Trump is manipulating people with his communication style, and I do not approve.
In my coaching work, I strive to help leaders be clearer about their intentions, more authentic in their communication and more resonant in their presence.
What President Trump is doing with communication, however, is dangerous, manipulative and disorienting and no matter what your political affiliation, you should be concerned.
For the past two years I have followed Trump’s behavior with some professional interest. I have watched the tweets, the debates and the press’s reaction to Trump’s attacks with a mixture of curiosity and awe. Since the election, I have read interpretations of his rise to the presidency as a natural reaction to economic pressures, a distrust of Hillary as a candidate, a result of designer media (Fox News, Breitbart, MSNBC) which serve to create information bubbles for voter groups, and a rejection of the “out of touch elite.”
Perhaps all of these have some truth and in normal circumstances we could talk about those elements, but what concerns me the most about his success as a political candidate is his communication style.
“Gaslighting” is a term that originates from the movie of the same name that came out in 1944.
In the film (which was originally a play written in 1938), the main character George convinces his new wife Paula that she is losing her mind by hiding various items that they own and blaming her for taking them. The premise for George’s behavior is to control Paula and keep her dependent on him so that he can look for jewels that were left hidden in her aunt’s house. He continues to deceive her, always creating new situations that make her question her own sanity or her ability to trust others. The “gaslight” is in reference to the flickering of the light that occurs every time George sneaks into the attic to look for the jewels or to steal another item. (When the other lights are turned on in the middle of the night, her own gaslight flickers.) This is her only evidence that someone else is doing the stealing in the house.
The term “gaslighting” is even used by psychology professionals to explain that type of abusive relationship. Here is what Stephanie Sarkis PhD of Psychology Today describes as the eleven characteristics of someone who is gaslighting:
- They tell blatant lies.
- They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof.
- They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition.
- They wear you down over time.
- Their actions do not match their words.
- They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you.
- They know that confusion weakens you.
- They project.
- They try to align people against you.
- They tell you or others that you are crazy.
- They tell you everyone else is a liar.
This is not a cute metaphor to discredit Trump’s presidency. It is what he is actually doing. Think about how often he accuses people of being corrupt (while refusing to completely cut ties with his business), how he attacks characteristics that one might consider sacred (calling John McCain a loser for being captured during war), how his actions don’t necessarily match his words (“Drain the swamp” while appointing Mnuchin, former partner of Goldman Sachs as head of Treasury), how he undermines people’s authority by mocking them (accusing Robert Gates of being a clown) and how he wears us down over time (look at how often he used the term “crooked Hillary” or how consistently he calls CNN “fake news”). He is quick to attack on the slightest discrepancy, then act like the victim on the slightest attack against him. He is unafraid to use big emotional words like “tremendous” “huge” and “beautiful” while also being unafraid to use ugly language like “nasty woman” or “Little Marco.” The effect is disorienting.
Trump is using an entirely new set of rules for communication, and no one yet seems to know how to respond. We cannot simply mock him (he is better at it than we are) and we cannot simply argue with him (for reality is interpretive to Trump). We cannot rely on people to speak up because everyone is confused by what is happening. From a rhetorical standpoint, he is winning the battle for the narrative.
Here is one example of how he is doing this from his tweets:
Most of the response to this has been on the absurdity and pettiness of the tweet. People have mocked him for both delegitimizing his own election results and for blatantly making up facts. None of that stuck, and I want you to see why:
Donald Trump is king of primacy and recency or the “serial position effect”, the ability grab an audience’s attention by putting your most salient points at the beginning and end of your statements. The rhetorical structure of this sentence is designed to leave you with authoritative affirmations (“in a landslide” and “I won the popular vote”). The use of “In addition” is a way to get you to roll from “winning the Electoral College” to “in a landslide” which in turn gets you to land on the declaration “I won the popular vote,” as if it were a fact. “If you deduct” is a nice way to posit how he arrived at the fact that he won the popular vote because it leaves it up to the reader to choose, which can appear to be reasonable.
When he ends with “illegally” it not only feels like a true statement, it is also closely associated with the “people who voted.” Language like this is simple, clear and evokes feelings people often have about unfairness in the political system (see complaints about 2000 election results). This tweet is a wonderful example of how simple rhetorical tools can be used to confuse and redirect the public’s attention. If you agree with him, you are assuaged. If you disagree with his reality, then you are confused.
If you are rolling your eyes because it is just a tweet, you are missing the point. This structure works every time. Ask advertisers, salespeople and (yes) political consultants who have used primacy and recency to persuade and convince people to feel and think a certain way. This is a rhetorical device that communication experts teach people to keep their main points in the audience’s mind, and it works.
Match a device like this with the willingness to cause confusion, and you have a powerful tool. No amount of fact checking will work because he will simply create more confusion by denying ever having said it.
This isn’t about politics. It is about control, confusion and power. Language is the key and he is using it masterfully.
Politicians and reporters keep trying to act like things are normal, but this is not normal. The rules have changed. Confusion is the game.
A gaslighter wants you to hold others accountable while leaving himself blameless, and he wants you to doubt everything that you believe to be true. Pretty soon we will all be grateful for him to tell us what reality is, if just to be relieved of the confusion.
We are being manipulated by a master, and Trump is using the power of language and the illusion of authenticity to do it.
We cannot exaggerate, we cannot ridicule, we cannot win at his game.
The only way to win is to verify a common reality, name his bad behavior without shaming him (he is the master of shaming) and be absolutely clear about what we want and what we believe to be important. We must be brave and we must be impeccable if we are to avoid going too far down this path.
We have to learn to hold him and ourselves accountable before we lose our ability to tell what is real.