Trump gave his much-awaited Immigration speech last night. I’ll let the fact-checkers tell you how much of it was based on reality. That’s not my department. I will focus on how persuasive it was, not the politics.
Trump needed to undo the persuasion that Clinton’s side has been laying on the public for months. Specifically, Trump needed to demonstrate that he is…
1. Not crazy.
2. Not uninformed.
3. Not the wrong temperament to lead.
4. Not scary.
5. Not racist.
By my scorecard, Trump achieved all five objectives in the eyes and of his core supporters, and 3-out-of-5 with his opponents. I’ll break it down.
Trump’s speech did a solid job of connecting the faces of victims to his plan to control the borders. He also made a good argument for protecting jobs. And his call for a wall – which people now understand might include some digital solutions – is sounding expensive but doable. The fact-checkers will, I assume, go crazy on the details of the speech, but from a persuasion perspective, it all made sense. There was no sign of any literal craziness in the speech. That’s a big deal. People needed to see Trump acting not-crazy, and he succeeded. You can hate every part of his immigration plan, but as of today, none of it is irrational or impossible. Trump sold the public on “not crazy.”
Trump gave more details on the various components of immigration than I expected to hear. His ten-point plan seemed designed to show his mastery of the details and the specifics of his policies. Generally-speaking, one never wants to have ten points in any presentation. That’s far too much for the audience to digest. The exception is when you are trying to demonstrate the depth of your knowledge. Trump demonstrated presidential-level depth on the topic. He isn’t an expert, but he knows where all the moving parts are. On this key topic, Trump convinced the viewing public that he is informed.
Not the Wrong Temperament to Lead
Trump’s tone for the speech was strident and powerful. But he never frothed at the mouth, and he never spoke from anger. His emotional center for this speech was concern for legal Americans – especially African-Americans – and concern for the immigrants who are victimized trying to get here. Trump’s empathy was largely neutralized by his tone, and by his hard-core policy details, but he did not look like a “hot head” with the wrong temperament. It seemed controlled. I score this a success, but barely.
Trump was scary enough for his core voters, which they interpret as strength and resolve. But as usual, Trump’s tone and his policy details are too scary for many voters on the left. Trump did not make the sale on this dimension, but I’ll tell you later in this post why that was intentional. (It will be obvious after I tell you.)
Trump did a solid job of making the case that his policies are about border control and security, not racism. But facts and logic are not persuasive. Judged by itself, the speech was not persuasive on this dimension. The tone and content provide enough fodder for opponents to form confirmation bias, as they have been all along.
But as luck would have it, Trump met with the president of Mexico that same day, and the two of them got along fine. It seemed clear that the president of Mexico was not treating Trump as a racist. In fact, the President of Mexico even agreed that border control is necessary to reduce victimization of the illegals themselves. If you combine the optics of Trump’s successful trip to Mexico with his strident and scary-sounding speech, it was probably a breakeven situation on the racism dimension. Trump didn’t seem racist yesterday, but it wasn’t enough of a move the needle on its own. I score his effort on this dimension a solid attempt, but not terribly persuasive to his haters. However, if Trump stays on message as well as he did during the speech and the Mexico trip, he has a good chance of making progress on this dimension.
Now let’s talk about Trump’s plan itself.
Persuasion is Part of the Plan
Trump’s approach to immigration is to make border control a priority over deportation. And a big part of that plan involves persuasion. In order to convince would-be illegal immigrants to stay in their own country, you have to make it look like a bad deal to come to America illegally, which is not the case right now. In other words, Trump is focusing on persuasion – the area he knows best.
Realistically, you can’t control the borders with any kind of barrier if the rewards for entering the country illegally are high enough. But if you keep the rewards low, your wall has a good chance of working. Trump knows construction and he knows persuasion. He intelligently combined those talents to create his wall plan.
The problem for Trump – and for the country – is that being hardasses to illegal immigrants violates our national character. These folks are our friends, neighbors, and coworkers. We don’t wish them harm on an individual level. So how can Trump create an immigration policy that addresses the legitimate need for border control with our human need to be kind? It can’t be done.
Unless you are a Master Persuader. Then it’s easy.
Trump needed to soften his immigration stance to sell it to undecided voters while at the same time hardening it for his core supporters. To succeed, he needed to move in two opposite directions at once. Impossible.
So what he did was create a speech that was hardcore and scary in tone and delivery, while leaving an escape hatch in language. In other words, he gave you two opposite and competing messages at the same time. He sent a message of hardening with his tone while sending a message of softening with his words. Pick the one you like.
Trump’s policy softening came to us in the word “priorities.” Trump made it clear that his top priorities for deportation were the “criminal aliens” and the ones who are taking advantage of our social services without adding much to the country.
Trump didn’t mention anything about increasing the budget for deportation. Combine the word “priorities” with an unchanged budget and you get a situation much like today, where the illegal immigrants who are minding their own business and contributing to the country probably get to stay.
The biggest difference between Trump’s plan and Clinton/Obama’s plan is that Trump added persuasion. The “good” illegal immigrants get to stay under either plan – probably – but under Trump’s plan they have to stay here scared and unrewarded. They get no (direct) path to citizenship and no guarantee of staying in the country. In order to discourage new illegal immigration, Trump proposes to keep the good people who are already here in a state of unrewarded worry.
In practical terms, Trump is using persuasion to help seal the border. And given human nature, that feels necessary. People try what they think will work, not what they think will fail.
To put it another way, Trump is shifting the burden of border control from legal American citizens to illegal immigrants, including the “good” ones we might want as our neighbors and friends. You might not like that arrangement, but it isn’t crazy. And it applies an emotional “penalty” to people living here illegally.
The big question for voters is whether Trump’s notion of “priorities,” combined with the reality of budget limits, and the sheer number of illegal immigrants in this country, gets you to a place where the “good” illegal immigrants are likely to be left alone. Trump signalled that this would be the case – maybe – because those decisions would be deferred until the border is secure. That will take years.
And once the border is physically secure, you can back off on the persuasion angle a little. That means the path will someday be clear – maybe in ten years – to revisit the status of illegals who have been good Americans in spirit.
And that’s how a Master Persuader runs in two directions at the same time. It was masterfully done. I give Trump’s speech an A+ for persuasion. Trump won the week. His poll numbers should move up again next week.
Also, Trump stuck the landing by engineering what I call the reverse-Khan. He surrounded himself with the families of victims of illegal immigrants so that any criticism of his policies will feel uncomfortably close to insulting those grieving families.
You might like my book because speeches should never have ten points.