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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Misunderstanding Donald Trump

Trump's promises are merely negotiating positions. He has no intention of actually doing any of that great stuff.

I have no particular opinion for or against Donald Trump as a candidate, but it does seem to me that Trump's approach is widely misunderstood among the commentariat.

We all know Trump sees himself as a master negotiator. But lots of commentators, unfamiliar with his type, have missed the implications of that.

I've worked with people like Trump for years. They differ from ordinary people in two notable character traits: narcissism and slipperiness. Everything they say is designed to get them what they want. To them, the actual words and their intrinsic meanings are irrelevant. To many people, that might sound like the definition of a sociopath, but in reality it is how a master negotiator works and how he wins. (And I say ‘he’ deliberately; almost all of them are males.)

A master negotiator will start out with the most extreme, outrageous position he can. If the opposition sees it as a legitimate point of view, it is a success. The negotiator is halfway to his goal. He can then bargain his way to a much better agreement than if he simply stated up front what he wanted.

Republican elephant logo with 100 dollar bills A clue

For example, when Trump says he'll put a 45% tariff on China, that is his bargaining position. And it's a good one. You couldn't very well negotiate from zero up to 45%, but going from 45 to zero is easy, and if the opposition thinks he's serious they'll have to make concessions to get there. Almost everything Donald Trump has said so far is in this mold.

This really upsets those who are accustomed to the usual way of doing politics. Some people are in a panic thinking he's a loose cannon who'll do crazy stuff. The UK parliament, for instance, took his plan for a moratorium on Muslim immigration seriously. They went into a P.C. panic, accusing him of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism, and even debated banning him from entering the UK—a position that would have been embarrassing for their country should he win.

But more likely the opposite is true. No one can really ever know whether he's serious about anything he says.

Trump is not Islamophobic. One can imagine that he probably knows that such a thing as Muslims exists, but all that matters to him is that he can say something about them to achieve his goal.

His defiant reaction to these attacks strengthens him with the voters, but he is merely pretending. The idea that he would actually do any of the things he promises probably no more enters his mind than it does to your sociopathic boss who promises to give you a big raise if you will work through the weekend for the next few months.

In his mind, your boss may sincerely believe he's telling the truth. But when you ask him about the raise, he always has some excuse that, in his own mind, convinces him that he was not really lying: “We don't have enough funds.” “We're in a crisis right now.” Never “I was just lying!”

Trump uses the same strategy against his opponents: first saying something outrageous, like calling a fellow candidate pathological, then saying the opposite. The only conclusion one can reach is he doesn't mean either; everything he says is for effect.

In politics, as soon as one is out of diapers one learns never to say anything that can be used against you. If you ever contradict your previous position the news media will nail you for being inconsistent. This is not how negotiators work. If you are confused about the negotiator's position, it works in his favor.

You cannot believe a master negotiator when he flatters you. He will praise your work one minute and then fire you the next, along with all your co-workers. Criticism and praise, truth and falsity, are merely tools to achieve the effect he wants.

In business we can usually assume that what he wants is for his company to succeed, or at the very least for himself to prosper if and when the company goes down in flames.

But in an election it poses an obvious problem for the voters. How do you decide whether to vote for a guy when all his stated positions are likely to be merely bargaining positions? How do you even know that running for president isn't just a huge scheme to, say, make a leveraged buyout of General Motors? What, if anything, does Trump really stand for?

With a master negotiator, there is no sure way to know, because the last thing a negotiator wants you to learn is his goal. He will use misdirection, lies, and every other trick to keep the opposition from discovering it.

And guess what: you, the voter, are the opposition. If Donald Trump has a position on some issue, we will learn what it is in due course—when and if it is in his interest to tell us.

At the beginning I said I have no particular opinion about people like Trump. Maybe that's not really true. I'm just used to them. The people I knew who were like Trump all believed themselves to have been spectacularly successful and rigorously honest. They were not. They became fabulously rich, but their narcissism blinded them to the fact that most of their ideas were bad, and they left a trail of disastrous deals, wrecked careers, and bankrupt companies in their wake. And they had enemies up the wazoo.

His opponent Ted Cruz promises to abolish the IRS. He can't possibly succeed, but at least he's being honest. He will try. He's motivated by sincere conservative ideology. I've been surrounded by narcissists all my life. Give me an ideologue over a narcissist any day.

Update, March 01, 2016: There are now rumors that Trump has admitted to the New York Times that this is indeed his strategy. You heard it here first.

Update, March 04, 2016: After the March 3 debate it looks like many others have figured this out as well. See here and here.

Update, March 07, 2016: New paragraphs added, figure added.

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