Over the last four or five months, spectators of the Republican presidential nomination race have watched with awe, joy or disgust as Donald Trump has gone from media curiosity to the frontrunner’s position, with double-digit leads over his competitors in many states. In fact, at this point, some party insiders have begun to whisper that a Trump Republican nomination is all but inevitable.
How did this really come about? Is it because Trump has an amazing set of policies and positions that have been judged to be enlightened by political pundits?
Have the American people affirmed that Trump is intellectually, morally or effectually superior to his opponents and, therefore, deserves the nomination? In both of these cases, the answer is likely no, so the question remains: how has Trump garnered such strong support from voters across the country?
The answer is, in two words: psychological methods.
More than any of the other candidates on the political debate stage, Trump is a master of public speaking. He’s led success seminar after seminar, selling real estate techniques and negotiating tactics, but most of all, the whole time, he’s been pushing only one priceless commodity: himself.
Trump’s elevation of his own brand and name is, after all, what he’s most famous for. The idea of self-promotion — wrapping oneself in the cloak of the invincible and reveling in the mention of one’s own name in the press and in public — is part and parcel of the Trump brand.
Many authors and reporters who have written pieces about Trump over the years have come away awe-struck (or dumb-struck) at the notion that this is essentially the root philosophy at the base of Trump’s empire — self-glorification at all costs, even when popular sentiment or common sense is heading in the opposite direction.
So powerful is this pseudo-cult of personality in Trump’s organization that one could say this is what convinced banks to loan him more money or to bail him out when his companies declared bankruptcy multiple times.
He convinced them that the Trump brand and endorsement — the idea of Trump at the helm, or at least in the forefront — was worth more to them than attempting to operate his former holdings without him. In fact, it’s interesting to note that some of Trump’s former partners are so attached to his name that Trump has in some cases had to sue or threaten to sue to have his name removed from their properties.
Trump knows that his most valuable quality is not the money that he has or his real estate knowledge — it’s his ability to sway people, to get them onboard with his ideas, his deals and his empire — even if they know he may not be the smartest person in the room. Getting them to fall into line and become a follower rather than a non-believer is the ultimate goal of any salesman or negotiator.
Police investigators know that one successful technique for negotiation is the “good cop, bad cop” routine where two different officers take turns interrogating a suspect, alternately offering rewards or threatening punishments until they get what they want out of them. From a psychological perspective, there are several ways Trump does essentially the same thing with audiences.
The first method involves thinking outside the box; for Trump, nothing is off the table. By redefining perspectives and catching people off-guard, Trump disarms opponents and even gets them to like him, despite their inner voice telling them to do otherwise. One of the ways he does this is with humor.
To get audiences on his side, he first tells a joke, or he makes fun of an absent party (Muslims, Obama, Rosie O’Donnell) to get people laughing. When they laugh, they’ve implicitly given him their support. And why not? He’s relieved them of their tension; they should be grateful.
Pundits point out that as a non-politician, Trump is freer to say things most politicians rarely communicate. He states truths political leaders won’t, because they have to deal with political messes every day. Instead of citing statistics, Trump tells stories.
Trump says what’s on the mind of many people and expresses clearly the anger, the frustration and the resentment that’s been building up for years against the establishment, lobbyists and special interests.
It’s much harder for Hillary Clinton, for instance, to say these things to an audience with a straight face (and be believed). Trump can get away with talking much more about these problems. At the same time, he doesn’t owe lobbyists or a Super-PAC any special favors.
Once an audience is on his side via his humor, Trump can become serious and tap into people’s fears to amplify their admiration for him. He can turn their “like” into strong identification by essentially saying “I understand you; I am like you; I understand your fears. Now let me propose a solution: I will overcome them for you — I will slay your demons.” He then makes a grand, sweeping statement: “We will do [x]; we will make America great again.” He turns “like” into a devoted love and a promise of support. This is the art of a true politician.
When necessary, if things become too serious or attacks against him become too overwhelming, Trump can return to humor as a weapon to disarm opponents. This could be seen time and time again in the GOP debates when one of the other candidates attacked him; he counterattacked by cracking a joke about that candidate or their policies; he undercut and sapped the power of the aggression with one remark or punch line. The audience responded with laughter and again was on his side.
In alternating humor with repeated promises, Trump won praise, even from his debate opponents.
After their repeated skirmishes, Jeb Bush was asked by the moderator at the second GOP presidential debate what an appropriate one-word Secret Service code name for him should be. Bush responded, “Eveready,” (as in the popular battery) which he explained was “high energy” — referring to Trump’s earlier dismissal of Bush’s “low energy.”
It was a rare zinger for Bush, which Trump appeared to give him credit for. So ecstatic was Bush that when Trump reached out a hand for a high five, Jeb immediately responded like a schoolyard child.
Then, it was Trump’s turn. Trump responded to the same question with, “Humble,” which brought down the house. Instantly, Bush knew he had been beaten. “That’s a good one!” he cracked, as Trump basked in his greater glory. None of the other candidates drew even close to the same response.
The reason why Trump is winning so consistently is because typical politicians don’t hone the art of dealing with the public to the same razor-sharp point. Dealing with voters is seldom part of their job; they’re only up for election every few years, and the rest of their time they spend crafting legislation and arguing with legislators on the opposite side of the aisle (who they don’t have to please to the same degree as voters).
Unlike most politicians, Trump is constantly seeking the public’s good will — whether it’s for his television shows, his casinos, his hotels or his branded merchandise. A large part of his empire — whether by design or by accident — is predicated on the affection of some segment of the public for his name and his brand.
Over the years, he’s constantly tested the limits of this sentiment by introducing new products and concepts branded with his name, for better or for worse — Trump Airlines, Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka, etc.
Trump knows better than anyone the limits of his magnetism, and over the years, he’s made adjustments to its assorted levers and knobs to maximize his appeal (it could even be said that if his arrogance or braggadocio turn off various parts of the public, this is by design on Trump’s part).
Of course, this only works as long as he’s perceived as impervious to attacks. Trump’s second-place finish in the Iowa caucus to Ted Cruz might have been the first and only moment in the campaign thus far when Trump may have been considered vulnerable.
Once he started scoring repeated victories, Trump’s tactics of labeling himself a winner (“we are winning in all the polls”; “the people of [state] love me”) have become self-fulfilling prophecies. This is a method called social proof.
By saying that “everyone” loves him, he reinforces the idea that if you don’t like him, you’ll be different from everyone else, and how many people don’t want to be part of a crowd? Trump will refer to an endorsement from a respected authority rather than get specific with his campaign promises (“[Respected authority] loves my tax plan”). This is a further extension of social proof.
The opposite of social proof is called negative social proof, and Trump is extremely careful not to let this opinion crystallize. When students of his failed Trump University sued him (the lawsuit is still pending), rather than allowing the matter to sit and fester, he counter-sued and attacked them in the press. This had the effect of planting doubt in the minds of observers about which party was right. If you watch closely, Trump is always quick to attack his critics savagely and vociferously.
It’s also worth mentioning that at the end of the Trump University curriculum, Trump had students sign a statement of satisfaction with the course, conscientiously (if not legally) tying their hands when it came to buyer’s remorse for purchasing the program. By getting this affidavit in advance, Trump was protecting himself from the negative social proof of bad publicity.
It should be clear that Trump has had decades to practice these techniques of self-aggrandizement and simultaneous ruthlessness when it comes to dealing with foes. It’s also apparent that psychological means play a big part in Trump’s often inexplicable appeal to voters.
His “good cop, bad cop” habits may ultimately be seen as his true dealmaking art as he boosts his allure to voters and racks up increasing victories in his campaign for the GOP nomination.