I wonder of Donald Trump may be one of the most misunderstood politicians of our time. When he entered the fight for the presidential nomination, most commentators seemed adamant that Trump was a glitch, a short-lived and ridiculous aberration. In the eyes of the published opinion, Trump has no credibility, no competence, no social standing and no chance to get near the throne, and it would be only a matter of months before his blunders would force him to drop out.I'll accept this if he also says the idea of electing him president was just a suggestion. https://t.co/16nYZjaREG— Paul Graham (@paulg) May 12, 2016
The months passed, Trump blundered as hard as everybody expected, the media dutifully documented his failure, but something strange happened: his ratings did not drop, but increase. For the most part, this did not change our perception of Trump: with every passing day, his shortcomings were more thoroughly visible, the ridiculousness of his opinions more transparent. Trump revealed himself as a racist, misogynist, sexist, bigot, Muslimhater, conspiracy theorist, anti-democrat, possible pedophile rapist, birther and general nitwit. His lies were thoroughly exposed and visible to everyone. His relationship to his daughter, his ex-wife, his tenants, his business partners, his inherited money and his hairstyle were exposed as highly questionable. Nothing is subtle about him, every bit of his self-presentation is vain, crass, deceitful and overblown. His press coverage was almost uniformly negative. Nobody in his right mind (except Milo Yiannoupoulos, but we all know his mind is not right) can side with him. Beyond the normal competition between potential nominees, all other candidates demonstrated disgust and broke ties with him, his own party largely renounced him. The Brits thought about declaring him persona non grata, the Germans compared him to Hitler, and leading thinkers expressed grave worry about his lack of insight into politics and policy. How did he manage not only to stay, but to win the GOP nomination, not just barely, but by obliterating all competition, months ahead of schedule?
My liberal and centrist pundits seem to live in a parallel universe. If I fire up my browser, I read headlines like:
Appetite for destruction: White America's death wish is the source of Trump's hidden support
Donald Trump is just this dumb: He doesn't even know what he doesn't know—but his latest ignorance is breathtaking
Entitled, racist, bigoted, thugs: It is time to call Donald Trump supporters by their real names
Trump's misogynist campaign: He's successfully alienating every female voter he can
The prevailing narrative, that Trump got to be so successful despite being the worst possible candidate, and that his luck will run out any moment now, is what Scott Adams calls The Lucky Hitler hypothesis. This hypothesis seems to be utterly implausible: It is much more likely that Trump is doing something right, and he knows exactly what he is doing, and most of the commentators do not see it.
Emotions have different roles in different people. Most people are emotional harmonizers: they feel the emotions of others as their own (empathy), including the feeling of what is right. If an high-status member of the social group expresses a strong emotion, others can synchronize with the group values by allowing themselves to experience that emotion, too. As a result, opinion leaders try to elicit clear and strong emotional responses to normative statements, because that is the most effective way to reach their communicative goal: the establishment of norms and their own place in the social landscape. If a speaker understands the dynamics of ingroup/outgroup formation, the creation of the illusion of social status, and the projection of rightfulness, they can program other people by influencing their norms and group allegiances. Scott Adams calls social programmers (like Trump) “hypnotists”.
Why is Trump's hypnosis not working on us? The short answer is: because we are not his voters. He does not waste time to make us like him. We are a prop, a tool that is being used to convince the intended audience. And he programs us to play exactly that role.
Trump has been dealt a bad hand: he is not a member of any of the established power blocs, and gets very little sympathy in the media. But he has played this hand almost flawlessly. Trump has identified a large relevant audience group that feels alienated from the media. The solution: he is designing messages that walk a very fine line. They resonate with the target audience, but at the same moment, they create incredible offense (and therefore attention) in the media. He specifically looks for tropes that people use to signal their allegiance to in-group values, and violates them in exactly the right way. For instance, he can exploit racist stereotypes against Mexican immigrant workers, by calling them rapists and criminals. Everybody in his right mind agrees that no matter what the right, center or left think about illegal immigration, dumping wages etc.: racism is a very bad thing. Many of us are also sure that rape is mostly relevant in the context of privileged white males at universities. We are obliged to display our outrage about racist rape allegations, not just because we are not racists, but also because we cannot afford to be on the wrong side of such an important issue. No media outlet or political blog can afford to stay quiet!
Trump then one-ups it: he claims not to be racist, because he enjoys taco salad and “loves Hispanics”, and “they all love him, too”, i.e. he is non-racist in a way that every right-minded person finds even more racist and offensive.
Trumps prospective voters do not have the same subtle intersectional and anti-racist sensibilities. Trump can safely bash foreigners and undocumented immigrants, because they cannot vote. Recently immigrated workers are afraid of being displaced by new immigrant workers, and poor non-immigrant workers are afraid of immigration. If Trump points out that these threats are indeed often bad guys, he signals that he takes people’s concerns seriously. If he also says that he “loves Hispanics” and Mexican food, then this might actually come across as an expression of nuance for his target audience: he likes good people of all kinds and is down-to-earth, but he is very much opposed to criminals and rapists!
Even more importantly, the more establishment and left rage against Trump, the more sympathy he gets from disenfranchised conservative voters.
I suspect that what looks like bumbling to pundits is actually the result of carefully A-B tested messaging. Most of the establishment is pro-choice and feels provoked by anything that could infringe on the autonomy of women? Trump will come out as a glowing pro-lifer. Some of his audience think abortion is sometimes necessary? No problem, Trump is “like Ronald Reagan, he is pro-life with important exceptions that he has outlined many times”. How can he efficiently produce outrage among leftists and in the media to amplify his message, while not looking outrageous to his target audience? “There should be punishment for the women involved, but not for the men.” The Washington Post will document that before running, Trump was pro-choice, and that now he adapts his position every few minutes in incompatible ways, but his target audience does not care much about the Washington Post.
Trumps strategy seems to be based on an understanding that our society is tribal. The media tribe won’t support Trump, so he is going to create sympathy in the outgroup of the media tribe, by maximally aggravating the media tribe. Because most people think of their values as objective reality, we think that by pointing out how Trump violates our signaling norms, he becomes unvoteable. We are genuinely surprised when the opposite happens. Trump has complete freedom in inventing his messages, because only the media tribe will point out how he is unconstrained by truth and consistency. Trump has also understood that genuine political values are entirely irrelevant for winning the presidency, only his messaging does.
Trump’s strategy worked well for the first round of the game: he is the GOP nominee now. To win the final round, targeting disenfranchised Republicans will not suffice, which is why polls and commentators are quite sure that the next president is going to be a woman. But Trump’s absence of genuine political opinions may be his biggest asset: he is going to be open to every prospective cabinet member that promises to increase Trump’s reputation in exchange for an opportunity to shape politics.
To the surprise and dismay of much of the press, the influential libertarian Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel was one of the first to jump on Trump’s newly created band wagon. Of course, we quickly get articles that explain how Thiel and Trump were secretly in the same evil outgroup all along. Thiel’s move will cost him reputation, but also increase Trump’s. What is going to happen once some more establishment members have lent credibility to a possible Trump government? Our camp will start to spot how some Good People join Trump’s team now, to make sure he does not do bad things!
As soon as the usual suspects realize what is going on, there is going to be a scramble for the best seats. With every influential and well-connected person joining his crew, Trump gains powerful supporters that are invested in his success. There might be smart neocons that want to continue Bush era ambitions, traditional conservatives and Kennedy School centrists that would prefer if that would not happen, feuding economists from Chicago and Boston, all trying to preempt each other.
These forces will have great hair cuts, Ivy league backgrounds, distinguished taste in their choice of verbiage and social signaling, friends among journalists, and their adult supervision will appear to have a very beneficial influence on him. The US has a great tradition of using Hollywood actors as supreme leaders; why should a telemarketer do a worse job? Trump will not only appear to be much more moderate than now, but he will always have been more moderate and amicable than everybody mistook him for in a tumultuous presidential race that everybody has long forgotten. Some of his fiercest critics may express relief and approval of Trumps ability to learn, listen to the most competent people, reform himself, and heed the good lessons he received from the media tribe.
I am not at all sure that Trump’s bet will work, but I suspect that he has a much better shot at the presidency than today’s polls suggest.
Update: The new strategy is coming along nicely.