How is Donald Trump doing it? He leads the national, Iowa, and New Hampshire GOP presidential polls. He is the most likely Republican nominee, according to betting markets. He is also picking up key support on the religious right, his supposed area of electoral weakness. And now even the party's donors are beginning to wrap their noodles around the possibility that Trump may be the last candidate left standing. Also, Sarah Palin!
There are lots of theories and explanations for Trump's shocking surge. Some are simple: He is an outsider. He tells it like it is. America has become an idiocracy. And some are sophisticated, like that smartly laid out by The Week's Michael Brendan Dougherty, who argues a hollowed-out, despairing white middle-class has long yearned for a white knight to fight for it against the global economic elite.
Maybe all those explanations are necessary to fully understand the Trump phenomenon. But they may not be sufficient without one more, one that is both simple and sophisticated. The simple part: Trump is just a really, really good salesman. Or, as the campaign pros put it, a "political athlete." The sophisticated part is how Trump is making that sale to voters. Consider the possibility that Trump — a billionaire businessman with an Ivy League education and a best-selling author on dealmaking — isn't some blithering idiot blurting out populist nonsense. Instead, perhaps Trump is calculatedly using tried-and-true influencing and negotiating techniques — ones used by persuaders from carnival hypnotists to high-profile motivational speakers such as Tony Robbins — to literally mesmerize the GOP.
For instance, recall the debate over Trump's net worth. He claimed a fortune of $10 billion when he released his financial disclosure statement last summer. Media analysts jumped to disagree. Forbes figured his wealth at more like $4 billion, while Bloomberg tallied it at $2.9 billion. But by coming out with a big, round, outrageous number, Trump employed a well-known cognitive bias called "anchoring" where people tend to rely on the first information they hear when making a decision. Classic negotiator technique. And by sparking a debate over whether his net worth was a few billion bucks or several multiples higher, Trump cemented in our collective mind that he was a tremendously successful businessman. He made us "think past the sale," like when a car salesperson asks if you want that new Toyota Camry in Midnight Black or Blue Crush Metallic. The purchase decision is already locked in.
Or think about when Trump says, "We're going to take our country back." The lack of detail is what makes it powerful. Who took America away? Was it illegal immigrants? The Washington Cartel? Wall Street? Letting people fill in the blanks themselves is what hypnotists do. ("Now imagine yourself in a place of total security and serenity.")
And remember when Trump called for a ban on all Muslim immigrants "until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on"? The language was kind of dopey but the statement was a brilliant bit of persuasion. While other candidates were discussing the boring details of immigration reform, Trump focused on something the average voter could understand and agree with. It is a technique that Trump used again when attacking Ted Cruz on his citizenship. Instead of arguing legal precedent, Trump instead focused on a more macro concern: not wanting the party's nominee or country's eventual president to get bogged down in a distracting legal controversy. Seems sort of commonsensical, right?
These and other of Trump's "master persuader" tricks and techniques — including engineered insults like calling Jeb Bush "low energy" — have been outlined and explained since last summer in a series of prescient blog posts by cartoonist Scott Adams. Best known as creator of the Dilbert comic strip, Adams is also a Berkeley MBA and trained hypnotist. While many analysts dismiss Trump as an idiot clown benefiting from America's anxious id, Adams sees Trump as a savvy communicator "highly trained in the art of persuasion [who] literally wrote the book on it …There is a reason Trump's message penetrates the crowd noise" while the other candidates flounder.
Adams too points out that Trump is friends with Robbins, someone deeply studied in the art of persuasion and making emotional connections, including hypnotic techniques. Also keep in mind that while Adams may not be a member of the national pundit corp, he has been dead on in forecasting the seemingly inexorable rise of Trump, including Trump's emerging acceptance from the GOP establishment.
Of course, maybe Adams is giving Trump more credit here than he deserves. Maybe Trump is just, as Adams puts it, a "lucky Hitler." The wrong man at the right time to gain power. But if Adams is right, Trump is intentionally playing a different game than his rivals are, with their tired 30-second ads and think-tank approved policy agendas. And he's winning that game by a landslide right now — which, by the way, is what Adams is predicting for November 2016.