< Go Back

Derailing the Trump Train

Derailing the Trump Train

    Donald Trump has made some big mistakes lately. On top of that, his opponents improved their game. As a result, he finds himself in an enormous hole of disapproval, especially with women. If you have been reading my Master Persuader series, you might be interested in why Trump’s persuasion suddenly stopped working. 

    It’s more interesting than you think.

    I’ll ignore politics and policies as usual and focus on Trump’s persuasion game. I think we all agree that Trump says plenty of untrue things about reality. Even his supporters agree on that. (They just don’t care.)

    So here are Trump’s big persuasion errors so far:

    1. The Nazi salute.

    2. The David Duke disavowal that wasn’t fast enough.

    3. Saying women who break future abortion laws should be punished.

    You might want me to include on his list of errors his unflattering tweet of Cruz’ wife compared to his wife. But that ploy was more of a mixed result than a complete fail. As obnoxious as it was, it was strong persuasion technique to showcase his mating prowess. You don’t want to believe that works, but it does.

    Trump’s aggressive – and personal – attack also sent a signal to stay away from his family, which could pay dividends later. And more generally, he showed a willingness to strike back harder than he is struck, as has been his pattern. That gives pause to the enemy. And of course he sucked all the energy out of the room for another two weeks, consistent with his strategy. I bet most of his supporters found the tweet funny, which is a bonding emotion.

    The downside to the wife tweet is that it was one more drip in what was starting to look like a rainstorm of sexist behavior. So on that level, it was a bad idea. Viewed in isolation, the wife tweet was more persuasion than mistake. But viewed in the context of Trump’s problem with women voters, it was a net mistake. But not a big one.

    Let’s talk about the big ones.

    The Nazi Salute

    When Trump asked his rally audience to raise their arms and promise to vote for him, critics compared it to the Nazi salute. On the level of reason and logic, this comparison is ridiculous. People also raise their hands to take the pledge to be citizens of this country. 

    But logic and reason don’t matter. Here again, confirmation bias is what counts. Trump’s policies on immigration had already created an irrational analogy in people’s heads that he was the next Hitler. Literally. So in that context, asking supporters to raise their hands was a persuasion mistake.

    How did the Master Persuader make such a simple mistake? Easily. Trump is the only person on earth who is 100% positive he is not the next Hitler. The thought probably never occurred to him. All he was doing was using a standard influencer technique. The technique involves asking people to do simple things (such as raising a hand) to prime them for doing something bigger, such as showing up to vote. The technique is A+. But the context made it poison. And Trump had a blind spot to it because – I presume – he doesn’t see himself as Adolph Hitler.

    The key learning here is that Trump was not bested in this situation by reason and logic, which had been the weapons of choice for his opposition until now. And by opposition, I mean all the people he obliterated earlier in the election cycle. 

    Reason and logic are bad weapons. I might have mentioned that before. But an irrational analogy to Hitler, mostly fueled by social media, got real traction.

    The David Duke Disavowal That Wasn’t Fast Enough

    By now you all know that Trump was slow to answer a question about disavowing David Duke’s endorsement. Trump said he had trouble hearing the question. Pundits and opponents said he was trying to avoid offending racists because there are plenty of them in his base. Therefore, Trump is a racist too, they conclude.

    Trump had disavowed David Duke before and after that interview, and every time he has been asked the questions since then. That should end all doubts. But facts and reason never matter. What did matter is that this too-slow disavowal coupled with confirmation bias fit the narrative of Trump as Hitler.

    I don’t have a hypothesis on why Trump was slow to disavow. But I can tell you from experience, having done hundreds of satellite interviews, that sometimes you do not hear the question. And sometimes you’re just tired and you say dumb things. Or he could have been trying to avoid offending racists because they vote. In any event, it was an error.

    Saying women who break future abortion laws should be punished

    Trump is running as a non-politician. That’s part of his appeal. He says he’ll get good advisors and figure out “common sense” solutions when he gets in office. This is similar to how any CEO would operate when jumping to an unfamiliar industry, which happens all the time.

    Here’s a little thought experiment. Think of any unusually successful person in any field other than politics. Now ask yourself if that person was experienced in the field before succeeding.

    Zuckerberg? Nope.

    Gates? Nope.

    Jobs? Nope.

    Me? Nope.

    Entrepreneurs learn as they go, and Trump is an entrepreneur. He’s transparent about that. Trump also says he gets his information on the big topics from watching the experts on the news. That’s how a lot of voters get their information too, and it doesn’t stop any of us from being sure we know what is best for the country.

    So it should be no big surprise to anyone that Trump is light on policy knowledge. And when Chris Matthews asked Trump the ultimate gottcha question of all time, Trump stumbled.

    And by stumbled, I mean Matthews badgered Trump out of the third dimension of persuasion – where Trump was using misdirection and ambiguity – to the second dimension of policy details. And then Trump made the biggest mistake I have ever seen on live television.

    He tried to use common sense.

    In case you missed it, the gottcha question involved a hypothetical future in which abortion is illegal and a woman chooses to get one anyway. Matthews asked Trump if that woman should be “punished.”

    Trump tried to avoid the question until it got too awkward to do so. Then he applied common sense to fill in the hole that experienced politicians would have filled with knowledge. Trump reasoned that anyone who violates a law must be punished. That reasoning probably works in every situation except abortion.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but under current state laws about abortion, a woman can abort a perfectly healthy baby a week before it would be due and only the doctor performing the crime would be punished. Trump didn’t know that. Neither did I until this topic arose. Among my friends, I can’t find anyone else who knew it either, male or female. So we shouldn’t be surprised that a citizen-politician didn’t know that non-punishment of the woman is the standard. And as soon as Trump was informed, he immediately adjusted to fit the standard.

    In a world of reason and logic, Trump got new information and immediately adjusted. That’s exactly what you’d want from a citizen-politician who is learning as he goes. But reason and logic don’t count.

    What does count is that that Trump’s knowledge gap about abortion was seen as one more bit of evidence (confirmation bias) that Trump is anti-woman.


    Trump’s tweet about Cruz’ wife compared to his own was viewed as sexist because it reduced women to their looks. But that’s also what made the tweet funny. There is nothing funny about comparing two people with different levels of attractiveness until you factor in the galactic inappropriateness of a presidential candidate bringing up the topic in the first place. The shock is the engineered part of the joke.

    I’ll say that again because I’m a professional humorist. The intended joke of Trump’s tweet about Cruz’s wife compared to his own was its inappropriateness. If you remove that one element it loses its humor. And obviously it was designed for a laugh. It wasn’t a policy proposal.

    And the tweet makes even more sense when you consider it was a response to the pro-Cruz commercial showing Melania scantily clad. Trump didn’t start that fight, but he certainly ended it. Don’t expect any more Melania attacks from the Cruz camp.

    We know from Trump’s many statements about Melania that he respects her intelligence. Trump also has a long history of promoting women to executive positions. So we know Trump does not have a one-dimensional view of women. He does, however, consider physical appearance to be an important feature of the real world, because it is. He has always been transparent about that.

    The big test of sexism is whether you can reverse the genders of the people involved and get the same outcome. If you can, sexism probably isn’t the issue. And Trump’s tweet about Cruz’ wife is totally reversible. Imagine your favorite female comedian running for office. If she’s married to George Clooney, and someone mocks her husband’s shirtless movie roles, you can certainly imagine a response like Trump’s tweet in which she humorously showcases her mating success compared to her rival. People would think it was hilarious if men were the target.

    In Trump’s case, confirmation bias caused folks to see this as one more drip in the rainstorm of his sexist behavior. If logic and reason mattered, people would have seen Trump’s tweet as an attempt at humor that is inappropriate by design. That’s why it is funny to some. But on the field of persuasion, it was one more piece of confirmation bias that Trump has a woman problem.

    If you are keeping score, Trump wins when he plays 3D chess (using persuasion) against his 2D opponents who are trying to showcase their judgment, knowledge, and experience. But Trump has trouble when his opponents bring their irrational game to his 3D playing field. The public’s response to the “wives tweet” happened entirely on the 3D playing field of emotion and confirmation bias, and Trump was outnumbered. He recently admitted it was a mistake.

    Likewise, Trump’s association with the Nazi salute makes no sense in the 2D world where people raise their hands for all sorts of reasons. But the public took that fight to Trump’s irrational 3D domain and had a field day with it. When the fight is Trump versus one 2D opponent, Trump wins. When the contest is the public (via social media) versus Trump it is a 3D battle all the way, and Trump is badly outnumbered.

    As I explained above, Trump failed on the abortion penalty question because he was forced out of his 3D world of persuasion and into the 2D world of common sense. In the world of common sense, people involved in any kind of crime are subject to punishment. But American society has decided that abortion is an exception (which I do not debate) and so Trump failed.

    Now here’s where I failed in my analysis of Trump. My analogy of Trump’s campaign is that he was bringing a flamethrower to a stick fight. I predicted he would torch all of his opponents because he had better tools for the fight.

    That part was right. One-on-one, Trump will win every time.

    Where I was wrong was forgetting that social media runs the world now. And social media has no 2D game at all. It is pure emotion. And it is not on Trump’s side.

    So I will update my description of Trump bringing a flamethrower to a stick fight by saying I forgot the audience have their own torches. Collectively, those torches are bigger than Trump’s flamethrower. And the audience left their seats and attacked, using pure emotion, persuasion, and repetition. Trump is surrounded and outnumbered. 

    Let’s call it his third act. In movie terms, this is the hero’s deepest hole. It looks to the audience that he can’t climb out. Trump has been branded a sexist Hitler and left to die at the bottom of the hole. There is no solution, we think.

    But Trump already started climbing. You don’t see it yet because he is operating entirely in the third dimension. I’ll help you see it. Notice that each of these examples have big problems on the 2D playing field but play well as persuasion.

    1. Trump says we should pull U.S. military out of Japan and let them take care of defense themselves. Was Hitler known for removing troops from occupied countries?

    2. Trump says we should pull our military out of South Korea and let the South Koreans and China handle North Korea. I don’t believe Hitler was in favor of removing troops from occupied countries.

    3. Trump says we should do less with Nato. I don’t even understand that position, but I’m sure Hitler was never in favor of less military.

    4. Trump is opposed to abortion. Supporters of abortion dehumanize fetuses under a certain age so the public supports abortion laws. That’s similar to how Hitler dehumanized groups of people so the public would support genocide. Trump is the anti-Hitler in this case, supporting life for people of all ethnicities, and even potential life.

    5. Trump admitted he was wrong to tweet about Cruz’ wife. This is the first time we have seen him admit wrong. Trump’s opponents are afraid (in the third dimension) that he can’t be shamed into acting appropriately. He just showed that he can.

    6. Trump reversed his position on punishing women for illegal abortions within hours. People worried that no amount of public shame or condemnation could control Trump, which is a dangerous situation. Trump showed he can be shamed into changing his position in real time. It happened right before our eyes.

    But all of these things are minor compared to what Trump needs to get out of the hole. To get all the way out, he needs one thing. And he already set the table for that one thing to happen.

    Trump needs Megyn Kelly to interview him.

    If you think this blog post is too long, you should see my book. It’s even worse. 

    These two strangers need to get together and work it out.

More Episodes