The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

The Futility of Trump Analysis

Image Credit NY Times

Image Credit NY Times

The question on everybody’s mind, I think, is: “What is Donald Trump actually going to do?”

A great many words have been written on this subject and a great many of these words have been written by people whose business is words. Which means that the vast majority of this analysis is simply useless. As I’ve been saying since the earliest stages of the campaign, focussing on what Trump actually says is not particularly useful for determining either what he means or what he intends to do. With Obama, parsing and analysing his every word was often worthwhile. Obama is a rhetorician and career politician. He speaks (and probably thinks) in policy-making terms, which means that there can be precise and specific meanings to be mined from his lightest comments.

Trump, on the other hand, has spent most of his life selling big, visionary projects. While the two disciplines are related, they are still entirely distinct in that the goals relating to the use of language are subtly but significantly different. The effective language of politics is about making quite narrow and technical concepts sound broad and appealing whilst avoiding inadvertent commitment to the impossible. The effective language of sales is about persuasion, personal bonding and desire, with specific meaning sitting very much in the back seat, while commitment isn’t even in the car. And whatever else he is, Trump is a consummate salesman.

In his recent touch and love session with the New York Times, where he attempted to heal some wounds and use his corporate slugger charm to win them over, some very direct questions were asked of him and his answers recorded in transcript form. In response to repeated questions about whether he would pursue the prosecution of Hilary Clinton, for example, one of his responses was:

“No, no, but it’s just not something that I feel very strongly about. I feel very strongly about health care. I feel very strongly about an immigration bill that I think even the people in this room can be happy. You know, you’ve been talking about immigration bills for 50 years and nothing’s ever happened.

I feel very strongly about an immigration bill that’s fair and just and a lot of other things. There are a lot of things I feel strongly about. I’m not looking to look back and go through this. This was a very painful period. This was a very painful election with all of the email things and all of the foundation things and all of the everything that they went through and the whole country went through. This was a very painful period of time. I read recently where it was, it was, they’re saying, they used to say it was Lincoln against whoever and none of us were there to see it. And there aren’t a lot of recordings of that, right?

But the fact is that there were some pretty vicious elections; they say this was, this was the most.

They say it was definitely the most vicious primary. And I think it’s very important to look forward.”

This is classic fast sales talk. The majority of these statements don’t actually mean anything, they’re not obviously connected in any way and they’re certainly not designed to convey any specific information. It’s about persuasion – delivering an impression of character. A flood of words to make the speaker seem forgiving and reasonable, delivered apparently willy-nilly and with, I think, a fairly transparent effort to confuse and distract – to derail forensic questioning. The structure of this response is, in its own way, masterly.

We start with a “No, no,” which sounds very much like a direct answer to the question, but which is immediately qualified into meaninglessness. This qualification leads to a crude and largely meaningless segue into immigration and health, followed by the payload – the statement that Trump actually wants to deliver: namely, that the campaign has been vicious (the implication being that things said during it shouldn’t be taken too seriously). Then there’s a joke, and then finally we have the answer, which isn’t actually an answer at all.

If you can be bothered, you can examine the full transcript here, where you’ll see that all of his responses broadly follow this pattern. It’s a sales talk. He’s not trying to tell us anything, he’s really only interested in how we feel about him. I still think this is the most significant factor in his success, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, and I don’t understand why so many analysts are failing to understand this. But as far as analysis and prediction goes, I think it’s my job to say what nobody else in this clickbait, instant gratification culture wants to say. Predicting Donald Trump’s actions on the basis of his sales pitch is impossible. We’ll have to capture a great deal more of what he has to say before we can determine exactly what he means and, by that time, he’ll probably already be doing what he always intended to do. Which is kind of what sales patter is all about.

Category: Politics


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