It’s hard to argue against it. Trump has persuaded millions of Republicans to vote for him, despite never holding political office, and despite running a campaign that few political experts even took seriously ten months ago.
Trump has indisputably had more political success than most pundits expected. So, whatever your opinion of him, I think most people can agree he is very persuasive.
But is he really as good as Adams claims? I am skeptical.
Trump is good at commanding media attention. And he is good at leveraging that media attention to get what he wants.
But he also constantly makes a critical mistake: he complains about–and therefore draws additional attention to–bad press about himself.
For example, recently the New York Times published some accounts of Trump’s mistreatment of women. Trump responded by tweeting repeatedly that it was a false “hit piece”. The result was that for a time, if you went to his Twitter page, all you saw was a bunch of denials that he had done bad stuff.
Trump says bad publicity is better than no publicity. Maybe so, but good publicity is better still, and since Trump has full control of his Twitter page, he should seek to fill it with good publicity. When people come to the homepage for your brand, you do not want them to know that negative opinions about it even exist.
But Trump is so thin-skinned that he can’t help it. He has to respond to the NYT, even if it makes no sense to do so.
The irony is that even as Trump attacks the Times for “failing” because it is losing readers, he is unintentionally helping it by drawing attention to the article. How many Trump followers would have never even heard about the NYT article if he hadn’t brought it up?
Note that I am not even discussing the issue of which is more reliable: the New York Times or Trump’s tweets. That’s because in the world of persuasiveness, truth is a secondary concern. Trump has never really claimed to be 100% honest; rather, he has campaigned on his ability to sell stuff. He is now selling himself based on his ability to sell himself. It is the ultimate confidence trick.
But he is not even as good at marketing as he thinks he is. He makes plenty of PR mistakes. The only reason he has gotten as far as he has is that the other politicians are even worse at selling than he is.
From the time this blog began, back in the doe-eyed innocent days of 2009, there is one idea I’ve hammered on more than any other. I’ve written so many posts about it that I’ve lost track of when I wrote what. It’s not even my idea, it’s Paul Graham’s; but I have kept discussing it, debating it, and analyzing it more than even he has.
Policies, facts, scandals, money… all of these things are secondary. Modern elections are determined by which candidate has more charisma.
I thought I had a pretty nice test in 2012: Mitt Romney had tons of money, and many pundits confidently predicted he would win. But he was stiff and boring next to the charismatic and likeable President Obama. I didn’t think Romney had a chance.
I was right. Obama won re-election.
But there was one moment when I felt a little less confident of Obama’s chances: the first debate in 2012, which was a disaster for him. Romney owned the stage and seemed more vigorous and energetic than Obama. Some people said Romney was outright bullying both Obama and the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer; but the bottom line was it worked. Most people felt Romney won that debate.
Obama and his campaign learned their lesson, however; and after that, Romney lost the next two debates, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, was similarly overpowered by Vice-President Biden.
Romney had one successful moment where he was able to position himself as an energetic businessman and cast Obama as a stodgy career politician, but he couldn’t keep it up. Probably because Romney was a stodgy career politician himself.
Most people, including myself, saw this first debate, figured it was an aberration, and moved on.
But somewhere, I think someone must have seen it and thought “what if you had someone who didn’t just adopt the ‘bullying energetic businessman’ persona for one debate? What if you found someone who had dedicated his entire life to playing the character of an bullying energetic businessman?”
You would need more than that, though. Another problem with Romney was that he was so unlikable. He was not just anti-charismatic; he seemed profoundly out of touch with the common people. He was “old money”; the kind of blue-blood elitist that Republicans always complain about.
To appeal to the average voter, you want someone who behaved like stereotypical “new money”–someone who made big, gaudy purchases, and spoke the language of the typical “man on the street”.
I think you see where I’m going with this, but let me drive the point home a bit more.
Trump is not boring. Trump constantly commands the press’s attention. He does this mainly by saying stuff that is so outrageous they are compelled to cover him. And he almost never backs down from it, either.
Trump is also a big believer in the idea that negative publicity is better than no publicity. Most political candidates are terrified of negative publicity, but Trump seems to take the view that when you get it, the best follow-up action is not to apologize, but to double down on whatever caused it.
And as far as “optics” go, he is right. Pure, baseless confidence plays better on TV than nuanced reason or thoughtful consideration. When you are debating on TV, it’s better to be wrong and “full of passionate intensity” than to be right and “lack all conviction.”
The moment that truly sunk Romney in 2012 was this one, from the second debate. He looked weak and hesitant, especially contrasted with the President’s tone of calm command:
In Romney’s place, Trump would have probably just kept going and shouted down everyone, insisting that the transcript was wrong. I’m not saying it’s a good or honest way to live one’s life, but the sad fact is that it’s how you win televised debates.
Debates aren’t won on the basis of facts and policies. They certainly ought to be, and it would be a better world if they were, but the truth is they are won on the basis of who connects with the audience on a visceral level.
That is where charisma comes in. Actually, that is what charisma is: the ability to make people irrationally feel a connection with the candidate, irrespective or even in spite of what the candidate says.
Donald Trump can do that, at least with some people. Mitt Romney could not do it with anyone.
My Democratic friends usually get upset when I say that, like I’m criticizing Clinton or saying it is some kind of character flaw. It’s not that at all. Most people in the world, including many successful politicians, cannot do that. It’s a very rare ability.
Most people are afraid of public speaking. This is because they are worried about remembering what they have to say, getting the facts right, etc. But charismatic people don’t care about that–they are connecting with their audience on another level entirely.
That’s the bad news for the Democrats. The good news is that Trump’s “say outrageous stuff to get free coverage” strategy has alienated not only huge numbers of independent voters, but also many members of his own party. When a party can’t unite, it typically dooms them in a general election.
Add to this that due to a combination of demographic and political factors the Democrats start off at an advantage in terms of Electoral College votes, and it seems like this could be the election that shows the charisma theory does not always hold true.
And that is indeed how most people expect it to play out. Most polls favor Clinton. So the Democrats have every reason to feel good about their chances.
But there is one thing that should give them pause. And to see it, we have to go back again to that first debate in 2012.
The odd thing that happened in that debate was that Romney became shockingly moderate. So moderate that it caught President Obama off guard. He was surprised by Romney’s sudden change of positions, and thus unprepared for it. (You can read my original take on that debate here.)
Romney threw out a lot of the stuff he had said during the primaries, and became almost a copy of Obama. And it worked–for one debate.
And this was Mitt Romney, career Republican politician, who was throwing out his own Party’s platform. Do you think that Donald Trump, a political newbie who is currently at war with half his own party; a man who wrote a book advocating saying whatever it takes to close a deal, will have any compunction about making even more extreme changes in order to win?
I expect Trump to have adopted many of Bernie Sanders’s plans by September. He is counting on the fact that people will forget what he said earlier in the year. He is counting on the fact that breathless media coverage will want to discuss what he said that day, not what he said six months ago.
Trump will attempt to surprise Clinton by taking positions more liberal than hers on many issues, and he’ll do it in his usual over-the-top, name-calling style. He’ll try to court the liberal vote by saying he is more liberal than she is.
Will he succeed?
Hard to say. But the power of charisma is that it makes people believe things that they really have no logical reason to believe.
Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump has said he would “hire the best people” to handle almost everything–foreign policy, economics, etc. In his book, “The Art of the Deal”, Trump also stresses the importance of hiring the best people to do jobs you yourself don’t know how to do.
Trump has been ridiculed for this. People say he is using this excuse to cover for his lack of policy knowledge.
I hate to say it, but Trump’s idea is, frankly, what I’ve always thought a good President–or any executive–needs to do.
There aren’t enough hours in the day for someone to be an expert on all the issues on which the President needs to make decisions. You would need to be the world’s greatest economist, diplomat, orator, military strategist, environmental scientist, financier and epidemiologist to do that. Nobody can do it all.
The President, therefore, needs to be able to figure out who the best people are for handling the myriad duties and put them in charge of each. That ability to recognize good people who can get results is what matters.
Look at F.D.R., widely considered the greatest President in U.S. history. He was not exceptionally bright, or even especially energetic. What made him great was that he insisted on getting people who knew how to get the job done. F.D.R. was focused on getting results, and that, in turn, led him to hire good people.
In contrast, look at George W. Bush, who even many Republicans now consider to be a colossal failure as President. He wasn’t a dumb guy, despite what some Democrats will say. He had degrees from Yale and Harvard. No, what made Bush’s administration such a mess was that he (a) gave important jobs to people who repeatedly showed they could not do them right (Cheney and Rumsfeld) and (b) failed to hold them accountable for their failures until it was too late.
President Obama’s track record has been sort of mixed as far as picking good people. And Obama is obviously smart–but identifying the right person for a job is a completely different skill set that unrelated to factual knowledge. And it’s especially hard in the world of politics, where jobs are given in exchange for political support rather than ability.
To be clear, I am just saying Trump is right in terms of the theory of being a good executive. It is by no means clear that Trump actually knows how to find “the best people”. The fact that his campaign manager is currently charged with assault, plus the fact that he has been obviously unprepared for easy questions in recent interviews, argues that he does not.