Do You Think They’d Let Me Pet Their Unicorns If I Asked?

Many Trump supporters literally voted for a person who exists only in their head.

I first realized that there was something strange going on with Trump and his supporters during the primaries when a seemingly normal man I’m connected to on Facebook shared a Trump ad saying, “this is amazing! Wow. If everyone saw this, Trump would win in a landslide. Finally, someone who gets it.” (Or something like that, I’m working from memory.) So I watched the ad. All it was was Trump making declarative statements like “I’m going to make America great again. I’m going to create so many great jobs. Defeat terrorism. Stop crime. Balance the budget. Etc, etc, etc”. And that was it. Just Trump listing things that would happen if he was elected. No explanation, no context, no nothing.

Normally I have quite a knack for seeing things through other people’s eyes, but I was at a complete loss. What in the world did this guy think he was looking at? Was he under the impression that other politicians were campaigning on making America terrible, handing it over to terrorists, destroying the economy and increasing crime?

My suspicion is that Trump has triggered deep, deep authoritarian programming in people who are susceptible to it. Some of this comes from his strange manner of speech. But my sense is that once this authoritarian programming is triggered, it pretty well puts people into a child-like trusting state of the sort that they experienced as children growing up in an authoritarian setting. (Researchers have found that Trump supporters tend to have strong authoritarian impulses which typically result from growing up with authoritarian parents.)

But whatever is going on here, it’s just bizarre. Maybe the zombie apocalypse is real. Because these people are not in their right minds.

Going High When They Go Low Isn’t How You Win; You Gotta Fight to Win

fight-to-winLiberals don’t know how to talk to or appeal to conservatives. And for whatever reason, they refuse to learn. Probably because they’re good Americans and in the words of that great American sage and cartoon character, Ed Wuncler, “We’re American. We don’t quit just because we’re wrong. We keep doing the wrong thing until it turns out right.”

There’s an interesting interview with cognitive linguist George Lakoff going around in which he discussed this problem. His thesis, essentially, is that it’s not so much policy differences that make Liberals so unappealing to conservatives. It’s that Liberals have erroneous ideas about how to win people over while Republicans have it down to an art form. He argues, and has been arguing for decades now, that Republicans are masters of messaging and framing while Democrats prefer to work from facts, idea and reason.

Basically, Republicans understand how people think about the world in real life because they approach politics from the perspective of marketing and communications. Most people reason from their emotions, their values and their worldview with facts, ideas and reason serving primarily to shore up what they already believe. If a fact, idea or reason doesn’t fit with their values, worldview or emotions, it will be dismissed or explained away because to do otherwise would require adjusting if not completely overturning the mental framework they depend on to function. Which is a much bigger upheaval than the simple admission of error and adjustment of opinion which liberals assume would be the response to encountering information which conflicts with current beliefs.

Liberals on the other hand, tend to rely on academic ideas about how people should think. The problem, of course, is that how we think things should work, generally has little effect on how they actually do work. It’s always going to be more effective to start with how things actually work and try influence change from that point of reality than it is to simply stand on how you think things should work and demand that everyone move to where you are. The Democratic insistence on working from facts, ideas and reason without learning the nitty gritty of messaging and framing which would allow them to show how their policies fit into or build on existing conservative worldviews dooms them to failure over and over again.

Probably the most glaring example of this failure on the part of liberals has to do with liberal’s unwillingness to fight. Somehow liberals seem to have decided that they are above fighting and they eschew it whenever possible in favor of trying to persuade or when persuasion fails, regrouping to try again. No where was this on more vivid display than during the aftermath of the election. Obviously, the election was close. And there were reports of serious discrepancies between exit polls and election results of the sort which are known to be possible indicators of fraud. And how did the DNC respond? They didn’t. It fell to Jill Stein to raise the money necessary to demand a recall in effected states. When it came time to execute the actual recounts, the RNC had lawyers crawling everywhere, challenging ballots and processes left and right while the DNC’s presence was barely visible.

After the recounts, there was still the hope that the electoral college might save us. Protecting the country from a foolish mob electing a despot is literally one of the reasons the founding fathers created the electoral college. We all know that if the roles were reversed, the Republicans would have mounted a coordinated, well funded campaign and media blitz to convince the electoral college to give the election to the winner of the popular vote. They would have been working it from any and every angle they could think of, no matter how outlandish. The DNC, however, did essentially nothing. Told us to accept that an apparently racist, unhinged, authoritarian con-artist would be running the country and move on for the sake of unity. What fight there was on that front came from private citizens and social media.

Not only is the unwillingness to fight bad strategy, it absolutely guarantees that conservatives will prefer voting for a dirty sock over a liberal. At least the sock has the temerity to raise a stink. Conservatives tend to place a very high value on community and loyalty. Part of that sense of community and loyalty knowing that someone’s got my back and will go to battle for me if need be. Someone who won’t even fight for themselves can’t possibly be trusted to fight for someone else. Liberals don’t know how to fight and they don’t want to fight. They seem to have eschewed fighting as somehow beneath them. They seem to have conflated fighting with “going low” and they want to be known for “going high”. But going high is NOT synonymous with refusing to fight.

The fear that liberals have – and I’ve gotten some of this pushback myself – is that by fighting we make ourselves no better than the belligerents who went to figurative war with Obama after he was elected. We’ll be seen as sore losers, they say. They worry that we’ll alienate people. And all of that is pure and utter rubbish.

From the conservative perspective, if you won’t fight, you can’t be trusted to defend. If you won’t fight, you’re not committed. If you won’t fight, you don’t really have confidence in what you’re saying. If you won’t fight, you’re not a person who can be trusted much less followed.

And yes, when you fight, you will be chided for being rude, for being stubborn, for sowing conflict. You will be accused of being a sore loser. You will be told that you’re alienating people and hurting your own cause. You will be told that you’re being unreasonable and pushy and unfair. You will be mocked and ridiculed and called names and told that you smell bad and your mother dresses you funny. Because that’s what fighting looks like; you put your truth out, people push back and see if they can get your to back down. So you double down, stand your ground and do exactly what your opponent tells you you must not do. In a fight you have to be indefatigable and creative and confidently certain as all get out. It’s a fight, not a prayer circle.

And here’s the thing about conservatives; by and large, they mean to be good people. They want to do right by people. They in no way intend to cause harm. And they want pretty much the same things that liberals want for themselves and our country. The problem is that on one side, you have this dishonest, manipulative, untrustworthy party who, by any reasonable measure, seeks power rather than the best interest of the American people. But they’ll fight you tooth and nail. They’ll wage a war on you that you aren’t even participating in and win three battles in the time it takes for you to learn chords to kumbaya or construct your next argument. They don’t care if their enemies get mad and say mean things about them. They’ll just use that as a badge of honor and a weapon to wield.

And whether liberals like it or not, whether they think it’s the way it should be or not, the reality is that fighting works. A lot of people simply feel safer throwing their support behind people who they can trust to fight for them in the face of threat over someone who may be right all the time, but don’t even have the wherewithal to fight for their own ideas and their own share of the power. It’s much easier to change the way people think by working with current reality than by just demanding that they change, after all.

So that’s the kind-of bad news for a lot of liberals. If they really want to win and have a shot at offering a serious counterweight to the unAmerican right wing radicals who have taken over our country, they’re going to have to learn to fight. They’re going to have to learn to absorb the blows, the criticism, the rejection, the accusations and nastiness that are part and parcel of fighting without shifting, moving or bending. They’re going to have to learn to dish it as well as they take it. And that’s damn uncomfortable for a lot of us.

A lot of people associate open conflict and the intense battles of a fight with those who are abusive, dishonest, manipulative and cruel. But you can be plenty abusive, dishonest, manipulative and cruel without fighting. It’s not the fighting that’s the problem. You don’t have to fight dirty, be dishonest, dehumanizing or even particularly harmful to fight. You just need to fight clever, judicious and strong. Because the good news is that if we fight, we’re going to win. The other side leans so heavily on dishonesty, cruelty and manipulation because what they’re fighting for is bullshit. Behind that strong, take-no-prisoners, fight to the death front, there’s not really much there that anyone actually wants.

On the issues, once you strip off the liberal label, the American people agree with us. They just can’t trust us or take us or any of our policies seriously. What good is having great policy goals if you don’t have the gumption to fight to enact them anyways? So we’ve got to step up and fight because if we don’t, we’re abandoning ourselves, our country and our neighbors to an abusive, dishonest, manipulative and cruel movement ruled by a racist, unhinged con-artist. If that’s not worth fighting over, I don’t know what is.

Why Donald Trump Talks the Way He Does – and Why It Works

Back in college, I made some halfway decent money selling high end knives in people’s homes. One of the perks of the job was that the company provided us with some pretty high quality training in sales, time management, motivation and the like. The managers were big fans of people like Tony Robbins, Dale Carnegie and Steven Covey and took turns giving talks sharing what they were learning from them with us. While the company’s business model was actually kind of bullshit, the training has served me well over the years.

Like at one of our training events, a manager explained that human beings have these things called mirror cells in our brains. And these mirror cells cause us to instinctively imitate each other. This is why small children imitate the people around them and why we are so susceptible to peer pressure – our brains are programmed and have special cells dedicated to the task of imitation. Further, these mirror cells are closely associated with empathy which in turn leads to bonding and a sense of closeness with another human being.

And then he explained a little trick which we could use to exploit this feature of human neurology/psychology in order to gain control of a situation with another person. If you match a person’s emotional energy levels, this tends to activate their mirror neurons. Because you’re mirroring their energy. Once you’ve done this, you have activated the brain’s automatic impulse to imitate and can actually lead the person into the emotional state you want them to be in. So if a person comes in panicking and you initial response is to match their state of panic, you can then gently de-escalate your own emotional energy to a calmer state and the person will usually instinctively follow your lead and calm down much more quickly than if you try to calm them down directly. It’s a nifty trick if you’re a decent person simply looking to help someone in distress, encourage someone or otherwise positively influence them.

Or you can, as my manager explained, use this trick to sell people knives. All you have to do is match their emotional energy and they will instinctively respond positively to you and more easily follow your lead. Nod when they nod, smile when they smile, mirror back their body language and everything in their instinctive brain will be telling them to like and trust you. The trick is particularly helpful when dealing with objections since you start by agreeing with the objection which is unexpected so any defense they have prepared will be sidestepped while the mirror reaction is activate. Then you can often lead them from that point of resistance to the point of saying yes.

Like I said, nifty trick. Unless you don’t actually want or can’t afford high end knives. Then you might think it’s a dirty trick. But probably not. People really hate to admit when they’ve been manipulated into acting against their best interests. So more often than not, customers who bought knives they didn’t actually want or couldn’t afford will set about justifying their decision to purchase knives to themselves and anyone who attempts to chastise them. They will recall the times they meant to start cooking more and decide that the knives are perfect for making that happen. They will admire the various features I pointed out to them and repeat the benefits I showed them to themselves while using them. In fact, everyone in the house will know why the handle is shaped the way it is because the person who bought them will tell anyone who will listen about it. They will push away any thoughts of the expense by reminding themselves that these knives are a once in a lifetime investment that they will use everyday if they actually start cooking like they always meant to. And they will remember all the items they wanted but didn’t purchase to assure themselves that they were actually quite restrained and frugal when in fact I had just sold a $70 knife to people who literally didn’t own furniture.

So what does this have to do with the way Donald Trump talks and why it works? Well, the thing is the dynamic I describe above is well known to most sociopaths. In fact, it’s a tactic that the most skilled of them uses at all times. People who have spent time close to or studied sociopaths often note that they seem to be acting all the time. The reason is that these people habitually mirror the emotional states of people around them in order to maintain their control over their interactions with them. Because there is literally nothing more important to a sociopath than being in control. Nothing. So they use this little hack to influence the people around them, except because they are sociopaths, they don’t really care if they are using it for good or ill. Their only objective is to cultivate their influence over others. Which will sometimes line up with what is actually good for the people around them and sometimes not. It doesn’t particularly matter to someone like Trump, just so long as he gets what he wants which is control.

Donald Trump talks the way he does because the point of his speech isn’t to convey information or make an argument. On occasion he may flirt with doing those things, but the real purpose of their speech is to activate those mirror neurons. He basically made a bet that he could use this strategy to gain the support of a particular type of person (what my husband calls the NASCAR nation – relatively affluent, proud redneck or wanna be redneck types who revel in being defiant). Yes, he’s telling them things they want to hear, but even more he’s reflecting their emotional state back at them and then manipulating it for his own purposes. Basically, the purpose of his speech is to create an emotional experience in the people he is speaking to.

The thing is that when we are “in our emotions”, our hippo-campus isn’t fully engaged. Our bullshit meter goes offline. Same thing with our problem solving skills. Our short term memory is altered, as is the process for creating long term memories. We are literally in an altered mental state at that point. So by basically pushing the buttons to put people into their emotions and then rambling in a way that makes it hard for his audience’s hippo-campus to find something to latch onto, he’s using a classic conman’s trick to gain control over his audience without them even realizing what happened.

And lest you think I’m exaggerating, making things up and attributing ill will to harmless behavior, I can personally testify to this effect. I’ve inadvertently done it myself with public speaking and training where have I caught myself momentarily rambling and not making sense and nobody even noticed. I would catch myself spewing out gibberish, talking in circles and look out into the audience and realize that no one looked confused or doubtful. And if I actually stopped and corrected myself, very few people would even remember the details of any of the rubbish I had just spouted. They were just on the emotional roller coaster I was creating for them.

Anyways, I think Trump has been practicing this form of manipulation for his own ends forever. Not everyone is prone to falling for it, but many people are. Those who are prone to falling for it think he’s a good guy because he makes them feel good. Those who aren’t think he’s a lunatic because he’s clearly talking gibberish. But those who are falling for it are in the same position that the people who didn’t actually want and couldn’t afford fancy knives were. They’re not going to admit that they’ve been emotionally manipulated. They’re busy shoring up their own evidence and justifications for what is the political equivalent of buying a $70 dollar knife while living in a house with no furniture.

And, it must be said that often the difference between those who are vulnerable to this kind of manipulation and those who aren’t lie in the types of buttons being pushed. One person is vulnerable to flattery and another is vulnerable to tough guy talk. Sociopaths are very good at recognizing the difference so they can push the right buttons with the right person. Trump went for easy targets whose foibles he understands quite well, but don’t be so sure that if he had decided that some other audience – possibly one that you belong to – would give him what he wanted, he wouldn’t have been able to do the same thing to them (or you).

So, how do you protect yourself from being manipulated by a sociopath (or a sales person) like Trump? First, you take signs that there’s something shady going on seriously rather than writing them off. Plausible deniability is the last refuge of the sociopath. They count on you ignoring red flags because you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt. So be sparing with the benefit of the doubt. People who genuinely deserve the benefit of the doubt are quite willing to provide evidence to support their claim to it. People who are trying to manipulate you will behave as if they are entitled to the benefit of the doubt. They will accuse you of being a bad person or uncharitable if you attempt to withhold it from them. Again, this is markedly different from how people who actually deserve the benefit of the doubt typically behave.

Second, get your own boundaries really clear in your head and don’t let yourself make excuses for walking past them. Be stubborn up front rather than on the back end after you’ve already fallen for some bull. For example, if you believe in equality, remain committed to equality even in the face of evidence which can be interpreted in such a way that it undermines equality. Trust that there is a better explanation for what you see than one which undermines equality. Give yourself credit and trust what your own judgment says when you’re not in the presence of someone who is trying to influence you. Which leads to my 3rd tip . . .

Don’t just tell yourself that you won’t fall for someone’s influence – you will. We are all susceptible at some level to influence. It’s part of our design – remember the mirror neurons? And it’s not a bad thing that we are able to be influenced by others. But get really clear on your own beliefs, values and principles so that once the thrall has worn off, you have a baseline you can return to. Once you’re back at your baseline, you can consider the arguments that made sense to you and adjust if appropriate. But you want to do that when you’re not “in your emotions” and your hippo-campus is fully engaged. (Interestingly, people who focus on social justice are less emotional in their thinking than people who are unmoved by injustice. So if you want to be sure you’re not just “in your emotions”, focus on helping those down the ladder from you. It will snap you out of it.)

As to what to do about those who have fallen for Trump’s mind games, well, they are likely beyond our influence, much less our control at this point. I’ll explain more on that later. They’re just not playing the same game that we are, so to speak. You can try the nifty trick of matching their emotions on them. It’s not fool proof. And everyone’s busy re-assuring themselves that they really did make a very good decision that they totally do not regret. But it does tap into something pretty innate in us. So it will likely work as well as anything else, although it does take some practice to do well.

“I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” ~ Matthew 10:16