The Vitamin Scam, the Art of Seduction and Rick Santorum: How I Finally Understood the Trump Phenomenon
Google these exact words, in this exact order: “Donald Trump is an idiot.” Two things will happen. First, you’ll experience a very brief moment of satisfaction. Second, you’ll get an avalanche of results.
That Donald Trump is an idiot is a widely held view, one I shared for a long time. I’ve recently learned, however, that Donald Trump is not an idiot. He might even be a genius.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying this to comfort you. In fact, I mean to terrify you. And I’m going to tell you something else that will make you laugh hysterically, right up to the moment it makes you cry: Donald Trump is seductive. And those of us who have resisted his charms thus far better start getting our heads around this fact or we will never beat him.
How did I come to understand this?
Bear with me. I think it’s helpful to hear the whole story.
They’re Falling for THIS?
For most of 2015, I averted my eyes from the GOP primary spectacle, figuring I’d tune in when Donald Trump finally went away. (I know, right? So adorable how I thought that.)
I couldn’t completely ignore Trump, of course. He’s like a popup ad that takes over your computer screen. The kind with audio and flashing animation. Sometimes you just can’t find the little “x” fast enough. But it was mostly background noise.
Like many Republicans, I awoke sometime in January with a creeping sense of dread and decided I’d better start paying attention. To that end, after being continually exhorted to “Listen to his voters!” I tuned in to the February 25 debate in Houston, prepared to hear what the fuss was about. And …
OMG … W. T. F.? They’re falling for THIS?
I’d seen enough headlines to know something of Trump’s shamelessness, misogyny and arrogance. But until that debate, I hadn’t realized the depths of his ignorance.
It was like watching a remake of the movie “Big.” In the original, a twelve-year-old boy awakens in a grown man’s body. In “Big II,” the boy is a bully and he’s running for president. He knows nothing about policy, so to prepare for The Big Debate, he picks up a few stray facts and memorizes some poll numbers, then marches onto the stage and blusters his way through. He wraps random facts in superlatives and stream of consciousness. When pressed for substance or called on inconsistencies, he interrupts, name-calls and boasts about his popularity.
Trump’s behavior was so childish, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the words “I’m rubber and you’re glue” had come tumbling out of his mouth.
Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz smoked out his petulance that night. They pointed out his vaporous “policy proposals” and highlighted his hypocrisy on key issues — especially immigration, supposedly his supporters’ top issue. So while it was thoroughly depressing, I felt some measure of relief. Now that people had heard they truth, they couldn’t possibly continue to support him.
That’ll be it, right?
Yes, well… We all know how that went. It didn’t work. Nothing works. It’s not “Big II.” It’s a zombie apocalypse film. The Trump campaign is the thing that can’t be killed. No matter how many times his true colors are exposed, his supporters stand firm.
What the hell is going on? I was at a complete loss.
Then I had a memory — the vitamins!
This led to a talk with my friend, Charlotte.* Things became clearer.
Trump and his Disciples in the Pyramid Scheme
Donald Trump’s vitamin scheme is one of the lesser known of his failed enterprises. In 2009, he bought a company called Ideal Health, which sold nutrition products, the most prominent being the custom vitamin –“created just for you based on a simple, yet complete in-home urinalysis test!” The science was, to put it nicely, dubious. Equally sketchy was the distribution system.
Trump Network, as Ideal Health was renamed, was a Multi-Level Marketing company (MLM). MLMs are often called “pyramid schemes.” Distributors don’t make money so much by selling the product (in an illegal pyramid scheme, there isn’t even a product to sell) as by recruiting others to sell, getting them to do the same, and so on. The more your “downline” makes, the more you make.
Think Amway. Or think Herbalife. Or, better yet: Think of that person you liked until she signed on with an MLM and … You can’t believe the money I’m making! You really should get in now. No, it’s TOTALLY not a pyramid scheme! This is different. The products are amazing. Did I mention how much money I’m making?
Before Trump Network, I’d scarcely known anyone involved in an MLM. Suddenly I couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a neighbor, former colleague or friend who had signed on. (Protip: A swinging cat will, in fact, ward off an MLM recruiter, like a cross to a vampire.)
My friend Charlotte also knew several people who’d gotten involved, but she was resisting their attempts to recruit her. She’s not really the type. She isn’t particularly motivated by money. She worked from home already, so wasn’t enticed by the promise of freedom. Though she assumed Trump was successful, (“didn’t everyone just know that?”) she wasn’t a fan of his. And her friends seemed just a little too rah-rah.
“It almost sounded like a cult,” she said. **
But when her friends invited her to a Trump Network convention in Miami she went along, but mostly because … Miami!
The convention highlight was Donald Trump himself, addressing the 5,000 distributors in attendance. Charlotte went into the speech still skeptical, amused by how enraptured everyone seemed just by the prospect of hearing from this blowhard.
She came out sold, raring to go.
Six years later, I still remembered Charlotte’s strange enthusiasm. In an effort to understand the hold Trump had on his voters, I asked Charlotte to meet for coffee. I brought along a copy of his remarks from that night in Miami.
This is going to be something that’s really amazing. Really amazing. I want people to be successful. I want people to make a lot of money, and I want people to enjoy it, because if you don’t enjoy it you’re not going to be successful…. Blah, blah and blah.
“How could this have worked on you?” I asked her. “It sounds like Pabulum.”
“I know, it looks like B.S. on paper. And it turned out it was B.S.,” Charlotte said, laughing. “But he knew how to reel people in. They’re all about dreams. He was so confident, had so much authority. He convinced us he wanted to make our dreams come true, that he could make our dreams come true. He’s really seductive.”
“Seductive?” I almost spit out my coffee. “Are we talking about the same man — weird hair, orange skin? Seductive?”
“Yes, seductive,” she insisted. “I’m not talking about sexual seduction, although he’s probably good at that, too. I mean like what a sociopath does. He’s brilliant. Even I was taken in.”
Charlotte’s half French, so I tried to convince myself that was the half doing the talking, but it felt like puzzle pieces were sliding into place. I had the sickening sense she was right.
“So you think he’s a seductive conman.”
“Yes. A seductive conman. We were his mark. And you know how it is when you’re seduced. Once you’re in, you’re in.”
She lifted her shoulders in a little Gallic shrug, as if to say, “C’est la vie.”
Straight from the Instruction Manual
The word seduce comes from the Latin word subducere. It means “to lead astray.”
In an effort to comprehend the idea of Donald Trump as a seducer (I know — really hard to do) I got my hands on the bible of would-be seducers, a nearly 500-page manual called The Art of Seduction by Robert Greene.
The book was eye-opening. One of the first things I learned (besides how glad I am it was published three years after I got married) was that “Seduction is a game of psychology not beauty.” Well, that cleared one thing up.
The second was that entire populations can be seduced. Thousands of years ago, priests and prophets gained favor because their charisma gave them an appearance of having a “direct communication with God.” With more modern mass seducers — the Napoleons, Robespierres and Lenins — it’s “the force of their magnetic personalities … They didn’t speak of God but of a great cause, visions of a future society. Their appeal was emotional.”
A successful seducer will have boundless confidence and “appear to be an object of desire… If many have succumbed to your charms there must be a reason.”
This was beginning to sound familiar.
Greene deconstructs elements of successful seduction into twenty-four tips. I read through them to see if any aligned with how Trump has approached the electorate. Virtually all of them did, to some extent. And it began with the first and most important rule: Pick your target well.
The Object of his Seduction
Rick Santorum, in his 2014 book Blue Collar Conservatives, asserted that Republicans would have won the White House in 2012 had so many conservative blue collar workers not stayed home. Santorum, former Senator from Pennsylvania and grandson of a coal miner, knows these voters well.
When I heard Donald Trump read Santorum’s book, I had just watched two debates. At that point just the words “Donald Trump read” would have surprised me. But he read it, all right. And not only that, he asked the author to meet with him to discuss it. They got together one day in New York, a meeting Santorum described to Fred Barnes at the Weekly Standard.
“Trump,” Santorum said, “liked the idea of being concerned about working men and women who have lost the opportunity to have the good-paying jobs they used to have.”
Did you catch that? It wasn’t, “Trump was concerned about working men and women.” Trump “liked the IDEA of being concerned.”
Trump had found his mark. From there it was textbook seduction.
Sweet Nothings, Passion and Taboo
The Art of Seduction tells seducers to “use the demonic power of words to sow confusion… Say what they want to hear, fill their ears with whatever is pleasant to them… Inflame people’s emotions with loaded phrases.”
Trump is a master at this. We, “the unseduced,” hear, well… idiocy. To the seduced, it’s passion and sweet nothings. Blue collar conservatives are nostalgic for simpler times. They feel helpless, and yearn to feel empowered.
Santorum’s book contained specific policy prescriptions, but as Trump’s debate performances show, it is only in the crudest sense that he cares about these. He is almost pathologically incurious about policy. It’s just fodder for the rhetoric of his seduction.
Trump’s glibness and self-assured tone soothed the blue collar conservatives. He “filled their ears with pleasant phrases.” It’s easy. No problem. Believe me.
His victory speech on the night of the New Hampshire primary is a perfect example:
We’re going to make America great again… the old-fashioned way … We’re going to beat China, Japan, beat Mexico at trade … We’re going to use the finest business people in the world. We are going to do something so good and so fast and so strong and the world is going to respect us again, believe me … We’re going to build a wall. It’s going to be built. It’s not even — believe it or not — it’s not even a difficult thing to do.
It’s the married seducer to his prospective mistress. It’s all going to be great. I’m going to fix everything for us. We’ll have a great life together. Believe me. Now let’s go get that hotel room…
This wasn’t the only trick.
“A perfectly satisfied person cannot be seduced,” Greene tells us. Seducers should “stir anxiety and discontent.” Yes, Trump tapped into some existing anger. But he has stoked it again and again. He convinced the targets of his seduction they were in an existential battle against “The Establishment,” and he’s gallantly taking up his sword on their behalf.
What really sent a shiver up my spine was this tip from Green’s book: “People yearn to explore their dark side.” Seducers should “stir up the transgressive and taboo.”
This is the most diabolical of Trump’s rhetorical seduction tricks, his appeal to people’s worst natures. Ban Muslims. Round up and deport eleven million illegal immigrants. Refer to Mexicans as “rapists.” Suggest protesters be roughed up. “Knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously” “I’d like to punch them in the face.”
We unseduced see this as deeply irresponsible, the antithesis of leadership. But Greene says this kind of talk is “immensely seductive.”
“I know words. I have the best words,” Trump said.
How we laughed.
It’s a potent cocktail: Trump’s overweening confidence, his selection of the perfect segment of voters to target, and the masterful seductive rhetoric he used to woo them. Just a few sips would lure many voters. But a few additional ingredients increased its potency, almost to the level of a sure thing. Like a political roofie.
The first is freedom from any core beliefs. Normal politicians obsess over polls and change positions for expediency’s sake. They’re politicians. But they’re at least nominally animated by ideology, somewhat identifiable as Republicans or Democrats (and the odd Independent).
Donald Trump has no discernible beliefs. He’s not a Republican or Democrat. How freeing! He can say whatever he wants.
Which brings us to another ingredient: that he will say whatever he wants. Trump is as unburdened by shame as he is by ideology.
The final ingredient? He’s catnip to the press. They not only adore, but fear losing access to him, a fear he uses to great advantage. With the equivalent of two billion dollars of free media, he’s unshackled from the laws of gravity that weigh down a normal campaign. He doesn’t have to raise money.
To summarize: He knew who to seduce. He knew how to seduce them; what to say and how to say it. He is willing and able to say anything. And the media amplifies it free of charge. That’s a powerful cocktail indeed. He stirred it up and slid it down the bar to the voters.
And they drank.
Once They Were in, They Were in
Trump is candid about the devotion of his followers. (He’s candid about a lot of things, if you listen carefully).
“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Like all good seducers, he knows, as Charlotte put it, “once they were in, they were in.”
This is bewildering to the unseduced. How can they excuse him?
Put aside the ridiculous and impossible policy proposals. Ignore for a moment all the lies and hyperbole. Don’t even consider the fact that nothing in his history, right up to the point he ran for president, suggests he means anything he says.
Look just at the revolting comments he makes, like what he said about John McCain:
“He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Shouldn’t it all have stopped right there? Seriously. Screeeeeech! STOP! He issued a rare (and tepid) apology after that one, but the few supporters who had cared about it forgave him immediately.
To my unseduced thinking, the fact that his brain can even form such a repulsive thought about a war hero should be disqualifying. And that’s just one example.
I couldn’t understand, but Charlotte did.
“If you have ever been truly seduced, you know. You’ll excuse anything your seducer says, the very things you would have always found repellent,” Charlotte said. Experts who study sociopaths and cult leaders also know this.
“When we’re seduced,” Robert Greene tells us, “We grow emotional, lose the ability to think straight, act in foolish ways that we would never do otherwise.” We are more “pliable and easily misled.”
For all practical purposes, a seduced person is a crazy person.
If you’ve never been in the thrall of a seducer or a narcissist, maybe you still can’t relate. Well, travel back a little farther, to high school, or even grade school.
Remember that popular kid? The seductively popular, charismatic one, the one who might have, say, casually mocked a disabled classmate?
Remember when you laughed?
It’s Not Just Them
“It was just this particular moment,” we said. “These particular voters. These particular circumstances.”
“Look, he’s found his ceiling!”
“Oh, darn. Okay, maybe that wasn’t his ceiling, but this will be…”
We underestimated him, and I fear we’re still underestimating him. He will keep seducing. And not just “low education voters,” and probably not just Republicans.
Look at Chris Christie and Ben Carson. Conventional wisdom says their endorsements of Trump just proved they were more nakedly opportunistic than we thought. I’m sure ambition played a (big) part. But I believe they were also seduced.
When Christie dropped out, Trump invited him to dinner, with the wives. Trump knows Christie. He’s been watching this mark for a long time. He worked him.
It might not seem very lover-like that Trump humiliated him the very next day. “Get on the plane and go home, it’s over there,” Trump said, pointing as one might to a dog. Lie down!
But that’s straight out of The Art of Seduction: “Try inflicting some pain. Instigate a breakup … A rapprochement, a return to your earlier kindness, will turn them weak at the knees.”
It’s iconic now, the image of Christie on Super Tuesday, standing in the background while Trump bloviated. “His were the eyes of a man who has gazed into the abyss, and the abyss gazed back, and then he endorsed the abyss,” Alexandra Petri said, in the Washington Post. I think for a very brief moment, Christie realized he’d been seduced.
Carson flat-out described how he was seduced. When Carson met with him, he discovered the “other” Trump, the “more cerebral” one. It’s all shtick, Carson said, for the campaign. Ha Ha! Isn’t it such a jolly jest?
All the terrible things Trump had said about him (Trump likened Carson to a child molester!) … forgotten. The day after his endorsement, Carson was saying we didn’t have to worry too much about a Trump presidency, “It’s only four years.”
I’m telling you, he was seduced.
I know what you’ll say. I’m letting them off too easy. All his supporters, but especially Christie and Carson and the others who should know better. I’m implying they’re victims — “without agency,” to use the current parlance.
I am not saying that, and I never will. To explain is not to excuse. We are accountable for our choices. That’s where character comes in, what separates man from beast. But it is critical we understand this man’s remarkable powers. If we don’t, we can’t fight it — in ourselves, if no one else.
Just watch. He’ll court more lawmakers. People we admire, and from whom we expect more, will begin to relent, a phenomenon National Review’s Jonah Goldberg recently likened to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” They’ll start to fall like dominoes.
What Do We DO?
The unseduced have been casting about for a message that will sway people from Trump. But facts don’t work. Seduction is emotional manipulation.
Honestly, I don’t know what to do with someone who is already in Trump’s thrall. I have to leave that to cult experts and psychologists. I’m afraid at this point all we can do is put our finger in the dike. The first step is for all as-yet-unseduced people to have the humility to acknowledge we’re all vulnerable. Even Democrats.
Yes, I’m talking to you, too. Sure, he’s scary now, but pretty soon he’ll be blowing a different dog whistle, and the frequency will be closer to the one your ears pick up. You’ve got some armor — a rooting interest in your team, the fact that many of you support your (likely) nominee. Schadenfreude (for which I really cannot blame you) is also an antidote. But be wary. Seriously. He’s that good.
So how to arm ourselves? I’m open to ideas, but here are a few to start us off:
A buddy system. Pick a friend. Pledge in writing to stand firm on opposition to Trump. Agree each has permission to slap the other across the face (or “kick the crap out of him,” to use Trump’s words) if he backs down.
Use vanity. No one likes to publicly say they were wrong. Make a very public anti-Trump declaration that would be embarrassing to reverse.
Daily Reminders. Make a list of Trump’s comments that most offended you and post them on your refrigerator.
Mantras! He refers to women as “pieces of a**… He refers to women as “pieces of a**.” Recite regularly.
I’m joking (sort of). I obviously don’t have the answers. I just know we have to stop him somehow. Here’s why:
We know Trump is not animated by a political philosophy. So here’s the question of the year: What is animating him? (Besides attention, of course.) What’s he after?
Maybe it’s primal. Maybe he’s just doing this thing he does instinctively and so well. The con has to find the mark, lure him in. The seducer has to seduce. Maybe he didn’t really expect it to get this far.
But what if it’s something else?
I’m not sure any of us wants to learn the answer to that question.
*Charlotte’s name has been changed because, as she put it, “I don’t mind a little notoriety, but dear God, not for this.”
**Cult experts actually study MLMs because they display so many cultish characteristics. They’re often led by charismatic individuals who don’t sell a product, but rather a dream of a better way of life. Doubters are labeled “losers” or “dream stealers.” Sound familiar?