What Donald Trump does and why it works

The rise of Donald Trump, President, has taken many people by surprise.

How does he do it?

This lens is on Donald Trump, communicator.

What is he doing?

I am not qualified to offer political commentary. However, from my perspective as dramatist and communication coach, I can unpack one of his latest comments and suggest what seems to work for him.

Again, I am not taking a position on how well this will work for him over the long term, but this strategy, this technique, seems to have helped him take the White House, and I believe we can learn from it.

In today’s furiously fast news cycle, you may have missed or even forgotten this utterance, but the way it works is common to many Donald Trump statements.

This is the quote from a Fox and Friends interview[1] conducted on February 28, 2017, on the morning before he addressed a joint session of Congress.

No, I think that President Obama’s behind it because his people are certainly behind it. And some of the leaks … possibly come from that group … But I also understand that’s politics, and in terms of him being behind things, that’s politics, and it will probably continue.

The proposition is that Obama is engaged in a strategy involving anti-Trump protests and leaking to undermine the 45th President of the United States. This is a very useful addition to the Trump narrative because it characterises any contrary opinion now expressed by Obama as a threat to national security. You might imagine the desired effect is to silence Obama, but that is not where the power lies.

The power of this addition to the narrative is the effect it has on Trump followers, who will feel entitled to project moral outrage towards Obama, the protests and even dissenting opinions. In this moment, it does not matter if the demonstrations continue. The enduring value is in galvanizing the supporter base. They are the ones who vote. They are the ones who will take to the streets and make their voices heard.

The fascinating thing is that it may not actually be their voice. One of Trump’s most powerful lines in the campaign was;


It would seem that they have become his voice. Donald Trump creates narratives that fit the emotions felt by many people, and they take it on. They become his voice in the street, in the factory and in the media.

It is a remarkable achievement.

Many business leaders covet this kind of power; to be able to kick start a movement; in the name of high performance, customer service, innovation, productivity, safety, diversity and inclusion. Wielding this power can serve a truly noble or essential purpose. Leadership communication at its most effective creates powerful belief and advocacy in the target audience, which creates the desired culture, behaviour and performance.

Leadership communication at its best takes people, organisations and nations in the right direction. As I have said, I am not reflecting on Trump’s leadership, but on what seems to be working with his communication.

Donald Trump is effective.

What is Donald Trump doing? 

 1. He creates simple, evocative narratives

The first statement:

I think that President Obama’s behind it because his people are certainly behind it.

That is a bit like saying; “I think one thing, because I assert something else is certainly true.” Forgive me for the overuse of italics, but this construction of ideas is most certainly fallacious logic. But the effect is that the target audience of Trump leaning people believe Obama must certainly be behind it, casting Obama in the role of the subversive threat to national security.

It works because it starts with humility, “I think…” but ends with decisiveness; “his people are certainly behind it.”

Also, it suggests that Obama is a coward, because he is operating through “his people”.

2. Deft use of suggestion

Having established Obama’s people are subversive, therefore not to be trusted, then he undermines the legitimacy of stories about his team’s contact with Russian officials in the lead up to the election; the leaks.

And some of the leaks … possibly come from that group …

So the leaks “possibly” have not come from the intelligence community, but rather Obama’s people, who cannot be trusted.

The use of “possibly” is a clever technique.

In stories, certainty is always more attractive than ambiguity. There is a strong pull for the audience to shift from “possible” to “probable” to “certainly true”. If the audience feels they have come to that conclusion themselves, they are far more likely to believe it and defend it.

3. Stating the undeniable as a revelation

One of Trump’s common persuasive techniques is displayed in the next thought.

But I also understand that’s politics,

He says “its politics” or “that’s politics”, many times in the interview. With this, he casts himself as a minor player in the story.  It’s like saying, “that’s just the way things are and I guess we will all have to deal with it.”

A signature of Trump’s communication are these short, simple statements of fact.

Its freezing and snowing in New York.

Private jets cost a lot of money.

We need a great President.

Who is going to argue with that?

Comments that are more provocative are spoken with the same note of resignation.

The world is a total mess.

They are here illegally.

Mosul is very, very difficult.

When he sighs and says, “that’s politics”, he casts himself as a biblical David stoically facing a terrible Goliath. Deriding politics as a dirty game plays well with disenfranchised voters.  Few people will argue with him, especially those who voted Trump believing he would drain the swamp.

4. Repetition

The proposition is that Obama is behind some serious subversion.

The next proposition is that we have to accept that this is true, because that’s politics.

And to finish the argument, he predicts what can be expected in future.

… and in terms of him being behind things, that’s politics, and it will probably continue.

In this, Trump repeats the narrative using the same techniques:-

  1. He names the threat – Obama is subverting his presidency
  2. He provides evidence that it is true, because “that’s politics”, and,
  3. He invites you to take the final step and turn “probably” into “certainly”.

The story might be true, but the logic is fallacious. You could try to argue the point but there is nothing of substance to hang on to, except for an inevitable truth.

That’s politics.

The “Bad Obama” narrative has been picked up by media commentators, posters and tweeters and many believe it to be true.

A few days later and a new chapter in the story began with the tweet;

Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!

The inverted commas around “wires tapped” could be interpreted as there being some metaphorical wiretapping going on, until the next tweet on the subject.

How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!

Some similar techniques; we all agree:-

  • McCartheyism was bad
  • The election process is supposed to be very sacred
  • Nixon/Watergate did involve wiretapping and was a low act.

This story was immediately and publicly rejected by the FBI, The Department of Justice and senior Republicans, let alone Democrats and “Obama’s people” (but they would say that wouldn’t they?) 

Some commentators think that this is the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency. But somewhere, people believe the story has substance. The narrative matters, and it seems the narrative can be manipulated.

It has been done before.

The way it works is recognisable.

But that doesn’t stop it from happening. Human nature, right?

I think it is better to be one of people who recognise the way it works, than to be one of the people on whom it works.


[1] A full transcript of the interview can be found on the Washington Post website.

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