While being otherwise shockingly incompetent as a candidate, Trump has been highly successful in nurturing and leveraging the sense of injury and grievance in millions of Americans, and focusing it on resentment of the “other”—immigrants, foreign terrorists, and violent criminals who are from minority groups.
The most straightforward approach to showing that Trump is wrong about the threat of the “other” is to document factually that these threats aren’t what Trump claims. And indeed basic fact checking shows he is wrong:
- Immigrants, including those who are undocumented, in fact commit less crime than natives, and immigrants are a net plus for the economy.
- Violent crime overall is way down over the past thirty years.
- Terrorism, while a serious threat, has been controlled well enough by current efforts that you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than attacked by a terrorist.
Yet facts and logic seemed to have failed to move a large part of the electorate. Why?
A number of old and new insights on the psychology of persuasion can explain why in some situations the facts don’t matter—and what it takes to make them matter.
The oldest insights on the effectiveness of persuasion are Aristotle’s three modes of influence: (1) the credibility of the messenger; (2) the emotional appeal of the message; and (3) the force of evidence and logic in the message (ethos, pathos and logos in the original Greek).
On their own, evidence and logic most often fail to persuade. However, when logic and evidence are combined with credibility and emotional appeal—Aristotle’s first two factors—evidence and logic can have crushing power.
Indeed, we have all witnessed in this election season how the joining of evidence and logic with emotion and credibility can defeat mere emotional appeals, when Khizr Khan demolished Trump at the Democratic National Convention this summer. Khan held up a copy of the U. S. Constitution, referring to the facts of its guarantee of freedom of religion, and to Trump’s violation of that guarantee by urging a ban on Muslims entering the country. Khan had impeccable credibility as the grieving Muslim parent of Hamayun, a soldier who had heroically sacrificed his life to save his fellow soldiers—dying in defense of the principles of the constitution. Then, with Ghazala, his wife and mother of the hero silently grieving by his side, he waved the constitution and, trembling with indignation, denounced Trump: “Go and look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.” If one of Trump’s Republican rivals had used the same facts and logic during the primaries, the attack would no doubt have failed to stick. But with the Khans’ unquestionable credibility as grieving parents of a true hero, and the emotional appeal of his message to any American who loves his country, it was unanswerable.
The Clinton campaign has been focused on attacking the credibility of Trump. However, Trump still has going for him a powerful force: his ability to seize the agenda of public discussion through a daily barrage of provocative and outrageous comments that the all-too-reactive news media are eager to cover.
The influential expert on persuasion, Robert Cialdini, explains in his new book, Pre-suasion, why seizing the agenda is so important. Cialdini argues that what is done to set the stage before an effort at persuasion has a powerful impact on its success or failure. For example, before you try to make a case, you can “pre-suade” by channeling the person’s attention to one issue, to the exclusion of others.
Cialdini explains the book’s core idea in an autobiographical anecdote. As a shy young man, he learned palm reading to help him mix in at parties. He was astounded by his own success, and especially how enthusiastically people agreed with his readings. Could he really be that good? He decided at one party to test what was going on. He read the palm of one young man, and told him that the lines showed he had a strong stubborn streak. The fellow had thought about it for a few seconds, laughed, and said “You pegged me!” An hour later, he called the same fellow back, read his palm again, and told him the opposite: he was an exceptionally open-minded and flexible person. The young man thought a moment, smiled, and said, “Yes, I guess I am.”
Cialdini realized what had happened: when we focus all our attention on a single factor, we tend to look for confirmations of that, and see that factor as causal of other phenomena as well. In reality, of course, everyone is somewhat stubborn, and somewhat flexible. So whatever the young Cialdini would suggest, the person would find some confirming examples in his or her own life, and go away agreeing happily. They would not look for contrary evidence. Research in psychology has found that this is an important general principle. Cialdini calls it “channeled attention.” Some of the effects of focusing a person’s attention on one thing are to overestimate the importance of that thing, to look for only confirmations, and to ascribe causal power even when none is in fact there.
In the sphere of politics, an example of channeled attention is what political scientists have called “agenda setting.” They have found, Cialdini reports, that the news media do not directly influence the public to vote one way or another. But what the media chooses to report can effectively influence what the public thinks is important. And this focus, as Cialdini documents, does significantly sway people.
Simply by repeatedly reporting on Trump’s latest outrageous comment about minorities or immigrants, the media serve to validate this agenda. And when a significant percentage of voters repeatedly hears about claimed threats from foreigners or minorities, they will start to look for confirming examples—which Trump has been happy to supply. They will then start to see the foreigners as a cause of their problems, and become resistant to any conflicting information. And this is exactly what has happened.
To seize back an agenda requires a rival agenda that has at least the persuasive force of the agenda that is to be displaced. And those who are pushing it forward need to appeal to the strengths and weaknesses of the news media so that it gets their attention and coverage. This, so far, is what Clinton has failed to do.
In late May, when it was clear that she would win the nomination and Trump would be her opponent, Hillary Clinton adopted the motto, “Stronger Together.” This motto has real assets. It implicitly rejects the hyper-individualistic “greed is good” philosophy behind the trickle-down economics that Republicans, including Trump, have advocated. It also is authentic, consistent with Clinton’s character and history as a policy maker. Also it is true: cooperative effort is in fact necessary for domestic peace and for building a strong economy. However, the slogan fails rhetorically to change the agenda. For a start, it doesn’t tell us what we need to be stronger together for, and so has no clear policy vision. It does not tell us what to hope for and so to pursue and what to fear and so to combat. Its emotional appeal is not strong enough. And most unfortunately, the slogan can be read as merely taking sides on Trump’s agenda. In effect: “Trump says that we need to beat down the immigrants and minorities; I say we need to help them.” While Clinton is right that we need to help all, and to be on the side of the angels, Trump’s issues are not the central issues the country faces.
Clinton can seize the agenda from Trump, and be extremely persuasive, if she promotes her programs as creating “opportunity for all,” an agenda that works on all three levels of persuasiveness.
First of all, it works on the level of facts and logic. As I summarize here, economic histories in the past decade have revealed that public investment in infrastructure, education, and research and development have always been necessary to spur economic growth. And reducing financial burdens on the poor and middle class, through higher education subsidy and social insurance, help to spread the opportunities to all. And these are the heart of Hillary Clinton’s economic proposals, and the histories show that sustained growth has always involved government leadership and investment.
The credibility of the message of opportunity for all through investment—and of Hillary Clinton as the messenger—are also both strong. Clinton has had a constant interest throughout her adult life in programs that would help the next generation. This long view is something that uniquely government can do, as its priorities, like the family but few other institutions, go beyond the current generation. Thus these commitments are authentic to her character, having never changed when a lot else has, through learning or changing times.
The emotional force of the message is more challenging. The message of opportunity for all is a vision of and promise of greater prosperity and better life options. However, I am under no illusion that we can count on hope alone to conquer the demagogic appeal to fear and anger. Cialdini emphasizes that threats take priority in getting people’s attention—in seizing the agenda. Or as former Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney put it, “In politics, Madame, you need two things: friends, but above all, an enemy.” In this case, who is the enemy? It is not the enemies that Sen. Bernie Sanders successfully labeled and rode to acclaim, though not to victory. Government should not eliminate Wall Street, big corporations, and rich people, but rather regulate and tax these in a way that channels their efforts in directions that are beneficial to society. The enemy is actually Republican ideology and those who support it. These are often of great wealth, but not all wealthy people. To quote Theodore Roosevelt, the enemy are still the “malefactors of great wealth” who have supported policies which enrich the wealthy in the short term at the expense of others, instead of growing the economy to benefit all. This ideology is the “three cuts”—of taxes, regulations, and government programs—which have been bleeding the country. The tax cuts have had a reverse Robin Hood effect of redistributing income from the poor and middle class to rich individuals and corporations. The deregulation gave finance a license to steal. And the blockage of government programs has prevented it from building opportunity for all.
Clinton’s most effective message will combine hope and the urgency of meeting a threat. It will urge a positive program of investment in people and the country, and contrast this to the threat of the destructive agenda of conservatives. If she hammers every day on both the positive message of opportunity for all and the negative message of the threat of the Republican policies, the news media will have to cover these issues. She will seize the agenda, and win.