What???!!! How can Mr. Covfefe even qualify? Isn’t he the worst thing that has happened to the English Language since 1066? Well, yes and no. (How did you guess I used to be a lawyer?)
Donald Trump is many things. As a practitioner of good English, he’s an utter disaster. But as a shuck-and-jive artist (my language is intentional) he has no equal. As such, he is still a master communicator, in a very narrow sense. As students of communication we would do well to consider his successes. If you only learn from people you like, you’ll miss a lot. Follow me, then...
There are at least five things at which he excels.
First, he is a master of body language. When he hovered behind Hillary like a cloud of sewer gas he was very intentional. It was pure Hollywood. Feet braced, thumbs hooked in his belt and putting on his best Dirty Harry face, he was the Sheriff about to “lock up Crooked Hillary”. He knew that most of us found his antics boorish and abhorrent, but he didn’t care. He wasn’t performing for us. He was performing for his base, and they ate it up.
Which leads us to our second point: he understands his audience and speaks directly into their hearts. They aren’t concerned with theories or lessons, they just want some understanding, some love, and some protection. Hillary called them “deplorable”, but he sings them a love song. Does he really care about them? Who knows, but they think he does, and that’s all that matters.
Third, he has mastered the verbal devices of the shady used-car guy. Think Robin Williams' Cadillac Man, except not funny. Creepy and annoying, perhaps, but for the right crowd, completely effective. “Everybody else has lied to you, folks, but I’m telling it like it is.” Listen to him stop, start, dodge and weave, leaving gaps for you to fill in as you want to hear. He tosses around “Believe me!” and “by the way” and he gulls you into his confidence. It’s not the content, it’s the rhythm. P.T. Barnum would be proud.
Fourth, he tweets to divert attention. This is straight out of Magic 101. While we snicker at “covfefe” and are outraged by his childish rants, our eye is entirely off the ball while he is changing the legal landscape of America by executive order. Right before our eyes, if we were watching, which we’re not.
But here’s number five, and the key: he knows how to count. He understands that about forty percent of voting Americans want (and perhaps need) to hear what he is saying, be it bashing the NFL or China or the Deep State, and he continues to tell them what they want to hear. That is the true genius of Donald Trump. For any politician or marketer, 40% bedrock ain’t bad. Are you treating your bedrock right?
Am I suggesting, dear scholar of communication, that you fully emulate the Donald? Heaven forbid. But there are lessons to be learned everywhere, even from the Donald.
(For those readers who are going to ask, “Yeah, but what about Hillary?” let me save you the trouble-- Hillary was a communication and political disaster. But that’s for next Friday.)
Norman Bowley is a communicator by passion, a lawyer and educator by profession. Thirty-six years of legal practice after ten years as an educator have equipped Norm to teach professionals how to communicate effectively and with power.