The most intriguing spectator sport, for a media hound, is watching Donald Trump take advantage of a commentator’s need to be liked. It is a need predicated on one idea: that the host is not a sponge, or a scrounge. Trump’s been good to you. Now it’s time to be good to him. Do not betray him.
For after years of doling out favors to people in the media through generous appearances, Trump is calling in the chit. And if you don’t pay it back, you’re a leech, a bum. He gave you ratings. Now you give him all the time he wants.
I sit and watch, and I wonder: Is this genius engaging in the natural human reflex of reciprocation ... or is he exploiting the natural human reflex of reciprocation? Does it matter?
Trump’s run for president isn’t simply a campaign. It’s proof of the power of reciprocity – the most powerful tool of persuasion, as illustrated in Robert Cialdini’s great book, “Influence.” Cialdini wrote about it roughly 30 years ago, but it nails Trump to a T.
Trump’s amazing campaign is a door-to-door march, calling in the debts and obligations that conservative talking heads now feverishly believe they owe him. Trump is like that fella who calls in a favor months after he helped you change that tire, or move apartments.
Move apartments. In all honesty, Trump is that guy who helped you move apartments. It’s a metaphor, but for some in the media, it’s also literally a fact.
Here’s how it works: Trump shows up on your TV show, and you get eyeballs. Eyeballs translate into advertising, which makes you more money. And you get a bigger paycheck, which allows you to move apartments!
If you’re on an unsure path in TV, backing Trump creates a certain path. And a job. And a paycheck. Who can blame you for taking that role on? And who can blame Trump for exploiting it?
Trump understands people better than people do. He understands the value of the volunteered favor, the unsolicited outreach. The phone call, the plane ride, the free room, the nice tweet. He knows that when he reaches out, the obligation you feel to reach back is intense. (It’s innate, actually – part of being a human being).
None of these favors he offers comes without a price. And that price, it turns out, is your obedience, now, as he runs for president. Funny: His flattery is enough to convince you to make him leader of the free world.
It’s interesting to think of the pressure you feel over small favors as you contemplate an unequal one. My story: Donald called me a couple of times to talk to me about my Fox News show "Redeye." He might have been the most famous person I knew, ever, who called me out of the blue. So it excited me, and I bragged about it.
Later, when I did a speech at Mar-a-Lago, he flew me back on his jet. The perfect host, Trump planted my wife and me in the cockpit to experience takeoff and landing. He was charming, congenial, and ultimately, generous.
The point: He gave first. I never gave him anything. But his giving first created an impending obligation to give back – when a favor is called. I felt that pressure to reciprocate the moment I heard he was running. I wanted him to run. Did I want to support him? Being an advocate of no one, you will never know. But you can guess.
Generosity is important. In life, it’s what makes the world go ’round. Our lives are based on trusting our willingness to reciprocate. You help me fix my fence, I loan you my lawnmower. If you violate this relationship, word spreads fast. “Don’t lend Vinny your yard tools – he never gives them back.” We all knew “mooches” in grade school (sad to think that they might have just been poor).
Trump, the salesman, understands how sales works. He offers you something first, and if you take it – you owe him.
The cheesiest things known to man: those weird trinkets at sales conferences that are gladly handed to you as free tokens of generosity. A pen. A keychain. A Styrofoam cozy for your light beer. A pen that glows in the dark.
These worthless things exist because they work. And Trump’s entire campaign is based on that principle. “I give you something, you give me something back.” The brilliant joke: He gives you little, but you end up giving him a lot. Is he using this reciprocity fairly, or is he exploiting it – preying upon our need to appear fair in these transactions? Preying on our need to be liked? Or loved?
I remember the free samples at Hickory Farms, at the Hillsdale Mall, in San Mateo, circa mid-1970s. Chunks of cheese, chunks of sausage, supplied by a hot girl dressed as a barmaid. As a kid, I didn’t understand the concept. Why give me this free, when it will only prevent me from paying for it? Of course, when it came to Christmas, or other holidays, my parents fell for it. Hickory Farms is where we bought the gifts.
So what’s the free cheese in Trumpworld? I’m thinking it was all the appearances he did throughout the years on various cable shows. He’d call in and talk about stuff, and it certainly wasn’t boring. Those three-minute bursts of Trump on cable TV were the free cheese offered to producers and hosts, who grew to like the provider for handing out all this easy content that filled space when frankly, you were thinking about the weekend. When it came election time, fattened happily by all those free samples, these folks went for the whole cheese log.
Every single person in the media who supports Trump believes he possesses a personal relationship with him. They’ve seen him at events; they’ve golfed with him. They’ve traveled on his plane. They believe it’s real – but what’s real is the obligation they now feel to pay him back for all that free cheese he gave them.
What of the people who feel no obligation? After being invited on "Celebrity Apprentice," and so on? Could it be they instinctively understood the “art” of this deal better than most? Could it be that they observed this reciprocal dance as it was happening?
If so, why couldn’t others catch on?