Some commentators say Trump has weak debate skills (Example in Quora).
Yet not only he won the election, but he also scored major presidential debate wins against Clinton.
I believe that many people underestimate Trump debate skills simply because they don’t fit the mainstream idea of “great oratory”, which include large vocabulary, solid content and good structure.
And yes, Donald Trump deployed simpler vocabulary, not very deep content and a bit of an erratic structure. And to hell that, he used much deadlier techniques.
I’ve been looking mostly at the first debate and soon will add the other two, but 10 shrewd Trump power moves were already obvious:
- 1. Stay One Sided
- 2. Reframe Weaknesses as Strengths
- 3. Make Her Follow Your Lead
- 4. Make Her Agree. Then Attack
- 5. Lure Her In. Then Attack
- 6. Champion Discontent: Appeal to Emotions
- 7. Speak Over: Seed Doubt in Real Time
- 8. Get in The Last Word
- 9. Attack: Force your Opponent to Defend
- 10. Put Her Problem in Front of Yours
1. Stay One Sided
At the beginning of the debate Hillary tries to frame Trump as the lucky guy who made it thanks to daddy’s money. She does it well, cushioning it in a bigger topic as if were not a critic but a fact -matter of fact arguments tend to arise less suspicion-.
Now most people here would reply “I didn’t make it thanks to daddy, but bla bla bla“.
However addressing and re-stating the opposing view gives it more air-time and further impresses it in our minds. And a plurality of views makes people feel less certain about your own argument, casting more doubts and clouds on what you want them to believe and focus on.
Trump instead just gives his own view of the accounts, and does so naturally and smoothly, as if he wasn’t even replying to Clinton’s accusations.
2. Reframe Weaknesses as Strengths
Hillary tried to frame Trump and his wealth as the product of luck and something that puts him out of touch with ordinary people.
Trump reframes his wealth as the sign of business acumen which will allow him to fix the country’s problem.
It’s a typical sales tactic to take a weakness and find a way to reframe it as a strength, and a very effective one at that.
3. Make Her Follow Your Lead
This was the biggest and sneakiest power move of the whole debate.
“In all fairness to secretary Clinton, yes? Is that OK?”
He is confident and demanding enough to sound dominant, yet adds enough “sweeteners” to make it more likely Clinton will submit.
“in all fairness” sounds as if Trump was exempting Clinton from his critic, a nice gesture. He points at her with an open palm, a cross cultural sign of friendliness. He looks at her with his head tilted down and looking through his forehead -the “forehead bow”-, which is a signal of submission (The Body Language Project). And he nods his head, as if to incite Clinton to do the same.
Now the natural tendency when someone show friendly signals is to reciprocate (law of reciprocation), which Clinton does with both verbals -saying yes- and nonverbal signs -nodding her head and smiling, both submissive signs-.
Now Trump looks like the leader, and Hillary like the follower. That’s only the first part though:
4. Make Her Agree. Then Attack
Now that Trump has Clinton’s blessing and confirmation he then changes tack.
“good, I want you to be very happy“.
That’s a mix of dominance -dominant people move other people around and “take care” of them- with a demeaning touch. And then he proceeds to say Clinton did nothing for thirty years. All with Hillary’s implicit blessing.
Prince of Darkness kind of move.
Still convinced about the lack of Trump debate skills?
5. Lure Her In. Then Attack
“Make other people come to you, use bait if necessary” says Robert Greene in the 48 Laws of Power.
That’s what Trump does when he pretends to ask a question to Hillary. The question is extremely loaded, rhetorically asking
You’ve been doing this for 30 years, why are you just thinking of these solutions right now.
Hillary goes to reply, again following Trump’s lead.
At that point Trump’s strikes, cutting her off with a passionate “excuse me” as he keeps gushing forward.
Trump looks dominant, Hillary looks dominated.
6. Champion Discontent: Appeal to Emotions
But Trump doesn’t just look dominant, he also looks passionate, angry and driven to the right amount. He is successfully positioning himself as the champion of the average Joe mad at the political elites.
Political dark horses around the world often win elections by riding the wave of mass discontent. Politicians are often slow at changing and tend to cling to the status quo.
When waves of discontent and dissatisfaction ripple through nations the charismatic politicians rise to the top. These are the ones who look most honest and passionate and the ones who seem to possess hard and definite answers.
In this example Trump rides that emotional wave. Clinton attacks the tax cuts for the higher earners. Defending lower taxes for the rich is a hard sell to the non-rich majority. Why risk it with logic? Trump charges Clinton for being the typical politician all talk and no action, skirting a thorny topic and at the same time appealing to the disgruntled masses.
Sure, Trump doesn’t delight people with lofty rhetoric, but emotions trump logic in many a man’s heart, and that was one of the most effective weapons of Trump’s debating tactics.
7. Speak Over: Seed Doubt in Real Time
Some commentators implied that Trump’s speaking over Clinton’s time was the perfect example of the baseness of Trump debate skills -or lack thereof-. Some others said it was the perfect example of Trump losing his plot and hanging himself.
A few times he went overboard, but it was overall extremely effective. He used this technique with both quick retorts and longer sentences.
Some of Trump’s retorts have become defining moments of the election. With one single comeback here he hits Clinton’s at her most debilitating weakness: the idea that she’s crooked and dishonest (“crooked Hillary”, another genius Trump move).
If he had politely waited for his time to speak he would have missed on what has become the most famous moment of all televised debates.
Longer Voice Over
Trump takes any occasion he can to talk on Clinton’s speaking time to strengthen his point, weaken her point or muddle the waters to avoid Hillary scores a point.
A few more accomplishment of Trump’s voice over. He:
- Seemed the leader
Speaking over someone is what dominant people do. And while it can come across as too overbearing, it’s Hillary who made the mistake of making him look legit. She does it by replying to Trump on HER speaking time, thus acting like a follower and validating his intrusions.
- Set the agenda by steering the conversation
Hillary repeatedly falls for Trump’s interruptions by talking at length of HER issues. On the second debate they spent more time talking about emails -and old topic- than they did about Trump’s video on grabbing women’s vagina which was the newest, most talked about issue ever.
- More exposure for Trump, less for Clinton
It’s a known human tendency that what’s repeated more often also seem more true, and that works whether or not we are already informed on the facts. It’s called “mere exposure effect“, and works even when we know it’s not true (Fazio, 2015)! By using Hillary’s speaking time Trump also makes his point sound more true, all the while preventing Hillary of that same benefit.
8. Get in The Last Word
The recency effect tells us that we remember most what comes first and what comes last (Miller and Campbell).
By often insisting to putting in the last word Trump negates the win for Hillary and allows his point to linger on in people’s minds.
Look at this example where he uses the last word as a defensive mechanism. Clinton here was the one who made the great pungent retort when she said
“maybe because you didn’t pay any federal income taxes“.
That could have become a key moment of the debate and gone viral. IF she had paused and IF Trump had let it slip (like Hillary would have). But not only Hillary wasn’t shrewd enough to take advantage of it, Trump also mitigates it with the last word. His retort not as powerful as Hillary’s, but it’s extremely effective in taking the edge off Hillary’s zinger.
Note: Hillary didn’t pause because she was hell bent on making a more complex and logical point, which of course nobody remembered. If she had paused instead everyone would have remembered Trump is not paying taxes. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Again here is another defensive usage of getting the last word in, but with a longer speaking time.
Hillary was scoring a major point by making Trump look like he is irrational and making no sense, a very very bad frame for Trump. But by getting in the last word Trump brings the topic back on a serious tone, re-state his point as valid and largely negates Hillary a major win.
9. Attack: Force your Opponent to Defend
This was another extremely powerful tactic by The Donald.
Faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, he keeps attacking and, accomplice a meek Hillary, forcing her on the defensive.
Watch him in this video use all the last 3 debate techniques combined: interrupt, put in the last word and keep attacking
Yes he interrupts and he is reprehended by the moderator and looks slightly too aggressive. But knowing this was just a few days after the huge scandal of grabbing women by the vagina ask yourself: was he effective in driving Clinton on the defensive? Was he effective in muddling the water and getting off his huge issue? Was he effective in shifting the agenda onto Hillary’s issue and keeping it there?
That’s the result of a master debater, not someone lacking in debate skills.
10. Put Her Problem in Front of Yours
Trump handled well many accusations and issues with his campaigns. They called him racist, and he quelled it by visiting black churches, they called him dark, and he shrugged it off by being positive and upbeat.
He couldn’t shake the accusation of his tax returns though, and it kept nagging him all along. So what does he do when the conversation turns there?
He says he will release his tax returns after Hillary releases her email.
Notice a few things:
- Techniques Must Suit Personalities
Some of these tactics would have not worked as well for other politicians. They would have been counterproductive for Hillary, for example.
But Trump was just Trump being Trump. People knew he was brash, so while for some that still was overpowering, it was also genuine and sincere (something Hillary never appeared to be).
- They can Backfire
Some of these techniques could have backfired if only Hillary knew how to handle them well. We’ll go over it in a different post, but just as an example: nobody forced her to smile and nod at Trump. And if she had refused, that would have been her point (look at Obama refusing to follow the lead).
Read the part II of this series on how to win a debate.