The Trump Phenomenon: 5 Pluses And 5 Minuses

This blog was originally published on Forbes as The Trump Phenomenon: 5 Pluses And 5 Minuses on Sunday, April 17, 2016.

Donald Trump’s front-running position in the Republican primaries is constantly attributed to his long experience as a reality television performer, but he often ignores and/or violates accepted best practices that other presidential candidates—and successful presenters—have leveraged to success. These violations take place in how he delivers his messages. In this age of pervasive video access, personal appeal, or the “aura of personality,” as he described himself to the Washington Post, is vital.

  1. Trump’s eyes scan rather than connect with his audiences. Bill Clinton’s trademark technique is to make audience members feel as if he is speaking to them directly.
  2. Trump points. Pointing is a threatening gesture. To avoid pointing, John F. Kennedy was known to curl his forefinger into his palm in what became known as the “credit card insertion” gesture.
  3. Trump makes faces. Experienced negotiators, as he often proclaims himself to be—and poker players—know the value of deadpan expressions.
  4. Trump clutches the lectern. In the iconic Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, Richard Nixon clutched his lectern with white-knuckle intensity which, along with his darting eyes, came across as “Tricky Dicky.”
  5. By his own admission, Trump doesn’t prepare. He often gives vague answers to direct questions. In what may have been a pivotal moment in the campaign, during a televised town hall earlier this month, he bobbled a question about abortion, one of the hottest issues in the campaign (the subject of my prior Forbes blog) and had to reverse his answer after the broadcast.

How then does he overcome these messenger handicaps? With his messages? Hardly. He swerves his positions on issues like a daredevil skateboarder. Consistency of messages or slogans is the first commandment for politicians, marketers and advertisers. Granted, Trump claims that he is going to “Make America Great Again,” but he frequently shifts his explanations of how he is going to do that.

With his media savvy? Yes he dominates the internet and airwaves, but his real power comes from his ability to go under the surface of both message and messenger to touch the deep basic human drives of the public. Twentieth century psychologist Abraham Maslow famously identified these feelings as the five basic needs: Physiological, Safety, Belonging, Esteem and Self-Actualization. Today’s successful social media companies—Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Slack—leverage these dynamics as an essential element of their business models. Here’s how Donald Trump addresses them:

  1. Physiological necessities: air, food, drink, shelter. He promises to preserve Social Security and to cancel foreign trade agreements to preserve American jobs.
  2. Safety. He wants to build a wall to keep out Mexicans and ban Muslim immigrants.
  3. Belonging. He tweets constantly to his more than 7.5 million Twitter followers (although Justin Bieber has almost 65 million).
  4. Esteem. In January, Politico published a story theorizing that Trump’s primary appeal is to authoritarianism. The story had more than a quarter million shares and was widely quoted by many professional media pundits. It was written by Matthew MacWilliams of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who defined the term: “Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened.”
  5. Self-actualization: the desire to realize personal potential. In Networkone of best 100 films of all time, the main character is a television anchorman who becomes a huge sensation by tapping into public anger when he proclaims on air, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Donald Trump has become a “yuge” sensation by tapping into that same public anger and proclaiming—over and over again—that he can “Make America Great Again.”

That slogan again. Given his pluses and minuses, can he and will he deliver on his promise?

This blog was originally published on Forbes as The Trump Phenomenon: 5 Pluses And 5 Minuses on Sunday, April 17, 2016.