Why Donald Trump is So Persuasive as a Candidate



It’s easy to disqualify Donald Trump using logic and reason. But that’s not what persuades people. He may be the most emotionally connected candidate in the 2016 race.


To the public delight of the Republican electorate and the private delight of many more, Donald Trump has defied all expectations and become the incontrovertible GOP frontrunner. The RealClearPolitics average shows Trump leading the Republican field by 7.1 percentage points. That’s almost three points more than just three days ago, a rising streak that has continued unabated since he announced his candidacy on June 16th. At this writing Trump is at 20.8 percent, Scott Walker is at 13.7, and Jeb Bush is at 12.2. Everyone else is in single digits.

Republican party operatives are wringing their hands and casting aspersions. The media has been both condescending and completely wrong in their analysis and predictions. His fellow candidates are apoplectic, falling all over themselves trying to figure out how to respond to someone who they variously refer to as unserious, not presidential, a buffoon and a rodeo clown. Desperate for media coverage in an increasingly one-ring circus led by Trump himself, some of his rivals are resorting to the kind of mudslinging and showboating they would have denounced just weeks ago.

Trump is so persuasive as a candidate because he is not trying to be persuasive as a politician.

Donald Trump has been so persuasive in his early bid for the presidential nomination that not even racist remarks or the takedown of an American war hero have broken his stride. But why? And why is there such a wide gap between his ability to persuade the electorate and his inability to persuade the press or his own party?

The main reason Trump is so persuasive as a candidate is because he is not trying to be persuasive as a politician. Indeed Donald Trump is the very definition of impolitic. He doesn’t just evade the PC police, he taunts them. The degree to which this outsider status qualifies him as a desirable candidate in the eyes of the public has been monumentally underestimated by the pundits and prognosticators mainly, I would argue, because they either don’t know or haven’t considered the persuasive power of the emotional connection.

Trump is activating what in neurological terms are referred to as emotional triggers, which the brain uses to avoid the energy and difficulty of analytical thinking. Whether consciously or by instinct, great persuaders tap into the functions of the emotional brain, where decisions are made with great speed and intensity.

One especially potent emotional trigger Donald Trump is clearly activating in the limbic brains of his most ardent supporters is the Contrast Trigger. Sales and marketing people know the Contrast Trigger well enough. They use it – or at least try to use it – all the time. “Differentiation” is a well-worn corporate branding trope used to emphasize the importance of distinction – of being different than the other brand or product.

But there’s a huge difference between a candidate telling us he’s different, and being such a blatant, often amusing, and occasionally shocking example of it. At a time when believing anything a politician says is considered absurd, when one of them actually embodies the very concept of difference to the point where they don’t conform to even the most basic profile of a politician, the distinction is stark and the candidate is by contrast believable. Trump is criticized for many things; being inauthentic isn’t one of them.

Trump doesn’t rely only on this embodiment of contrast, either. His rhetoric is full of the kind of hyperbole that sets a high-contrast framework – what scientists call an “adaptation level.” America isn’t just “in trouble,” it’s “going down the drain.” Free trade isn’t only “a problem,” it’s “terrible.” China doesn’t just “beat us,” they “kill us.” Words matter.

Chris Cillizza writing in The Washington Post about Dallas Mavericks basketball team owner Mark Cuban supplies a vivid example of how even highly successful, apparently intelligent people are apt to dispense with logic and reason entirely – even consciously – in favor of an emotional decision:

Cuban succinctly and effectively explained the Trumpian appeal. Here it is:

“I don’t care what his actual positions are. I don’t care if he says the wrong thing. He says what’s on his mind. He gives honest answers rather than prepared answers. This is more important than anything any candidate has done in years.”

That’s a remarkable admission. “I don’t care what his actual positions are,” Cuban said. “I don’t care if he says the wrong thing.” And, it affirms my working theory that lots and lots of people who say they are for Trump don’t know the first thing about where he stands on any issue this side of immigration. His is not a policy appeal or even really a political one. It’s pure personality.

Close. It’s more fundamental than personality. It’s emotional triggers of the kind that are powerfully persuasive.

But we’re not looking at a one-trigger horse, here, either. To be powerfully persuasive one must activate as many of the core triggers as possible, and Trump fires on at least a couple more of those emotional cylinders pretty effectively. In particular: The Authority and Friendship triggers.

Even his reputation for the gaudy and tacky help align Trump as a friend of the people.

Trump’s business acumen is the obvious and not inconsiderable Authority Trigger for an electorate mistrustful of government. But it’s his odd and almost incongruous persona as good ‘ol boy, along with his narrative as a kid from the Bronx who made a mint, that helps him establish a foundation of sameness. And as the most savvy political campaigns well know, sameness is the critical component of the Friendship Trigger, which is the basis for every other persuasive opportunity. Even Trump’s reputation for the gaudy and tacky help align him as a friend of the people; he may live like an elitist but no one ever mistakes him for being one.

In the world of the limbic brain, driven by the deeply primal amygdala, solutions to the plethora of choices and options in the universe are developed with astonishing efficiency by circumventing logic and reason (the prefrontal cortex) completely. Our brains will go to great lengths to avoid the heavy lifting of cognitive analysis and induce us to make decisions using emotion. But there’s a hitch. Humans like to be able to rationalize their decisions with logic and reason, even – and perhaps especially – when our decisions are so emotionally based.

If Donald Trump can’t follow up on his success in connecting emotionally by offering some solid and seemingly logical rationale for folks to pin their votes on, will all his persuasive power go poof at the polls?

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