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Why (and How) Donald Trump Persuades

Trump's persuasion model reinforces the old saying that "two out of three ain't bad."

"Anyone who thinks my story is anywhere near over is sadly mistaken."

~Donald Trump

One of the questions I get asked when people learn I am writing a book about persuasion is to explain the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s influence and popularity. As a general rule, the people who ask this question tend to be liberal, educated, and close followers of political discourse in this country. To them, Trump’s loose grasp of facts and lack of reliance on consistent logic make his appeal difficult to discern. However, when one considers Aristotle’s insight that only three modes of persuasion exist — the character of the speaker, the arguments presented, and the feelings aroused in the audience — Trump’s persuasive power is easy to understand.

Trump bases his appeal on character and emotion exclusively and has little time or use for the rigors of argument and proofs. For decades, Trump carefully (and personally) honed a public character built on the idea that he was both a successful business tycoon and a prodigious playboy. In other words, he has claimed for all of his adult life that men envy him and women desire him. His wealth, even when a given Trump brand did not succeed, has probably increased over the years, which serves to validate his first claim. His public affairs and multiple attractive wives reinforce the second. The specifics of how his fortune has been amassed are irrelevant to most of his fans, who tend to believe that business, like politics, is never a clean game. Moreover, the recent sexual escapades of billionaires such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk only serve to reinforce the popular idea that the ultra-rich live their lives under a different set of ethical rules. “I have total net worth of $8.73bn,” Trump once noted, adding that, “I’m not doing that to brag. I’m doing that to show that’s the kind of thinking our country needs.” In this sort of statement, Trump connects his financial success to claims of political ability, a logically dubious point but one that resonates strongly with those who believe that he has, over the course of his life, successfully turned a small fortune into a great one and temporary failure into permanent success.

In addition to character, Trump’s second great persuasive force is the feelings that he is able to generate in his audience, and it is this phenomenon that his detractors either do not understand or contemptuously — and incorrectly — dismiss. I have watched several Trump rally speeches from start to finish — something his casual critics rarely do — and what is clear from these events is Trump’s uncanny — and unique — ability to make his audience feel a range of emotions, from pride in their patriotism to anger at traditional politicians to pleasure in the ridicule of his opponents’ weaknesses and foibles. Indeed, the pleasures of being in the audience at one of his speeches can be so alluring that many of his most die-hard fans follow him around the country, longing for repeated exposure to the feelings Trump is able to generate within them. Trump crafts his emotional arousals carefully, constantly testing different formulations of a claim, boast, compliment, or attack to see which version elicits the greatest response. Once perfected, these moments — “Lock her up,” “Build the wall,” “Stop the Steal,” etc. — take on a life of their own, so much so that fans are disappointed when “the hits” are left out of a speech. To his critics or casual observers, Trump’s speeches often seem like incoherent rants, but this is a superficial conclusion. They are, in my opinion, a (choreographed) performance — something Trump understands quite well. Not surprisingly, one astute observer described every Trump rally as a “play in three acts” — a drama that Trump continuously hones and refines with the skill and discipline of the best comedians. Indeed, in many ways Trump reminds me of the great comic Rodney Dangerfield, who spent a decade working on his act, reducing it only to the most effective jokes and funniest lines. Trump lacks Dangerfield’s discipline and economy, but, in some important ways, his approach is the same: find out what the audience likes, ruthlessly eliminate anything that doesn’t work, and stay on target(s) from start to finish.

Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photo

In decades of public life, Trump has learned that with character and emotion working at full force, he has no need for clever logic, consistent statistics, expert evidence, or any of the usual elements of argument that traditional politicians consider necessary to win debates and elections. Trump’s brand of persuasion depends only on the audience believing the story of what he claims to be and experiencing the kinds of emotions that keep them coming back for more. The reality is that only the complete destruction of his image as a powerful tycoon and his loss of emotion-generating ability will ever dull his appeal to his base.1 Barring those two unlikely events, Trump will continue to persuade and will, should he run again, be a daunting opponent in the 2024 presidential race.

A few years ago, Trump used to end his rallies with the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want, a song about post-idealistic disillusion. The lyrics tell us of a man who “went down to the demonstration/ To get my fair share of abuse/ Singing, "We're gonna vent our frustration/ If we don't we're gonna blow a fifty-amp fuse.” “Sing it to me, honey,” says the song before the famous chorus begins. The line reminds me of one additional trait Trump shares with Dangerfield, whose trademark complaint was that he didn’t “get no respect.” Before he found his audience late in life, Dangerfield was an overweight, past-his-prime white male, who some critics dismissed as an anachronistic symbol of a bygone age. Today, he is considered a comic genius and master of his craft. “Sing it to me,” indeed.

1The latter being more likely than the former — probably.
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