There’s no announcement or spotlight, but from way up in the bleachers you can tell Donald Trump has stepped out from backstage, because even at that distance, you can see that perched on his head is the world’s most recognizable logo.
That’s right, that famous head of hair, apparently spray-painted gold and laquered into aerodynamic swooshes across his pate, makes him stand out among the ten thousand or so people Wednesday night at the Crown Center Coliseum in Fayetteville.
It’s part of his brand. Companies spend millions to be recognized instantly by a symbol; Trump got it by styling and coloring his hair that way. Don’t laugh. The actor Yul Brynner, totally bald, told one of his co-stars to stop stealing scenes, or he would take off his hat and the audience would look only at his shining scalp.
When Trump is on a debate stage, who are you staring at? That means he’s won.
And maybe that’s one way to understand the billionaire businessman and his rise to the top of the Republican field: how he communicates, especially by images and emotion.
I don’t pretend to understand Trump, or be able to say whether or not he will get to the White House, much less whether he’d be a good president. But he’s an acknowledged master of communications, and perhaps looking at him that way is as good as any way of understanding him.
I should add I will draw here from other writers, especially Scott Adams*, because their insights really helped me understand better what Trump does . The essence: we human beings actually communicate with feelings and images more than words and ideas. By the way, this is what all politicians do. He’s just especially good at it.
Let’s start with the appearance mentioned above, at a campaign rally. First, a caveat: one of the main things about him can’t be defined or understood, but only felt.
That’s a performer’s charisma. Political scientists and pundits hate it, because their number and words can’t catch it. But there are some people who, when they get up in front of a crowd, instantly connect with thousands of strangers.
For instance, I was sitting at the far end of a soccer stadium when Paul McCartney walked out on stage. I instantly felt he was communicating with everyone there, yet he was also singing and event chatting personally to me. That can’t be explained with logic or science, but some people just have it.
When Trump is speaking, he connects with his audience. He really delivers his lines, with energy and force, and they can’t be understood outside of this emotional impact:
“We are going to fix the problem!” (of drug addiction)
“Our good jobs are being shipped away!” and “Our jobs are being taken away from us!”
“We’ve become weak!”
“We’re going to take care of ISIS! We’ve got to take them out!”
“We don’t win any more! When I’m president, we’re going to do so much winning you’re going to say, ‘It’s too much!’”
“We have no one to protect us, to protect our jobs, our families.”
“They treat us like garbage.”
“The American dream is dead, but I’m going to make it bigger and better and stronger than ever.”
Obviously, these phrases aren’t nuanced or complex. But they are direct, clear and powerful. He is not arguing a case; he is trying to touch, and manipulate, our most visceral emotions.
Part of his secret is his unashamed use of simple, powerful words. North Carolina is “beautiful,” as is the wall he proposes to build across the Mexican border. “There’s so much love in this room,” he said, and closes with “I love you! I love North Carolina!”
And, ramping up his catchphrase “We’re going to be a smart country,” in Fayetteville Trump proclaimed, “We’re going to be a brilliant country!”
I don’t mean to say he has no policy. As he talks, he reveals, almost in passing, a bit more about what he means to do. But how he says it is revealing.
When he talks about fair trade, for instance, he says he doesn’t mean tariffs or an overt trade war. He means, for example, getting on the phone in the Oval Office and calling businesses that threaten to close American factories and move oeprations overseas. The picture he paints is of President Trump wheedling, cajoling, bargaining, sweet-talking and threatening the company’s CEO, until the firm makes an announcement that, oh, that report about it moving to Mexico was just a rumor, and it plans to stay in Mill City, U.S.A. for years to come.
First, in doing this, Trump is calming the anxieties of the crowd. There’s not going to be a big trade war, just some phone calls and arm-twisting. Listen to him talk long enough, and you’ll hear some things that take the edge off the bluster. Yet he is at least addressing their concerns.
Second, he paints a picture of himself acting as president, and, subconsciously, people begin thinking of him as president.
Just from a communications standpoint, it’s really breathtaking. For instance, he began to recite the names of the states that he had won already: “South Carolina … New Hampshire … Mississippi … Michigan … Massachusetts ….” It was like the roll call of states at a party convention, as if all the states were already casting their ballots for him.
Let’s not neglect his power of painting negative pictures of his opponents. “Lying Ted Cruz!” Trump thunders. “He holds up a Bible … “ Here Trump raises his arm. “Then he puts it down and … he lies!” I am not saying Trump is right or justifying this tactic. I’ll only say it has a gut power, and that’s one reason why Trump is such a formidable political warrior.
Again, I take no sides. Conservatives might rightly fear a president who persuades less with ideas and policy than with images and emotion. But to evaluate him correctly, we have to understand how he reaches people.
A slightly different perspective on Trump actually played out an hour or so before the rally.
At the Fox Town Hall
Of course, this magic spell can be broken with some audiences. Still, he had the crowd with him in the Coliseum. But what about with an independent questioner, and a more subdued crowd?
Before the rally, Trump sat down with radio and TV host Sean Hannity to film a “town hall” session in the Crown Complex Arena. The crowd was on Trump’s side, but they also were clearly onlookers. And Trump was talking not so much to them as to Hannity, and his TV audience. Here Trump couldn’t rely so much on mere presence. The setting, with him facing Hannity, didn’t allow him to project so much energy. And, anyway, some of that energy looks bad on TV.
So the interview made it easier to see how Trump frames his messages. Here’s one simple example. “I can be very presidential,” he said. “I can be the most presidential person you’ve ever seen.”
So right away he had planted in listeners’ minds the idea that he is presidential. Their conscious minds might reject it as laughable. But on a more primal level, just the words themselves imprint an image of Trump as presidential in their minds.
It’s like the old trick, “Don’t think of a red fox.” Say words and our minds think them, even if our reason does not.
Then, however, Trump quickly added, “Except Abe Lincoln.” He gave a little self-deprecating grin — which was all the more effective as he isn’t big on self-deprecation. The audience laughed.
That disarms our defenses. It’s a quip, so we stop taking it seriously. But that means we also stop trying to reject it. The image of Trump as president remains.
If we try to reject it rationally, that only makes things worse. OK, Trump isn’t the most presidential person. But already that means we are, automatically, ranking him as a president. Is he less presidential about hard-drinking, racist, semi-illiterate Andrew Johnson? Or oafish, in-over-his head Warren Harding. Or … You see what’s happening. The skeptic’s mind is already ranking Trump among the presidents. Trump doesn’t cares where he’s rated, as long as voters are mentally placing him in the White House.
He does that constantly. That’s what his bluster and bragging are all about. He stamps vivid, visceral images into our brains. Once his opponents say in derision, “Just imagine Trump in the White House!” he’s already won … because they’re imagining him in the White House.
Or consider how he uses vague or equivocal statements to land on both sides of an issue.
Asked by Hannity if he was conservative, Trump replied, of course he was a conservative, but he was “a common sense conservative.” Yet common sense is a qualifier that negates anything it qualifies. No one claims to be a foolish or absurd conservative, or liberal. “Common sense” is an escape clause. Trump can promise to follow all conservative positions … except those he claims violate common sense.
Or look at free trade. “I’m a free trader,” he said. “But it’s got to be fair trade.” Or, as he often says, trade negotiated by smart people.
Well, no one is in favor of unfair trade, or trade deals negotiated by morons. So this allows him to take both sides. He talks tough on trade — but he soothes the anxieties in his audience by implying he’s not going to get into a nasty trade war or cause a recession. He’s just going to negotiate better. How can you criticize someone for trying to get a better, fairer deal?
What about the budget mess? “If we get growth up to 4 percent — I think it’s doable — we can pay for everything.” Note the “if.” Note he thinks it is doable, not that he promises to do it.
Which allows him to say, “I don’t want to cut entitlements.” You can practically hear the “phew!” out of the audience. Yet also note that he doesn’t say he (or Congress) won’t; he just says he doesn’t want to.
On the Mideast, he said of ISIS that “We’ve got to knock them out.” But, he added, we have to “know how and why.” We don’t want any more Iraq wars, he said, though he quickly ripped President Obama for mistakes in getting out of Iraq.
In other words, we don’t want to go into Iraq, but getting out of Iraq was a mistake too, but ISIS is in Iraq and Syria, neither of which we want to go into — or get out of too early.
Yet our emotional minds are tempted to hear: President Trump won’t let ISIS threaten us. But he won’t get us bogged down in another war. Logically those are contradiction, but emotionally we want to hear both, so we do hear both.
Believe it or not, he’s able to drop some hints that not all problems can be solved easily. He lambastes Obamacare, to the audience’s approval. But he also says the program “is just not working … it’s going to implode.”
Then, he says, almost ruefully, that it probably will flame out in 2017 … when he hopes to be president. If you look carefully, you can see where he’s warning us about what may be coming down the track. So he’s not alarming people now. Yet he may be able to point back and say he told us what to expect.
At the same time, he’s willing to cop to some things so straightforwardly that he defuses the charge. Asked if he was too cozy with politicians in New York, he shrugged, “I was a businessman.” He added, “I was friendly to everyone … It’s a good thing.”
He even admits, “I was a member of the establishment nine months ago.” That’s one way to dismiss an attack: Just admit it’s true, as if it’s no big deal.
Finally, though he plainly improvises at times, even his riffs seem to be thought out. Hannity tried to get him to say he wanted to be part of a conservative “revolution.” Trump made it clear he wanted no part of that word. He may seem out of control, but he isn’t. He doesn’t want voters to associate him with that dangerous word.
Of course, all politicians do this. He’s just expecially good at it.
Again, this isn’t meant to be straight-up criticism or praise of Trump, but a look at how he communicates with people, and what it might mean. Coming weeks may tell us more about what his rise means for all of us.
*Scott Adams is the creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip, but he has made a study of persuasion, and his comments on his blog are very insightful about Trump, and I’ve drawn heavily on them.