As the media has reported, the media caused Trump to have a few terrible weeks following the Democratic National Convention. To be fair, Trump made it easy. They turned his casual comment about Islam’s gender issues (based on Mrs. Khan’s silence) into an imaginary insult to a fallen soldier. And they turned his unwise joke about the 2nd Amendment into an imaginary call for assassination. Trump’s poll numbers showed the damage.
So how did Trump respond?
Using the Master Persuader Filter as my guide – where persuasion is what matters most – I score this week a victory for Trump. Five reasons.
1. Foreign policy speech (The Muslim ban becomes “extreme vetting”)
2. West Bend speech (Direct appeal to African-American voters)
3. Statement of togetherness (Direct statement about equality)
4. Campaign shakeup (Sets him up for the 3rd act)
5. Clinton’s health questions (We haven’t seen much of her this week)
What we saw this week was Trump directly, and skillfully, addressing the public’s concern that he’s scary and temperamentally unfit for the job of president. This week he was less bombastic, more on script (using the prompter), and he said in clear language that he was on the side of all Americans, rejecting bigotry and hatred in all forms.
People needed to hear that.
Words alone aren’t enough to change the public’s impression of Trump. But words are a necessary condition of any change, and he got all the words right this week. If he wants to move the polls, he’ll have to stay on these messages and make sure his actions and off-hand jokes don’t conflict with this new and improved approach.
I have hypothesized that one month of Trump acting presidential would be enough to convince people that “Campaigning Trump” is an act, and his real personality is more controlled. If this is the start of that month, it’s a strong start.
We also saw growing chatter (mostly untrue) about Clinton’s health. That is probably the start of Trump framing Clinton as the more risky candidate. If Trump stays on message, and Clinton keeps her light campaign schedule, the “fear persuasion” will swing his way.
As regular readers know, I have explained that fear is generally the best persuader because our minds are wired to see physical danger as our top priority. Trump got an early lead on his GOP rivals by playing to our fears about terrorism and immigration in general. That was a winning hand for awhile.
But Clinton wisely pivoted from talking about policies and experience to a message that Trump himself was civilization’s greatest risk. That is a winning hand because while it might be true that a terrorist will kill people you don’t know, if Trump nukes the entire planet, that affects you. My guess is that the Master Persuader I call Godzilla helped craft Clinton’s fear message about Trump. As things stand today, Clinton has the stronger fear message and the stronger position.
To counter Clinton’s fear-based persuasion, Trump either needs to become less scary or he needs to make Clinton more scary. Trump’s calmer demeanor (this week), his softened immigration policies (”extreme vetting”), and his direct statements in favor of the African-American and LGBTQ communities is a good step in the right direction. He says good things about protecting women too. People have a right to be skeptical, but ask yourself which dictators of the past ever talked in such inclusive and loving terms. Now consider that “no nation-building” is part of the Trump foreign policy message and he doesn’t look so scary and dictator-like this week.
Meanwhile, questions about Clinton’s health continue to gain traction. I can’t imagine many things scarier than a president with a suspected brain problem. If that idea crosses over from the far right to mainstream conversation, Trump will be “running unopposed.”
For those of you questioning my objectivity, keep doing that. It’s healthy. But keep in mind that I scored the prior weeks for Clinton (because Godzilla), and as things stand today, she still has the stronger persuasion package. Trump moved things in the right direction this week, but he has a lot of work to do.
On a related note, if the campaign were a movie, the so-called third-act would be marked by Trump shaking up his campaign team so he can be more himself and less scripted. You don’t expect that to work. You expect Trump to be his terrible Trump self, reckless and under-informed.
Then he overperforms at the first debate. That’s how a great story goes.
And that’s why you hire Roger Ailes to prep you for the debates. The movie demands it.
Readers noted that I expected the third-act pivot sooner. But that was dumb of me because no movie puts the third-act before the last 20 minutes of the movie’s end. The second act of a movie would feature the protagonist overcoming several smaller hurdles that seemed big until you saw the final hurdle. Trump has overcome a number of smaller hurdles to get this far. Now, with time running out, and Trump behind in the polls, we’re near the largest hurdle.
You might like my book because life is sometimes like a movie, and sometimes not.