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The Apology Gambit

The Apology Gambit

    One thing we know about Donald Trump is that he doesn’t apologize. He doesn’t apologize when he is wrong. He doesn’t apologize when he is offensive. He doesn’t apologize for mistakes. As crazy as that sounds, I have blogged that it gives him a sort of superpower for negotiating. He creates an expectation that Donald Trump never budges even while he makes other people budge all the time. 

    For example, on the news this morning I heard that Speaker Ryan said he would step down from managing the Republican Convention if Trump asks him to do so. I have to assume that managing a convention is a terrible job and not something Ryan wants to do anyway. Ryan is simply being smart, practical, and reasonable. But it looks to the public that Trump can influence Ryan while Ryan can’t influence Trump. That pattern is important to Trump. It sets the table for how people deal with him in the future. Specifically, it tells people they are going to lose when they try to negotiate with him. That sort of expectation hardens into reality over time and gives him a tremendous psychological advantage. Trump knows that. (Remember that he wrote the book on negotiating, literally.)

    When you are Donald Trump, apologizing is a bad strategy, even though apologizing makes perfect sense for other types of leaders. Other leaders are not emphasizing their deal-making skills. Trump is playing an entirely different game of persuasion. 

    Now here’s the interesting part. Given Trump’s reputation for not apologizing, he can create an unusual amount of attention if he ever breaks pattern. A sincere Trump apology – about anything – would control the news cycle for a week. So he can save that magic bullet until needed. 

    Just for fun, let me tell you how he could use the Apology Gambit to help solve his biggest problem – his negatives with women. Specifically, Trump could apologize for all of the offensive things he has ever said about women. 

    But to be persuasive, here’s the best form:

    Example Trump Apology Gambit:

    Trump: I have said a lot of offensive things about both men and women.

    (This frames the issue as Trump insults everyone.)

    Trump: But today I would like to apologize to women.

    (There’s your news juice. He EXCLUDES men from the apology. What???)

    I apologize to women for all the offensive things I’ve said in the past. I’m an equal-opportunity offender, but I understand the sensitivity when it crosses gender, and I apologize to women for that. No one respects women more than Donald Trump.

    (Sincere apologies are persuasive.)

    Trump: And I call on Hillary Clinton to do the same, and apologize for her mistreatment of the women her husband abused. 

    (That’s the trap. In this hypothetical, Trump reframes the gender issue so we see that Trump is an equal opportunity offender, but only with words, whereas Clinton has an alleged history of mistreating women with actions. And Clinton can’t apologize for her alleged actions without admitting they are true.

    Apologies are like catnip to the media. Journalists would make Trump repeat his sincere apology a hundred times in different interviews and debates, and they would prod Clinton to apologize as Trump suggested – which won’t happen. So the apology and the non-apology would become the dual headlines.

    I’m not suggesting that Trump apologize to anyone. That is a political calculation. I’m only viewing this hypothetical example from a persuasion perspective, so you can see how some of the persuasion methods work. In this case you see several blended techniques:

    1. Reframing (Trump reframes as an equal-opportunity offender, not a sexist.)

    2. Sincere Apology (Apologies influence people because they demonstrate empathy.)

    3. Pattern Violation (The media prefers man-bites-dog stories. Any break in pattern will control the news cycle.)

    4. Deputizing the Pundits (Omitting men from the apology creates a men-versus-women contrast in which men don’t seem to need apologies. What? This would create lots of pundit chatter in which everyone competes to say some form of “Trump is an equal opportunity offender.” That’s what Trump wants you to know. Pundits will make his case for him so long as he only apologizes to women.

    5. Redirecting Energy (Trump could move the energy – the public’s attention and interest – to the question of Clinton’s non-apology.)

    Persuasion is a lot like engineering. It has a lot of moving parts that have to fit together just right. The complexity of it is completely invisible to the untrained. Trump’s persuasion is almost always tightly engineered, right down to his Linguistic Kill Shots (his insulting nicknames).

    And when would be the perfect time for a Trump Apology Gambit? You already know the answer to that question because Trump primed you for it. Trump could do the apology during his upcoming Megyn Kelly interview.


    For new readers of this blog, please note that my political views do not align with Trump or with any of the other candidates. My interest is in Trump’s persuasion skills, the likes of which I have never seen.

    If you think this blog is written in the English language, you should see my book. That thing has all kinds of words in it. And most of those words are the good kind, with the exception of “moist.” No one likes that word.

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