Here in the USA, we’ve narrowed our search for a new leader to two lying, 70-year old racists. (You should see how bad the other 320 million of us are.)
I’m exaggerating, obviously. There are big differences in the candidates. For example, Clinton has allegedly killed lots of people in the past, whereas Trump will allegedly kill lots of people in the future. That’s very different, timing-wise.
But you probably came to this blog today to find out what I think of Clinton’s “Alt-Right” speech compared to Trump’s “bigot” speech. I will not disappoint you.
Clinton’s speech was a persuasion success. I give it A+ for doing its job of painting Trump as a racist. This successful persuasion approach is probably the work of a Master Persuader on Clinton’s team. The one I call Godzilla.
As Trump supporters already know, all of Clinton’s accusations about Trump being a racist are taken out of context. If you look at any of those situations in proper context, they don’t indicate racism. I detailed that point in this post. I won’t reiterate because at this point in the election cycle both candidates are lying about everything they say. If I have to explain why one of them is lying about something in particular, you haven’t been paying attention.
They are both lying. All the time. About everything.
If that isn’t obvious to you at this point, you are hypnotized. Literally.
But the truth has little or no value when it comes to persuasion. What matters is the pairing of thoughts, and the frequency of the pairings. Clinton makes good use of that phenomena by producing a laundry list of alleged racist acts in Trump’s life and in his words. What matters to persuasion is the volume of the accusations, not the veracity of any of them. Our brains are primed to believe that where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
As an aside, that is why this defense of the Clinton Foundation was one of the biggest persuasion fails of this election:
For Clinton to succeed in painting Trump as a racist, all she needed was a long list of accusations. She can count on none of the accusations being fact-checked by the media because fact-checkers don’t deal with one candidate’s speculation about what is happening in another person’s brain. Clinton is offering an interpretation of Trump’s words and actions. Fact-checkers don’t deal with interpretations.
Clinton also associated Trump with various unpopular groups, such as white supremacists, based on the fact that many support him. Obviously there are lots of terrible people supporting every candidate for president, but they don’t all have a label. The existence of the Alt-Right movement allowed Clinton to slap a label on Trump’s supporters to invite what I call word-thinking.
Word-thinking is a popular alternative to reason. A word-thinker ignores facts and logic, and tries to jam all observations into existing labels. For a word-thinker, everyone in the world is either a racist or a good person. The reality is that human brains operate on pattern recognition, which pretty much guarantees that all of us are sexists and racists to some degree. But word-thinkers only see two categories.
This same type of word-thinking was seen in the GOP primaries. Much of the discussion was about whether or not Trump was a conservative. People believed, quite irrationally, that if Trump didn’t fit into that label with precision, he was not worthy to be president. Word-thinkers are not confined to one side of the political world. It is a universal mental phenomenon.
Word-thinking is important to persuasion because if you can convince someone to accept a label on an opponent, it turns off their critical thought and turns on their confirmation bias. Nuance is lost. Context is lost. All that matters once the label is accepted is whatever qualities the label already contained.
So Clinton succeeded in associating the Alt-Right label with Trump, even though he isn’t one of them. That was good persuasion technique. By my scorecard, Clinton won that news cycle.
Now we get to the interesting part. Clinton has successfully persuaded over half of the country that Trump is a racist. And you’ve never seen anyone escape from that sort of trap. It’s a death trap.
Well, actually, it’s a death trap for all two-dimensional thinkers who believe facts and logic have any role in politics. But Trump is not burdened by such illusions. He knows reality is subjective. And he knows he can mold it.
So how does Trump respond?
For starters, Trump is calling Clinton a “bigot” because African-Americans have not made gains under Obama’s administration. But he failed to make the sale. It was too much of a stretch. Word-thinkers had already decided Clinton is one of the good people, not a bigot. No persuasion is likely to change that.
But Trump is always A-B testing. He rarely tries one approach in isolation. He tosses out a lot of ideas and sees which ones work with the public and the media. And he had two other responses to Clinton that have potential, in my view.
1. Trump is saying Clinton’s accusations of racism are “All they have left.” I like that framing because it makes you think of throwing your gun at the monster after you emptied the magazine. It speaks of a desperate last act, which also makes you think past the sale. And it minimizes the accusations as being desperation politics.
2. Trump reframed Clinton’s critique of the Alt-Right as an accusation that Trump supporters in general are racist. You probably don’t know why that is so powerful. I’ll explain.
Trump has built his brand around the idea that he will protect legal American citizens of all types – who he loves – against bad people in other countries. Trump is saying he’s on Team America. Period.
But Clinton just insulted 40% of American voters by calling them racists. Clinton literally – and publicly – turned on her own citizens.
Trump, by contrast, has attacked only professionals who are in the cage fight against him, including politicians on both sides, and the media. Judge Curiel is a professional (in a legal battle context). The reporter with the bad arm is a professional. Mr. Khan was acting as a professional because he entered the cage, armed. If you’re a professional – and can defend yourself – Trump doesn’t mind coming after you with a flamethrower.
But Clinton’s Alt-Right speech did not target professionals. Clinton attacked American citizens. Lots of them.
I’m also a professional in this context because I’m writing about politics. If Clinton criticizes me, that’s fair game. I knew what I was getting into. But if she goes after ordinary voters, that’s crossing a line. It is divisive to the point of treason. She crossed that line with the Alt-Right speech. If Trump lets that slide, it’s a mistake. I don’t think he will.
If you like books, you might like the one I wrote because it is a book.