David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

The Master Persuader

Brandon Sun, December 7, 2020 – David McConkey

How do you get millions to believe in a false conspiracy theory? Enter Donald Trump, “master persuader.” The implications of what is happening right now in the post-election U.S. are so profound, they are worth noticing.

Trump told citizens in advance what he was going to do. He was going to claim the 2020 election was rigged, just as he did in 2016. If he won the election, like in 2016, good for him. If he narrowly lost, there was a chance that legal wrangling could manoeuvre a state or a court into tipping the election to him. Might as well try!

And if Trump decisively lost, which is what happened, he still gains. Because of Trump’s messaging, a majority of Republican voters think the election was fraudulent. That's tens of millions of people!

Trump is asking those millions to send him money: to help with election legal costs – or whatever – just send in the money! (Trump’s haul so far: $170 million.) Trump is also poisoning the Biden presidency with the stink of illegitimacy. And Trump is building the next stage of his career, which could be a media play or a 2024 presidential run for him or one of his children.

But let’s remember what just happened: Trump convinced tens of millions of people to believe the rigged election conspiracy theory. Yet every authority – all the states, the courts, even his own administration – says this is false. How did Trump do it and what does it say about the nature of persuasion, of the media and of the reality we believe in?

Of course, we can only touch on these issues here. But better to raise them now as a warning as we move ahead in the 21st century.

I quote “Dilbert” cartoonist and trained hypnotist Scott Adams when I note that Trump is a “master persuader.” Adams is a Trump enthusiast and astute observer. Adams was one of the first to point out Trump's extraordinary media skills and to predict that Trump would win the Republican nomination and then the presidency.

Trump honed his skills across the media landscape: newspapers, books, movies, radio and – of course – television and social media. In turn, the media were enamored with Trump.

Take the birtherism conspiracy theory about Barack Obama’s birthplace. At first it was too crazy even for Fox News. When Trump began promoting birtherism in 2011, he should have been ignored as a kook, a liar, a nutcase. Instead, the mainstream media took Trump seriously and gave him more attention – laying the groundwork for his presidential campaign. By the time Trump became a presidential candidate, a majority of Republicans doubted that Obama was U.S.-born: another example of masterly persuasion.

Trump has developed a cartoon-like personna that makes him almost  impervious to criticism. Of course Trump is a ridiculous buffoon; and he has cultivated that image over decades. As cultural critic Virginia Heffernan observes, once you accept the orange face and the absurd hair, you are primed to accept anything.

Trump’s craziness and shameless lying endears him to his followers. Sure, what he is saying is a fabrication, but his followers feel like they are being included, that they are in on the joke. As New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik notes, this process can be compared to enjoy viewing the pretend “reality” of reality TV or of pro wrestling, where it is called kayfabe.

Trump delights his fans and flummoxes his liberal critics. We saw this ploy earlier this year when Trump mused about bleach in treating the coronavirus. Adams hails Trump as history’s “most successful stand-up comedian.”

More questions arise that deserve reflection. Why can conspiracy theories be believed by millions in the U.S., but be rebuffed in Canada? Or are we Canadians becoming more like Americans? What will become of our sense of “reality” as we increasingly understand our lives – not through real life – but through various media? Can we nurture a presence of mind amidst media distraction?

Let’s remember that a Trump happened once and could happen again. Let’s remember that the media’s influence is getting more pervasive. (Check out the Netflix documentary about social media, “The Social Dilemma.”) And let’s remember how easy it is to look down on folks who are gullible enough to believe an outright lie. But no one should think that they are above being deluded – to believe that is itself a great delusion.

Trump, Adams says, is a “clown genius.” What’s happening now in the U.S. may seem preposterous, but we are watching a world-class propagandist in action. That awareness itself may help us become more prepared for the future.

* * * *
See also: 

The End of the Trump Era?

On Tyranny: Learning Lessons from History

Is Donald Trump the New Joseph Smith?

How Can We Learn to Think and Argue Better?

We Must Resist the Trump Culture – Here's How

Takeaways From Trump’s Unbelievable Victory 

Enlightenment Values Are Needed Now More Than Ever



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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