Donald Trump: What’s the Rumpus?
SNA (Tokyo) — Host Michael Penn interviews scholar Nancy Snow about the persuasive techniques of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Penn: Hello, welcome once again to What’s the Rumpus? As usual, we’re here in The Pink Cow restaurant in Roppongi. Some customers are here, so you may hear a little bit of chatter and banging of glasses in the background, but don’t let that distract you. I don’t think that it will distract you because we have a very, very interesting guest today. This is Dr. Nancy Snow. Can you say hello to the audience?
Snow: Hi everybody.
Penn: First of all, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you? Why are you in Japan? What’s going on here?
Snow: I’m not running for office. That took me back to when one of the vice presidential nominees started a debate by saying, “Who am I, and what am I doing here?” I am a professor and a writer and a speaker, and my specialty is in branding and persuasion and propaganda studies. I came to Japan most recently in 2012. I was a Fulbright professor at Sophia. I thought that was it for the semester, but I subsequently got a research fellowship called an Abe, that lasted twelve months. So I did observational essays, looking at Japan’s globalization process, its connection with the world, its place branding, its nation branding, and that’s what I continue to do today. Now I’m affiliated with Kyoto Gaidai, or Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, and I also do some lecturing and visiting professorships, most recently at Qinghua University in Beijing, also in public diplomacy and nation branding.
Penn: Here on the table, I see that you brought some books that you’ve written. Can you show them these covers and explain what these things are?
Snow: These are my first two books, and actually, this is just the cover. I decided to go a little bit lighter in my bag, but this is called Propaganda Inc., and it’s based on my having worked at the US Information Agency in the first term of the Clinton years, Bill Clinton, not Hillary Clinton, who may be the next president. I was a cultural affairs specialist and academic exchange specialist, and I also did a stint at the State Department. But it was at that time, Michael, that I got especially interested in how countries are perceived around the world, and how they manage their reputation and public opinion. This was all at the beginning of the internet era, but before social media. So social media has really dramatically changed the outreach and also the feedback. There’s kind of a circular loop of constant chatter and communication that we didn’t have to deal with. This was my follow up, which is about the Bush administration’s efforts post 9/11 to manage public opinion, and to use propaganda in the lead up to the war in Iraq. Both of these were then published in Japanese about ten years ago, so I brought the Japanese covers as well.
Penn: You may know the latest news, which is that Donald Trump has just won a winner-take-all primary in Indiana, and Mr. Cruz, who was his main viable rival, has now dropped out of the race, so it’s all but certain that the Republican nominee for president will be Donald Trump of all people. As a persuader, from this point of view, I know you’ve looked into him and his style, how is it that this man has done this, and what does it mean, and what can we learn from it?
Snow: I thought he had a good chance even last summer. I remember a few reporters contacting me about Trump. It was all about his outrageousness and all of the crazy comments he was making. But, I saw the emotional buttons he was hitting early on. I’m very aware of him. Anybody growing up in the United States, and I grew up in the East Coast, you were aware of Donald Trump in the 80s and 90s. He wrote a bestselling book and many others, but The Art of the Deal is a roadmap to what he is doing now. He lays it out, very simply, just as his style is very simple. You love a good fight. You love competition. You use the sort of outrageous positions, but you leave the backdoor open or side door open. It’s a communication tactic. If he says something about women, he might then wrangle in Rosie O’Donnell, because the people he’s trying to reach are not going to like Rosie O’Donnell. So he’s going after his core constituency, which, this was the Republican primary. So he had to literally take people out. I’ve seen him at these rallies, which have continued to grow, where he says, “I took out dat dat dat,” almost like it’s a firing squad, to use his sort of metaphor. But with Ted Cruz, you saw a guy a week ago announcing his VP when he had no statistical chance whatsoever. It just fed right into Donald Trump’s hands. I think that anybody who underestimates him is making a mistake. I think he has a good chance of actually beating Hillary Clinton. I think in the end, she will win because of the demographics in those battleground states are in her favor.
Penn: Let’s get into specifically our issue here of messaging and propaganda and getting the message out. What are the advantages that Donald Trump has over Hillary Clinton? What skills does he bring to the table that maybe she can’t match?
Snow: Okay. He’s a billionaire. He started out last summer saying, “I’m worth about ten billion.” Of course it was inflated, and then the New Yorker. You exaggerate the position, and then you can pull back later, but what people remember, in terms of communication, is that he’s a billionaire. He’s self-financing. Politifact, which is no friend necessarily to Donald Trump, said that it’s actually partially true. Two-thirds of his funding has come from him, and he’s also been able to raise money. He’s not somebody who’s seen as so closely aligned with the special interests. Of course, he’s got his own special interests. He comes across as very unscripted, even though he comes out of television and his fourteen years with The Apprentice. He’s having a ball too. I think the energy that he has is very infectious. Hillary Clinton looks like she can’t believe what’s happening to her. She doesn’t look all that energized. The right is having a field day even with questions about her health, much less the emails. There’s been this fixation on her coughing fits. Little things like that become ticks, communicative ticks, in that they concentrate people’s attention away from her message. She’s also been around forever. She ran for president eight years ago. People know what her agenda is, and she’s had to deal with Bernie Sanders, which has been a much more formidable challenge to her than any of the people, ruling out the one hundred million that Jeb Bush spent, who were challenging Donald Trump. He also has this magic with the media. He talks incessantly about how much he finds the media disgusting. You know what, so do the American people. The American Press Institute just released its latest poll saying that about six percent of the Americans polled said that they could trust the media a lot. So by playing into how disgusting and biased the media are, people love that. They love the show. I liken Donald Trump to a nineteenth century, bombastic style of a P. T. Barnum. This was raised many many months ago. The reporter thought it would be offensive to Trump, but he rarely gets upset about these labels that people put on him. When they said, “You’re kind of like a P. T. Barnum,” all of these quotes, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” some of these legends around Barnum. He went along with it. He’s right. I’ve lectured about Barnum in my media classes, and part of the appeal he had was what was called a granfaloon, which was step right up, be a showman, get people all cued in, and then when they go around the corner, or go behind the curtain, they see that it doesn’t live up to what he was touting, and they’re in on the joke. Everybody sort of laughs at their own naivete. I think that Trump is doing this somewhat. He also has been able to use memes, and meme trafficking like nobody’s business. By that, I mean Hillary is not just Hillary Clinton. She’s lying Hillary, it’s crooked Ted, it’s low energy Jeb, it’s little Marco. These stick. Of course, for those who hate trump and who consider him a Putin meets Stalin meets Hitler, etc., he’s not trying to reach those people. He’s trying to hit the buttons of a lot of fear and anger that exists for real in America.
Penn: Okay. Let’s stop there. The language he uses. The words, the vocabulary is extremely simple and repetitive. Do you think this is as high as Donald Trump can rise himself, or do you think that’s a completely deliberate technique?
Snow: It’s deliberate. We have presidential candidates who are out there forever. It’s not like a lot of countries where they run for a few weeks. And that’s really when most people pay attention. But this is ad nauseam. He sticks to the simple languages and he repeats himself: “We’re going to build a wall. And they’re going to pay for it.” And it’s, “There are some good Mexicans, and there are some bad Mexicans.” He’s really just hooking people in who have felt like, “Yeah, there’s something going on here. I’m getting railroaded.” With his populist message, he’s had a lot of concert language with Bernie Sanders. He’s also said he would never support anybody like Bernie Sanders, but he was able to bring in Bernie Sanders and Bernie’s supporters by saying, “This guy’s getting railroaded too with this corrupt political system.” Even though Bernie Sanders has been a senator, he’s been in office a long time, he was always an outlier. With Donald Trump, because he has no experience in elected office, this has been just an incredible feat, even if he gets defeated, which I said I think she will win in the end, but he will really give her a run for the money. A month or so ago, I went to a lecture and a guy was so dismissive of Donald Trump, and was still laughing about him and his candidacy, and it was at that time when I said, I want to give a lecture on Trump, because he is worthy of a deconstruction of his message.
Penn: Let’s end on that point. I know you’re about to lecture on this. What is the core lesson that we should learn from Donald Trump? What has he taught us in these last months?
Snow: He has taught us to pay closer attention to how we come across in the art of persuasion, and to also realize that we’re not very rational creatures. We are more emotionally driven, we are emotionally impulsive, and most of the time, we’re on autopilot in our minds. If somebody can hook us in, and get us on his side, as he’s done, you’ve got a lot of surrogates who go out there, and they take charge, as we’ve seen many of the people who go to his rallies, they handle the protestors. They just become an extension of Donald Trump. Is he living a lifestyle like most of these Americans? Heck no. But that’s because we’re not really thinking rationally about it. They think that he really cares that they lost their job. In contrast, you got Hillary Clinton going to coal country, and looking very uncomfortable, talking around a table, trying to look very concerned, but her body language is like this, like, “Where’s the closest Chipotle.”
Penn: Is there a difference between this and Colbert’s idea of “truthiness”?
Snow: Not a whole lot different. Not at all. There’s also a term called “facticity.” Donald Trump lies like all of them do. You got to look at the whole political landscape. Give me somebody running for public office who’s a hundred percent pure, and I’ll stop doing what I’m doing. They all exaggerate, they all lie about their record or what they’ve done. He can explain away so well, all of his bankruptcies or Trump University. Again he loves the fight. He loves to go after people, he states this in The Art of the Deal, the lawsuits. If somebody wrongs you, you can’t just say, “I’m going to just be passive about it.” You’ve got to really go after them. With Hillary Clinton in contrast, she doesn’t really have the ability to be quite as humorous or entertaining. She doesn’t have that background of that showmanship. She’s an inside the beltway policy wonk, lawyer, and Trump has said in The Art of the Deal, he doesn’t like lawyers, he doesn’t like consultants, he doesn’t like a team of people around him. He says it’s ultimately your gut instinct, and this is back to emotions. Finally with Trump, the reason why I think people should not underestimate him, he’s going to of course, shift his tone. Of course, he’s going to be careful. He doesn’t want to lose the people who have loved the shows so far. He’ll shift it in the sense of, “Is he someone who we could really picture in the White House and on Air Force One?” Do you know Hillary Clinton’s campaign released an attack ad that shows him flying on Air Force One. Shows the Trump logo on the White House. In terms of persuasion, that’s sort of closing the deal. That plays right into Trump. I could see him actually using the ad to his favor, because it’s assuming that he could really take office. In a way, that’s going to probably backfire on her.
Penn: Well, thank you very much. I think we’ve already learned quite a bit. I know sometimes you go by the nickname, Dr. Persuasion.
Snow: Yeah, I’m @drPersuasion on Twitter, on Instagram, and also on Facebook, and I will be giving a talk on Donald Trump at Temple University Japan Monday, May 9, but it will be uploaded onto YouTube. It’s called “The Art of the Steal: What We Can Learn About Donald Trump, Persuasion, and Propaganda.”
Penn: Excellent. If I can be so bold, I would like to know if I can persuade Dr. Persuasion to have a dinner with us at The Pink Cow before we let you go out the door.
Snow: I think you won me over.
Penn: Alright. There we go. I’m sure you know The Pink Cow and the good food that there is here.
Snow: I love The Pink Cow. I love the Mexican food here especially. I wish we had more Mexican-type restaurants in Tokyo, but remember, I lived in southern California for fourteen years, so I’ve become a bit of a connoisseur.
Penn: And this is a Cal-Mex restaurant.
Snow: That’s right.
Penn: Well, our stomachs are growling, and we have some serious business to take care of, but that’s the end of our show, so thank you for joining us again this week. We’ll try to follow up in future weeks with equally stimulating guests, although I know that’s kind of hard, but we’ll do our best. Thank you very much. This is What’s the Rumpus? Goodbye for this week.