When you are trained in the ways of persuasion, you start seeing three types of people in the world. I’ll call them Rational People, Word-Thinkers, and Persuaders. Their qualities look like this:
Rational People: Use data and reason to arrive at truth. (This group is mostly imaginary.)
Word-Thinkers: Use labels, word definitions, and analogies to create the illusion of rational thinking. This group is 99% of the world.
Persuaders: Use simplicity, repetition, emotion, habit, aspirations, visual communication, and other tools of persuasion to program other people and themselves. This group is about 1% of the population and effectively control the word-thinkers of the world.
If you’re a trained scientist, engineer, or other technical person, you might use data and reason sometimes, especially while others are watching and checking your work. But off-duty – and when it comes to anything important – we’re all irrational creatures who believe we are rational. At least that’s how trained persuaders see the world.
You can easily spot word-thinkers when they talk about politics. Their go-to strategy involves identifying enemies and fitting them into whatever category matches their biases and cognitive dissonance. Look for this form:
Persuaders know that most people are word-thinkers, so a big part of political persuasion involves defining people to be in or out of a certain category. This creates a substitute for thinking that the public likes. It makes them feel as if they used data and reason to form opinions.
For example, Trump is trying to frame the election as Americans versus outsiders. To Trump, you’re either in the American category or you’re a threat to those who are, in terms of money or violence. You will note that Trump has avoided calling Clinton liberal. That category lost its power. But Trump has defined a “crooked insider” category for Clinton and makes sure you know she’s in it.
Clinton has avoided calling Trump conservative, because the label wouldn’t fit. Even conservatives have a hard time putting Trump in that category. But if the alternative is Clinton, conservatives will hold their nose and accept him in their group.
Clinton’s strategy – which has worked well – is to put Trump in the boxes that are labelled sexist, racist, science-denying, and Hitler. That’s too many boxes for the purposes of good persuasion. Persuasion requires simplicity. So team Clinton tried to create an overarching category called “hate,” in order to assign Trump to it. They even used the “love trumps hate” slogan. Trump has tried to get out of the hate box by talking about love and doing a lot of hugging.
The most annoying strategy of the word-thinkers and their master persuaders involves defining a group by its worst members. Democrats label Republicans as racists because some Republicans are. Republicans label Democrats as useless and greedy because some of them are. The facts are not important.
The big risk with word-thinking during an election – with all the analogies and categorizing – is that the public starts to see the world in those terms and act that way. Clinton’s message has been that America is divided by race and gender, and suddenly we see a horrifying uptick in police shootings because it fits that world view. That blood is on team Clinton’s hands (my side), in my opinion. My guess is that the genders also have a more negative view of each other than at any time in history. That’s coming from my team as well.
Trump, on the other hand, is drawing us a picture of America as one team and everyone else as the competing teams. In terms of persuasion, this is a super-strong message, but only if he hammers it home at the GOP Convention.
Have you ever noticed that professional sports teams are great at overcoming racism and getting everyone to play together? That’s because the coach has persuaded the players to see the team as their dominant identity. Trump can do the same with America. Just tell us we’re on the same team, and that we’re in a friendly competition with the rest of the world. I don’t care what gender and ethnicity you are, so long as you’re with me on the American team and helping to compete against the rest of the world.
The words “Team America” would be the strongest persuasion this country has ever seen. That framing loses the xenophobia and hate, and defines us as part of a friendly competition with the world that is good for all. The only downside is that Team America is the name of a hilarious puppet movie. But I think we can get past that.
I’m on Team America. If you’re on my team, I don’t need to know anything else about you. We’re good.
*I endorsed Hillary Clinton, for my personal safety, because it protects me from the anti-Trump word-thinkers in my state. But my political preferences don’t match any of the candidates for president.
If you don’t watch too many puppet movies, you might enjoy my book.