A debater’s take on Trump
How communication theory explains the Trump candidacy
Marco Rubio ended his bid to be the Republican nominee for the presidency after losing his home state of Florida to the insurgent force that is Donald Trump. The loss of Rubio from the field leaves only the “shut-down-the-government” junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, and the “unable-to-gain-any-traction” Ohio governor, John Kasich, in the fight against Trump. What in the hell has this race come to?
These were the thoughts running through my mind on a particularly bumpy flight from Little Rock to Denver just last week. I still have trouble wrapping my mind around the incredibly successful Trump campaign. Never have I seen a less presidential candidate. A man who has the gall to instigate violence at his rallies, denigrate women, the disabled, minorities, and consider his chances of getting away with murder on live television does not deserve the highest office in America. Still, some say that Trump has what it takes to turn America around, to truly “make America great again”. All I have to go off of is what Trump tells me, namely that he will make some “great deals” and there is going to be a “hell of a lot of winning” when he is commander in chief.
So, in the absence of any concrete policies that Trump supports, save building a huge wall that Mexico will pay for, I was left on that two hour flight to ponder just how someone like Donald Trump might actually win the nomination of a major party for the presidency. He was the most unpersuasive politician I had ever experienced. Nothing that he said made sense or formed a coherent argument in support of a Trump presidency. But that kind of thinking was the exact reason I was missing how others might actually find him persuasive. I, a four year member of the nationally recognized Whitworth University Speech & Debate Team, have always been surrounded by people who analyze every aspect of communication. Debaters excel at deconstructing a message and its messenger, exposing weaknesses and assessing its veracity. But these people with whom I compete around the country do not represent the mindset of the average American, who doesn’t spend the time necessary to unpack his messages. It seemed Trump was successful at persuasion without actually making a good argument, because the people he was persuading weren’t looking for a good argument.
It seems to me that Trump relies on the general feelings of the people he is appealing to. As such, he constructs messages that exploit those feelings and allow individuals receiving those messages to take mental shortcuts in analyzing them. Trump is therefore heavily relying on his supporters to not think about his messages, but to feel them.
So what feeling is Trump playing on? It seems obvious to me that a general feeling of anger underlies the Trump campaign. He is targeting people who are angry or upset at the way things are going in Washington. He relies on this sentiment to fuel his message of an outsider businessman coming into the White House to set things straight. He vaguely parallels his business ventures (leaving out his multiple bankruptcies and ruthlessly unethical, despotic, and nepotistic business practices) to being the leader of the free world and relies on simple slogans like “make America great again” and “great deals” and “I’ll win”. Trump’s image is one of wealth and success, anti-political-correctness, and change. But how can an image without any substance be enough to secure the nomination? How can Trump be so persuasive when, to myself and my speech and debate colleagues, his arguments are incoherent?
Had I discovered a flaw in persuasion? Perhaps I had found some new rhetorical technique in which one flatly denies reality and says whatever gets the largest applause, and it’s deemed persuasive. It turns out that this is not the case. What I had stumbled upon was not a new explanation of persuasion, but one that explains why some people are content with accepting what an objective analysis would find as illogical or irrational argumentation. It’s called the Elaboration Likelihood Model. This model of persuasive communication helps us to understand why some people can listen to the same argument and come to vastly different conclusions, and it also helps to explain the unprecedented success of the Trump campaign. More importantly, I see a solution for this problem through teaching our kids to be careful analyzers of communication by teaching them the art of speech and debate.
The elaboration likelihood model deals with the deconstruction of a message when received from some source. Upon encountering a message, a receiver determines if he/she has a) the motivation and b) the ability to process the message centrally. Motivation includes ideas like personal relevance, importance, and need for cognition. Simply put, people who are motivated to process centrally tend to find the issue personally important or require a higher degree of cognitive clarity, a term that describes a person’s need to understand something well. If one is motivated, the next step in central processing is to determine ability. Ability involves having the requisite prior knowledge or experience on the issue and having the time or resources to process the idea. If either of these conditions for central processing are not met, an individual will revert to peripheral processing.
Whereas central processing involves careful analysis of a message, weighing of evidence, probability, comparison with prior knowledge and experience, and considering ideas counter to the message proposed, the peripheral route serves as a shortcut to thinking intently. It relies on cues not necessarily related to the veracity of a message, things like a speaker’s attire or vocal patterns, emotional appeals, popularity, or authority.
And so, here I came to the realization that the Trump candidacy was a modern day example of the power of peripheral route persuasion. Trump’s supporters likely lack the motivation and/or ability to process centrally, or in other words, to think critically about his campaign messaging, so they revert to peripheral processing and miss the real message that Trump is sending.
So where does speech and debate come into play? As I sat in a theories of communication class and listened to the explanation of the elaboration likelihood model for the first time, the options for peripheral route processing all stood out to me because I had heard them in the context of debate before. They were all logical fallacies, ideas that would be thrown out in a debate round because they appeals to invalid logic. Here are some of the most common peripheral route strategies:
1. Authority- a speaker appeals to their own or another person’s expertise on the issue at hand, often without any other evidence. This is identical to the fallacy argument from authority. Trump commits this fallacy when he makes the jump that being an expert at business will make him an expert at being president — just ask him.
2. Consistency- a speaker supports a claim by reasoning “that’s the way it’s always been done”. This is identical to the fallacy argument from tradition. Trump’s campaign slogan is the perfect example of this type of thinking. “Make America Great Again” appeals to the idea that America has strayed from some ideal, traditional place, and that we ought to return to that state.
3. Social proof- a speaker supports a claim by reasoning that if other people support the claim, the claim is true. This is the classic fallacy called bandwagon appeal. Trump’s continued appeals to his shockingly high poll numbers are seen by Trump and his supporters as a logical reason why people should vote for him, even though popularity does not prove his messages to be true.
4. Scarcity- a speaker supports a claim by reasoning that the claim presented is the only option available, or that people must act quickly to gain the benefits of the claim presented. This most closely matches the logical fallacy called false dichotomy, wherein a claim is presented as an alternative to another “terrible” option that is untrue or deliberately excludes other viable options. It may also have elements of the straw-man fallacy, wherein a speaker paints the claim of another party as something that it isn’t, and then defeats it easily. Trump’s use of scarcity may be a bit more subtle than his other peripheral route strategies. It comes out in his claim of being the “only” candidate to do X, where X is something he says nobody else in the race has experience doing. For example, Trump claims he is the only GOP candidate with business experience, and that voters have a choice to choose him or someone who will inevitably lead us down the road to bad business policies. Here we see both a false dichotomy in that the choice voters have in Trump vs. not-Trump is not necessarily business experience vs. non-business experience, and straw-man in that while the other candidates may not be business magnates like Trump, they of course each have their own experience with business as legislators, governors, and citizens.
5. Irrelevant emotion- a speaker appeals to emotion to support a claim. This is identical to the logical fallacy argumentum ad passiones, or argument from passion. Much of Trump’s nativist rhetoric relies on the appeal to emotion — fear in particular. A common subtext that could accompany many of Trump’s speeches on immigration might read: those who don’t look or talk like us are are dangerous, subversive.
It seems obvious to me that Trump is inviting us, knowingly or unknowingly, to process his campaign messages by the peripheral route. In my humble experience with the American public, I have found the vast majority of people to be inclined to process peripherally, especially when it comes to politics. For whatever reason, Americans are not motivated to keep up to date with politics, and very few have the requisite prior knowledge needed to understand the issues fully. Therefore, it seems that Trump’s success can largely be tied to people who appreciate his flair, emotion, and illogical appeals that reduce their need to think critically. That being said, make no mistake in the argument that I am making. Trump supporters are not stupid people. Rather, they have (wrongly) shirked the duty of responsible voters to centrally process the information they are receiving from Trump, which has led them to support a candidate that most objective observers would assess as having no business running for president.
What’s interesting about persuasion by peripheral route processing is that it doesn’t tend to last. When someone weighs evidence and critically analyzes an issue that leads them to a conclusion, the conclusion tends to last a long while and is resistant to change. Beliefs drawn from peripheral processing tend to only last while the peripheral cues are present and are not strongly held. By this reasoning, we might expect for the Trump fervor to die down if he were to tone down his eccentric style or fall more in line with standard political operatives. But that’s the sinister nature of the Trump campaign. He doesn’t need his voters to think critically and form long-term opinions in his favor. Rather, Trump needs his supporters to support him long enough to get him the nomination and perhaps even the presidency. In this light, I predict that Trump will only continue to escalate his antics as election day draws closer.
This should frighten us all. The Trump candidacy has hijacked our tendency to appreciate what is flashy over what is substantive. It’s this thought that ties it all together for me. On the speech and debate circuit, not just in the Northwest where I compete regularly, but across the country and particularly in the south, Trump’s arguments are not given any weight. His fallacies are seen for what they are — illogical and untrustworthy. It seems that an education in formal argument and rhetoric has buffered these students against being manipulated by the charisma of the Trump machine. To borrow from another communication theory, learning about argumentation and debate can provide the next generation of voters with the mental constructs needed to centrally process messages.
But having the mental constructs (think of this as the requisite prior knowledge to process centrally) is not enough. They must be used. It can be tiring to analyze information from political candidates. It requires a great deal of fact checking and careful consideration. But, by teaching kids how to think, we at least give them the tools to be able to think critically in the real world. We should be teaching our kids how to disagree civilly and to never shy away from expressing themselves, so long as they express themselves coherently.