< Go Back

Persuasion Update: Clinton Vs. Trump

Persuasion Update: Clinton Vs. Trump

    For months I have been saying mostly good things in this blog about Trump’s powers of persuasion, and mostly bad things about how the Clinton campaign does persuasion. And yet Clinton has a solid lead in the polls, assuming the polls are accurate. How can that be?

    The quick answer is that Clinton’s side is totally winning the persuasion battle.


    Clinton’s side includes more than her campaign team. It also includes pundits, supporters on social media, and the liberal-leaning parts of the mainstream media. While the Clinton campaign itself has been notably weak with its persuasion game, the folks on her side have been viciously effective at branding Trump a crazy racist.

    Nothing else in this election matters. 

    Viewed through the Master Persuader filter, the facts of this election don’t matter because facts are not persuasive. The lies don’t matter. The flip-flopping doesn’t matter. Trump’s command of the issues don’t matter. Trump’s insults don’t matter. Policies don’t matter. Trump University doesn’t matter. Even charges of sexism are not enough to derail him. 

    The persuasion kill shot against Trump is the accusation that Trump is a crazy racist. When you combine crazy and racist, you have a lethal persuasion cocktail. And that’s what the Clinton side has done.

    The folks on social media tested lots of accusations against Trump until they found traction with the “crazy racist” theme in all its forms. And Clinton’s campaign team wisely amplified it.

    Remember when social media was saying Trump wasn’t serious about running, or that he was a clown, or he was doing it for the money? Those accusations didn’t get traction, and Trump swept them away with his continued success. 

    But the accusations kept coming, one after another, until the combo of crazy and racist bubbled to the top, as measured by social media virality. The Clinton campaign recognized the crazy racist theme as the best approach and started hammering on it through a variety of “fear Trump” message. Fear works when facts do not. And “crazy racist” is totally scary. And totally working. You can test it for yourself by asking any anti-Trumper to list the top three reasons for disliking Trump. Some form of “crazy racist” will normally come out on top. Persuasion-wise, every other reason is just noise.

    If you’re new to what I call the Master Persuasion Filter, and you’re on the Clinton side, you probably don’t see any persuasion there at all. What you see appears to be facts that say – without a doubt – that Trump is a crazy racist. But all of that is confirmation bias and persuasion.

    For example…

    There was the time Trump called for a wall to keep illegals out, and social media said securing our borders – which we already try to do – is racist.

    There was the time Trump suggested mass deportation of illegal immigrants, and social media said upholding current law is racist.

    There was the time Trump suggested banning all Muslim immigrants until we figure out what the risk is, and how to deal with it. Islam is a belief system open to all, not a race, but social media branded it as racist.

    There was the time Trump didn’t denounce the KKK on CNN in a timely fashion. He says he didn’t hear the question because of a bad earpiece, and he had denounced the KKK before the interview and several times after. Still, that one awkward interview created confirmation bias of racism because the public was primed to see it as such.

    There was the time Trump called the judge in his Trump University case “Mexican” even though the judge was born in this country of Mexican immigrants. That seemed racist because voters were primed to see it that way. Keep in mind that Trump called Ted Cruz a Canadian for months and you didn’t see that as racist.

    As a legal strategy, it makes perfect sense for Trump to accuse the judge of bias. That way, if the ruling goes against Trump, he already has a defense in place. And realistically, no one believes the judge could give a favorable ruling to Trump without some awkwardness at his next family gathering. But voters saw Trump’s accusations about the judge’s bias – a bias all humans have – as racist because they were primed to see things that way.

    And there are all the times Trump calls Elizabeth Warren Pocahontas, which is more silly than racist. But once you put it in context with the rest of the confirmation bias, it looks like some sort of pattern.

    The facts don’t matter. Facts never matter. What matters is that the “crazy racist” label picked up enough confirmation bias to stick like tar. The Clinton team won the month of June. And unless something changes, Clinton will saunter to an easy victory in November.

    But remember also that Trump always makes aggressive first offers before negotiating to the middle. I predicted a softening of Trump’s immigration proposals and you see that happening now, right on schedule. Those changes in his proposals won’t be enough to change the election results because facts and policies are meaningless for persuasion. Trump would have to do far more to shake off the crazy racist label.

    I now update my prediction of a Trump landslide to say that if he doesn’t give a speech on the topic of racism – to neutralize the crazy racist label – he loses. There is nothing he can do with policy tweaks, debate performances, advertising, interviews, or anything else that would remove the tarring he received from the Clinton side. But a persuasive speech could do it.


    Trump needs to convince Americans of all types that he loves them and plans to protect them from outside forces. Here’s a simple and persuasive formulation for that:

    Example: “If you are an American citizen – of any color, ethnicity, gender, or religion – I love you, and I’ll fight for you. I support the melting pot of America, and I will fight to protect each of you from crime, terrorism, and economic risks.”

    That’s the basic idea. Talking about policies won’t be enough. To become president, Trump has to embrace the melting pot. And he has to embrace the value of American diversity, loudly. 

    If Trump doesn’t directly address the elephant in the room – the accusation that he is a crazy racist – he loses. If he makes a case for the value of American diversity – and does it persuasively – he wins in a landslide. 

    I expect him to do the latter.

    Note: I endorsed Hillary Clinton for president – for my personal safety – because I live in California and it isn’t safe to be seen as a Trump supporter here. But my political preferences do not align with either candidate.

    Bonus thought: If you were Trump, and you didn’t want a stronger candidate to replace Clinton at the last minute, you would hold back your best attacks until she secures the nomination. My guess is that Trump’s strongest attacks will start in late summer.

    If you think you can’t be persuaded to do dumb things, you might want to buy my book.

More Episodes