By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
The late Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers and Donald Trump have had two things in common: similar names, and their skillful use of a similar communication technique when running for their first major offices.
After starting the 1970 governor’s race in obscurity, Bumpers defeated the old guard in his own party, including former Gov. Orval Faubus, and then beat his obviously well-financed opposing party candidate, Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller. The charismatic Bumpers frustrated his opponents with his issues-free, platitude-heavy campaign, leading Vice President Spiro Agnew to say in Fort Smith that he offered little more than “a smile and a shoeshine,” as recounted by the Arkansas Times’ Ernie Dumas.
Bumpers is hardly the only elected official to rely on broad themes rather than specific policy proposals, and this is not a criticism of him. The American people look for big ideas and shared values knowing that political candidates can’t or won’t keep their campaign promises, anyway.
And that brings us to Trump. The other night, Scott Adams, the creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip, told TV host Bill Maher that, far from being the shoot-from-the-hip buffoon that a lot of intellectuals think he is, Trump is actually a master persuader who will beat Hillary Clinton in the fall.
Adams, a trained hypnotist and student of persuasion, recognizes some of the communication techniques Trump is using.
One of those techniques D-Trump is using is the same one used by D-Bump in that 1970 race: vagueness. Like Bumpers then, Trump speaks often in generalities – we’re going to start winning at these trade deals, we’re going to make America great again – which gives opponents fewer targets. As Adams earlier told Reason magazine, “Sometimes you want to tell the story in a way that lets people fill in the blanks with whatever would make them the happiest.”
Why put so much stock in Adams, a comic strip artist? Because he first predicted Trump would win on Aug. 13, 2015. That’s back when the other 16 Republican candidates and their high-paid political consultants either were expecting Trump to flame out, or they were building their strategies around being the last candidate standing against him. It’s back when Nate Silver, who everybody in the political world thought was some kind of data-driven prophet because he correctly predicted all 50 states in 2012, was saying Trump had little mathematical chance.
And it’s about the time when, after Trump insulted Sen. John McCain and other prisoners of war by saying he likes people who weren’t captured, I wrote dismissively, “So that’s probably enough about Donald Trump.”
Before a mob of Arkansas Democrats attack, let’s be clear that “vagueness” may be the only similarity between the early Bumpers candidacies and Trump’s current one. For example, Bumpers avoided insulting his opponents, at which Trump is quite good. Adams says that when Trump started calling Jeb Bush “low energy,” it effectively stuck to him partly because that’s a new insult in the political world. Now he’s helping shape public opinion by referring to Clinton again and again as “crooked Hillary.”
Adams isn’t just saying Trump, who wrote, “The Art of the Deal,” is good at this persuasion stuff. He told Maher that Trump is “taking a flamethrower to a stick fight. There’s nobody using the same tools he’s using.” Among those tools is “anchoring,” or presenting something big and visual to give his audience something to think about. While others debate fuzzy illegal immigration policy, Trump describes a big wall. And when asked in a debate about his previous demeaning comments about women, Trump replied that he was referring to “only Rosie O’Donnell,” which made his audience see her and her personality, not him and his.
In the same way Nate Silver’s data-driven analysis was proven to be imperfect, so too can Scott Adams’ skills-based one. Clinton enters the race with advantages, including the fact that states with 242 electoral votes have voted for the Democrat in six straight elections, leaving her needing only 28 more to win. Every election cycle, the country’s demographics move in a direction more favorable to Democrats. And voters, after electing the country’s first African-American president, may still be in a history-making frame of mind and ready to choose a woman.
On the other hand, that’s the same kind of analysis that led people, including me, to dismiss Trump before, until he closed the deal on the Republican nomination.