For many people, it’s surprisingly easy to dismiss “The Donald” as moronic. From his bombastic remarks to his over-the-top lifestyle, he often comes off as little more than a rich bully pandering for attention. But is he really?
You don’t need to be a genius to make millions, but billions is a very different story. Billions is not an accident, and I don’t believe for a moment that his success in the presidential race is either. Rather, I believe we’re seeing a master class in showmanship from a very intelligent businessman.
Here are five psychological tactics that Trump is using to rocket himself to the top of the polls:
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1. Make people underestimate you
Making yourself seem smart is easy. Read lots of books, learn to speak eloquently, dress well — if you look and act the part, most people will take you at face value. But tricking smart people into thinking you’re an imbecile, even though you’re secretly brilliant — now, that’s hard.
Why would anyone want to do this? Because it gives them a rather useful advantage over their opponents, and Trump is a strategist at heart. He knows that if his opponents don’t take him seriously, all sorts of great things can happen: they may not prepare as well for debates, work as hard to win certain states or pay attention to what they’re saying as carefully as they should.
Takeaway: What looks like a mistake may be nothing but a feint, and if your opponent fails to keep their guard up because they don’t see you as a threat, you can mop the floor with them before they know what hit them.
2. Know who you're speaking to
Trump’s wealth comes from real estate, which is an industry that involves constant negotiation. One of the first and most important facets of negotiation (not to mention politics) is to understand, as deeply as you can, the people on the other side of the table.
There’s an enormous amount of demographic data on voter turnout out there, as well as a massive number of blogs and social-media outlets available for data mining and sentiment analysis. Suffice to say that Trump knows who he’s speaking to, what their hot buttons are and how to get them riled up.
Beyond that, he says what’s on his mind (and more important, what’s on the mind of many Americans), and doesn’t pull any punches. To put it simply, he seems very real and very human.
Your typical politician is the exact opposite: they’re polished, careful and very much politically correct. Many of them come off as sleazy, cold and corrupt, with plastic smiles and limp handshakes. Politicians have a bad rap for a reason, and a great many people have learned not to trust them.
Takeaway: If you want to win, you need to know your audience, and gain their trust.
3. Be polarizing
Did you know that Howard Stern is worth somewhere north of $500 million? Do you know how he made that money? By pissing lots of people off. Advertisers pay based on the number of viewers or listeners for a show, and Stern learned early on that the people who hated him actually listened to his show more than his fans.
Trump is no stranger to show business, and he understands this principle well. If you try to please everyone, you please no one. But if you try to please a specific group of people, you will absolutely make others angry, and that can be surprisingly good for business.
Takeaway: Taking a stance that will make some people angry is great — it gets you more attention, more press coverage and more fans (or in Trump’s case, voters).
4. Ask for more than you want
Anyone who has ever haggled for something knows that the first offer is nothing but a starting point for negotiations.
Trump gets this, and his opponents clearly do not. He throws things out there that seem ridiculous if taken at face value (build a wall, throw out all the “illegals,” etc.), but if you keep in mind that he’s tossing out starting points, that changes things dramatically. Trump is almost certainly happy to accept far less than his opening offer, but he wants to control the range.
Scott Adams of Dilbert fame wrote a fantastic blog post about this recently.
Takeaway: The person who makes the first offer gets to control the psychological range of the haggling, much as the person making the first move in chess gets to set the initial direction of the game.
5. Use misdirection
Trump is loud, brash, and seems to get riled up fairly easily. I’m pretty sure it’s nothing but a carefully orchestrated act. In fact, watching Trump, I’m reminded of watching videos of con artists and mentalists such as Apollo Robbins.
Takeaway: The ability to control what people focus on puts you in a position of immense power. You can throw people off their game, send them on wild goose chases or rob them blind. In the case of Trump, you can lead your opponents and the media around by their noses while winning over the masses.
At the end of the day I believe that Trump is a brilliant showman and businessman, and there’s a ton to be learned from watching him spin his web. But there’s a great difference between being the CEO of a company and the president of the United States.
A president is an envoy, a representative of the people and a diplomat above all else. Who we put in that office tells the rest of the world a great deal about what we value, the type of behavior we respect and how seriously we should be taken.
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