Before I begin, I must confess how indebted I am to two different men.
One is Donald Trump, who provides an endless treasure trove of political and psychological analysis. You could write a hundred books about the guy, and never repeat a phrase.
The other, is Robert Cialdini, who wrote the fantastic, seminal work on influence, appropriately called, “Influence.” I am going take the persuasive tools outlined from the latter, and apply them to the former.
The goal: to show you that while it is entirely possible that President Donald Trump will build his giant beautiful wall, it’s more likely that he may not have to do that at all.
Instead, he could abandon the idea (and other such claims), and reach out to Hispanics and widen the tent – without alienating those who were attracted to his strong stance regarding our porous borders in the first place.
Let me explain.
On page 104 of Cialdini’s classic book from the 1980’s, you will find an illustration of a table, the legs symbolic of promises that help support a commitment to conserve energy at home. Every commitment rests on promises. In this example, the “table’s” legs that get you to conserve energy are “publicity you get for your efforts,”” “lowered energy bills, “new self-image,” “pride in doing good” and “reduction in dependence on foreign oil.”
You notice there are five legs. You only need four. Meaning, if say, “publicity” drops out, the table still stands, and so does one’s commitment to conservation. Why is this important?
Because publicity might have been the main promise that got you to engage in this conservation effort to begin with (a person might have told you they would write about you in the paper)! But once that promise is withdrawn – the other outcomes from conservation are appealing enough to make it seem worthwhile.
Now consider the “table” does not represent energy conservation at all, but instead represents one’s commitment to Trump. What would be the legs to that piece of furniture?
That initial, first leg of promise might be…
1. “He tells it like it is.” When he said, “I’m going to build a wall and Mexico will pay for it,” it blew you away. It was blunt, brazen and raw. It resonated.
That was the first leg of the table – his carefree honesty about the world.
2. The next leg is “he’s an outsider.” He came out of nowhere, and crushed everyone, like a burly, effusive tornado from a reality show. Which leads to…
3. The third leg, “he’s winning.” There’s nothing better than backing a winner, especially if you were there first! It feels awesome and appears unstoppable! And that leads to…
4. The fourth leg, which is “you are now part of a movement that enhances your self-esteem and differentiates you from others.” It’s not just a campaign, it’s a phenomenon, a cult of personality that rivals, and might even exceed, the Obama movement of 2008.
5. The fifth and perhaps most important leg is “you mustn’t abandon your long term investment in this life choice,” a commitment that is now going on six months. The longer you’re “for” something, the harder it is to be “un-for” something.
So imagine, as the election approaches, Trump sees that he might need to reach out to Hispanics and disaffected Sanders voters. So, he offers a mild, but knowing rebuke to his own initial promise. “When I said wall, it was a suggestion,” is now, already being floated, as I write this.
So the initial leg of that table –“telling it like it is” has been pulled out from under that table.
Does that table collapse? No – there are still four legs there, and they are so powerful, and so meaningful, that Trump reneging on that initial promise can be absorbed easily and without casualty to the overall package.
Cialdini writes in “Influence” about the sales gimmick known as low-balling. A car dealer will offer you a sedan for 500 bucks cheaper than the competitor. But then later, after you’ve practically signed on the dotted line, committed a day or two to the negotiation, shown the car to your wife and coworkers, envisioned the long drives down the coast with the wind in your hair -- the salesman confesses that they made an error and forgot to factor in the air conditioning in the price. It’s upsetting, but at this point, you’ve already committed so much to the purchase, you sign the deal anyway.
The legs of that table -- time invested, mental attachment, boasting to coworkers, pleasing your wife -- makes turning back a hard choice, even if it means forking over the extra five hundred clams.
That’s the beauty and brilliance of Trump. His initial promise led to a cascade of other powerful attractions and appeals that have burrowed into the hearts and minds of millions of supporters. Now, he can retract almost anything; he can change his mind on everything. And it won’t matter.
The commitment is made. He has sealed the deal. Even if the memorable specifics are no longer honored.