Once again, Trump’s policies are compatible with emotion, where all persuasion lives.
Trump never mentioned the wall with Mexico. You could argue that the wall is a domestic issue, not a foreign affair. But in any case, it was smart to leave it out of a speech that was designed to show Trump is even-tempered and reasonable.
Trump created for Democrats the same type of persuasion trap that the Democrats created with the Khan speech at their convention. Any criticism of the Khans was a criticism of their fallen hero son. Using a similar trap structure, Trump has tied his “extreme vetting” policy to the idea of protecting women and the LGBTQ community. If you don’t like Trump’s immigration ideas, you have to explain why you would be willing to put women and LGBTQ folks in mortal danger. That framing is strong persuasion, and Democrats don’t yet have a direct counter to it.
If you’re a woman and/or a member of the LGBTQ community, you’d have to be uninformed or deeply in cognitive dissonance to support the mass importation of those who want to subjugate and kill you. Trump took the highest ground on that topic. And he brought the GOP along for the ride. That’s a big deal.
Overall, I would say Trump’s speech had major flaws, but it did accomplish several important things:
1. The speech made Trump seem less scary. His Muslim ban idea became “extreme vetting,” and the rest of his plans to fight ISIS looked a lot like current policies. Not so scary.
2. We witnessed clear evidence that Trump listens to advisors. The shift to using a teleprompter and moving to “extreme vetting” are two examples. And I doubt it was Trump’s idea to leave out any mention of the Mexican wall.
2. Trump took the high ground on protecting women and LGBTQ folks even at the risk to his own political fortunes. He can legitimately claim to own that issue now.
In past blog posts I have explained how the biggest fear is always the most persuasive. Trump got a good headstart in this election by scaring the public about immigration. But Clinton later responded by framing the scare as Trump himself. That was a strong play because voters don’t think a terrorist will kill them personally, but if Trump destroys the entire world in a nuclear fireball, that’s a bad day for all. So Clinton is currently ahead in the persuasion-by-fear department.
If Trump wants to win by taking our collective fears to a new and higher level, he already set the stage by suggesting that immigration will lead to Sharia law and abuse of women and LGBTQ folks. If that concept is made visual, and tied to Clinton’s policies, it would be strong persuasion. (But doing it wrong would look racist. So it’s big risk.)
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