Donald Trump: Pickup Artist?
By Wil Forbis
July 1, 2016
Why do we vote for the politicians that we do? It would seem an easy enough question to answer. Political blogs and op-ed pages are filled with people pontificating on their support for this or that politician. Most people envision a mental list of qualifications for their ideal candidate and they choose the available politician that best matches those qualifications. But do we really choose our candidates? Or are we seduced by them?
Trump: More Than Meets The Eye
This past January, I began frequenting the Scott Adams blog. Adams is the cartoonist behind the comic strip Dilbert, but I wasn't reading his posts for drawing tips. Rather, I was there because Adams had been offering quite accurate predictions about the improbable rise of Donald Trump. At the time, Trump had been making a series of outlandish, offensive statements*, and with each pronouncement the media predicted the end of the businessman's political career. Adams, however, asserted that Trump knew exactly what he was doing and would ultimately become President of the United States.
* He still is.
Adams is a certified hypnotherapist and he argues that Trump is what can be called a “master persuader”—a brilliant pitch man. Part of Adam’s thesis is that people don’t really think logically; instead they respond emotionally to various cues. A good hypnotist, or politician, can manipulate people by transmitting these cues. As Adams opined in an article for Reason magazine:
“What I [see] in Trump,” says Adams, is “someone who was highly trained. A lot of the things that the media were reporting as sort of random insults and bluster and just Trump being Trump, looked to me like a lot of deep technique that I recognized from the fields of hypnosis and persuasion.”
I would have dismissed Adams out of hand if not for two things. One, I'd already spent several years reading books on human psychology and was well versed in the notion that many of our decisions are irrational and often made by our subconscious*. Secondly, Adams had predicted Trump's rise early in the game, back when everyone else (myself included) was dismissing Trump as a joke. When someone is right while everyone else is wrong, I take notice.
* I realize this assertion may seem bold to many people, and, indeed, I don't think the science is settled. But there is voluminous evidence in its favor. I recommend reading the Jonah Lehrer book "How We Decide" for starters. Follow that with a look at the research of Michael Gazzaniga.
Adams continues to argue that Trump has employed a variety of persuasion/sales techniques to foment his rise. For example, in one blog post Adams alleges Trump uses a classic con of car salesmen, “thinking past the sale.”
For example, when Trump says he is worth $10 billion, which causes his critics to say he is worth far less (but still billions) he is making all of us “think past the sale.” The sale he wants to make is “Remember that Donald Trump is a successful business person managing a vast empire mostly of his own making.” The exact amount of his wealth is irrelevant.
When a car salesperson trained in persuasion asks if you prefer the red Honda Civic or the Blue one, that is a trick called making you “think past the sale” and the idea is to make you engage on the question of color as if you have already decided to buy the car. That is Persuasion 101 and I have seen no one in the media point it out when Trump does it.
Adams also gives credit to Trump for his use of “linguistic kill shots”----pithy pet names that discredit his opponents. Jeb Bush was taken down with “Low-Energy Jeb.” Ted Cruz was sideswiped with “Lyin’ Ted.” The effectiveness of these insults, states Adams, is that they are reinforced by the target’s own behavior. When Jeb Bush first appeared as a candidate he seemed calm and statesmanlike, but after he was saddled with his nickname the same behavior appeared tired and slow.
It seems hard to believe that such techniques could be effective. But all Trump is really doing is adding some storytelling to his stump speaking. He’s creating tales where he is the hero and his opponents are the villains. And we all understand that politicians who tell stories, who trigger our imaginations and aspirations, do better than politicians who blather off ways they can bring unemployment down by 2.3% over the course of three years.
I should be clear about one thing here: it’s not just Republicans who use persuasion. Adams has granted Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton the “master persuader” title. (Hillary Clinton, not so much, though lately Adams feels she’s getting better.) Once you recognize the techniques in action, you see that politicians of all stripes do it.
Let’s consider one more Trump technique: his penchant for outrageous, big ideas, like "let's build a wall across the Mexican border." To much of the press, the concept was so crazy and offensive that it was sure to damn Trump's campaign. But Adams argues that it was exactly this strategy of presenting headline-grabbing proposals that differentiated Trump from his fellow Republican contenders. (Do you actually remember any of their proposals?) Plus, the inflammatory nature of the wall idea led the media to aim their cameras at Trump, giving him millions of dollars of airtime.
Now all of these techniques sound risky and could still blow up in Trump's face. (I'm not convinced that he won't ultimately be undone by such an explosion.) That said, Trump clearly has gone much further than most political pundits of every ideological stripe initially predicted he would. So far, he has gambled and has won.
Pick Up Artists Play The Game
Recently, my reading eye turned away from politics towards a 2012 book called "The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists." Written by journalist Neil Strauss, "The Game" is a memoir recounting Strauss' immersion in the world of men who live their lives seducing women. Contrary to the image of pickup artists as low-rent sleazebags, Strauss found fellows who diligently studied and finely tuned the persuasion techniques they used to lure women into bed. Strauss, by using these techniques, transformed himself from a spindly, unattractive nerd to a stylish metrosexual who could enter a nightclub confident he would be leaving with an “HB” (pickup shorthand for hot babe.)
How did Strauss and his fellow seducers do it? By employing a series of conversational gambits and style tips that flew in the face of the conventional wisdom. The official rulebook of romance---as presented to us by movies and television---says a man earns a woman’s affection by being kind, helpful and buying her flowers etc. “The Game” argues you do it by “negging” them* (neg = a kind of light hearted diss), appearing disinterested, peacocking (dressing outlandishly) and creating a “yes chain” (a bunch of questions where the answer is always affirmative thus prepping the gal to say yes to whatever you propose.)
* Negging works because, according to Strauss, "If you lower a women's self esteem, she will seek validation from you."
None of this is really news. We’ve all heard the complaint that women like jerks. Pickup artists just make a point of being somewhat charming jerks.
As I read the book, the obvious realization came to me. Trump and the pickup artists are doing the same thing: using verbal and non-verbal cues to fire off triggers in the subconscious minds of their targets. By employing studied techniques (the pickup artists in "The Game" spend hundreds of hours practicing seduction routines) they can initiate certain responses in their unknowing prey.
A reasonable question arises here. Does all this persuasion stuff actually work? If you read through Adam’s blog and “The Game” as well as tomes on sales techniques, hypnosis and the controversial psychological paradigm called Neuro-Linguistic Programming you get the sense that it does work… some of the time. But some of the time is enough. A politician doesn’t need to win all the votes, just a bit over half. A pickup artist doesn’t need to seduce every woman he meets, just more than he would have without persuasion techniques.
How it all works is a murkier question. I tend to look at the world of dogs for an answer. If you’ve ever watched canines you are aware of the peculiar rules of socialization they seem to follow: smelling butts as a greeting, barking at invisible offenses, joining a chorus of howls in the middle of the night, somehow navigating the sexual cues of their species to know when to mate. However dogs do this, they don’t do it by using language, complex culture or exemplary displays of logic. Their rules of social interaction seem baked into their brains, remnants of the interactions of thousands of dog generations before them. We humans like to think we are above this sort of thing, but I suspect we are not. Much of our behavioral proclivities are, like that of dogs, encoded into our genes. And these behaviors can be activated when one of our fellow humans flips the right switch. We then experience feelings of bonding, attraction, loyalty and disdain without every really knowing why.
Making Political Decisions
It's not that distressing to hear that people make sexual decisions based on somewhat ethereal influences. (I think we all knew that already.) But it's less comfortable to contemplate that people are making political decisions based on emotional and subconscious factors. We want to believe we are part of an informed electorate that thoughtfully researches the issues and makes logical decisions. That is the model for beautiful democracy. We want to believe it… but we all know it’s horseshit.
Why do we rely on emotions over logic when making decisions? Partly because it’s easier and faster to trust intuition than to really analyzing the pros and cons of a given situation. But also because many of the decisions in the political realm are really, really hard.
Let’s take one frequently discussed issue: illegal immigration. You can approach this problem from various angles; let’s just ask a basic question: Does illegal immigration lower wages for everyone?
About four months ago I would have said, yes and clearly yes. Imagine this scenario: you have a town of two hundred people all competing for whatever jobs are available. Then, suddenly 50 new immigrants arrive (illegal or not). Doesn’t that mean employers can get even pickier about who they hire and demand lower wages?
It would seem so. But I read up on this and it’s not so simple. The addition of 50 new people does mean that there’s more competition for jobs, but these new people also create new jobs. It’s 50 more people who need dry cleaning, who need groceries, who want to catch a Saturday matinee. So the dry cleaner, grocery store and movie theater all need to add an extra shift.
So, do immigrants add enough jobs to make up for their negative effect on wages? I dunno… I looked into it for about an hour and got a sense that I could research this stuff for years and never really know. The data is dense and complex and clearly biased by the political beliefs of its presenters etc. On top of that, it seems likely that the answer would vary by territory. Some towns might suffer under the influx of immigrants while others would prosper.
Of course there’s also a moral framework to this. Some would say we should accept illegal immigrants no matter what their effect on the economy. Others would say we should look after Americans first.
You throw all that into a stew and it becomes very difficult to know what the “right” answer is.
Let’s consider a related issue: trade agreements. The past 15 years have seen various treaties that allow for more fluid trade between the U.S. and other countries. A lot of people, including both Trump and Bernie Sanders, argue that these agreements have cost American jobs as factories are moved to cheaper locales. Other people, including Clinton (though she’s a bit waffly), argue that these agreements lead to cheaper goods for Americans as well as create a different class of jobs.
Again, I looked into this issue for about an hour. Christ, what a mess; it’s worse than the illegal immigration debate. I really have no idea who’s right. (Read here if you want to get into this quagmire.)
Let’s consider Syria. What the best course of action there? Hell if I know. To really address the situation would require months of studying the local politics, the history of the Middle East, the psychology of the main actors etc.
This is why choosing policies and candidates is difficult. And even if you do ultimately decide on this or that candidate, you have that nagging sense that there are numerous X factors out there---the famous Rumsfeld “unknown unknowns”---that could dismantle all of your calculated logic. It’s much easier to vote for the candidate who pushes all the right buttons with presentation and rhetoric. It’s so easy, in fact, that most of us aren’t ever aware of it when we do it.
This all points to a rather dismal truth. Political power is not earned by combining logical arguments with thoughtful policymaking and unquestionable sincerity. It’s earned by mastering techniques of framing, spin and deception--- the same techniques practiced by men who lure Cosmopolitan addled bimbos into the back seats of cars or the bathrooms of nightclubs. Honesty and decency have no place in either the political realm or sexual battlefield.
But that’s not really news, is it?
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.