August 19, 2016
By now, most of you know that Trump expressed “regret” at saying things in the past that might have hurt people. Most viewers interpreted this as an apology, of sorts.
I have some thoughts on this, in no particular order.
This is the so-called 3rd act that I have been predicting for about a year. In movie terms, this is the point where the protagonist encounters a problem that can’t be solved unless he changes something about himself. In a typical movie script, the hero might need to conquer a specific fear, open his heart to love again, or become more open-minded – that sort of change. In our movie, Trump needed to display more human empathy to appear less scary to the public. He has been doing that in speeches and statements all week, but the “regret” speech capped it.
In movie script terms, the timing for Trump’s 3rd act is perfect. The clock was running out on the election cycle and polls said Trump was in a hole that was only getting deeper. Clinton’s Dark Arts team – probably led by the one I call Godzilla – had framed Trump as dangerous and unstable. He was a goner. There was no way out. Game over.
So he did. You think Trump won’t be able to hold this new look. You’re probably wrong. This is the first time it mattered. Everything else was 2nd act fun.
Regular readers know I mistakenly called the 3rd act after Trump’s interview with Megyn Kelly. In retrospect, the timing was too early for the Megyn Kelly event to be a proper 3rd act. In movies, the 2nd act typically has a number of smaller problems that are overcome along the way. The Kelly interview fits the 2nd act structure.
Assuming Trump gets elected, I’ll explain to you why the movie script form was predictive, and how I saw it coming a year in advance. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you now.
Is Regret the Same as an Apology?
In classic Trump form, his “apology” was not exactly an apology. Trump expressed regret, but in a way that left all kinds of intentional ambiguity. Who exactly was he apologizing too? Is regret the same as an apology? Does he mean it in his heart? Is the regret for himself or for others?
I turned on CNN after the regret speech just to see heads exploding. I was not disappointed. Trump was trying to remove from his opponents their main weapon – the idea that Trump is a monster – and it frightened the anti-Trump folks in ways that that their faces and voices couldn’t conceal. I think everyone realizes that one solid month of Trump acting sane and empathetic would drive a stake through Clinton’s heart. We’re one week into it.
The most powerful part of Trump’s strategy is that it forces his opposition from a reasonable position (Trump should apologize!) into an absurd position (Trump didn’t apologize the right way!) When the anti-Trumpers were calling for polite behavior out of Trump, they had the high ground. Now that they are criticizing the details of Trump’s “apology” they look ridiculous. It was a perfect persuasion trap. Expect more anti-Trumpers to fall into the trap all day today.
Do you remember how the Khan situation was a perfect persuasion trap? Trump fell into that trap by making a mild comment about Mrs. Khan’s silence on stage. That allowed his opposition to brand him as disrespecting a fallen soldier. Trump created a similar persuasion trap by giving his less-than-ideal “apology” that forced his opponents into petty squawking about the sufficiency and sincerity of the apology. It makes them look small and ridiculous, and it diminishes their moral authority.
The Bigotry Flip
Trump is using the issue of Muslim immigration to argue that Clinton is the candidate promoting bigotry against women and the LBGTQ community. By Trump’s framing, the Democrats might help you get a gay wedding cake but Trump will prevent you from being raped and killed. Fear is the strongest persuader, so Trump effectively owns this argument now. He took the highest of the high ground. Trump is literally risking his reputation and his own life to protect women and gays. Clinton is just trying to get elected. That’s the new frame. And it is persuasive.
Trump is also making a direct appeal for African-American votes, and that’s smart. One of the biggest rules of sales is that you have to directly ask for what you want. Asking for votes is one thing, but asking the African-American community to “try something new” because Clinton hasn’t worked out for them is perfect framing.
The Odds Now
Prior to this week, Clinton had the momentum and a clear path to an easy victory if nothing changed. But as I blogged then, something always changes. This week Trump changed his campaign staff and softened his public persona to be less scary. If things were to stay the way they are today, Trump wins. His biggest obstacle was Clinton’s framing of him as dangerous, and now Trump is solving for that. He hasn’t done enough yet, but if he stays on the messages we saw this week, and reinforces them, he wins in November.
Unless something changes before then.
If you like apologies, you might like my book. If not, I regret mentioning it.