The power of bad communication.

Thesis: Trump is an impulsive opportunist with an uncanny sense of self-aware-yet-unashamed narcissism. He knows he’s a narcissist and still lives that part out to the fullest, and it works for him.

Trump’s Best Words

During Trump’s 2015 campaign and his following four years of presidency, the most common kind of argument I’ve had relating to Trump is about the meaning of his words. Just to name a few:

  • “Lock her up” in reference to Hillary Clinton’s involvement in the Bengazi email scandal
  • “I could shoot someone on 5th avenue, and they’d still vote for me”
  • “I will release my tax returns”
  • Mexican immigrants are drug dealers and rapists
  • There were “fine people on both sides” in the Charlettesville protests/riots ([Trump press conference][fine-people])
  • “I think I’ve done more for the black community than any other president, and let’s take a pass on president Lincoln because he did good, although, its always questionable.” ([Fox interview][more-for-black-comm])
  • Haiti, El Salvador, and african countries are shithole countries ([Time report][shithole-countries])
  • Buying Greenland ([Trump tweet][greenland-tower])
  • “I’m very highly educated. I know words, I know the best words. But there’s no better word than stupid.” ([Trump rally][best-words])
  • Trump makes hand motions that could be making fun of mentally-disabled people
  • “This has been the worst trade deal in the history of trade deals, maybe ever” ([Presidential debate][worst-trade-deal])
  • Defending tarrifs against China because Trump thinks tarriffing is a good policy, or as a threat against China?
  • Not conceding the election after it’s called for Joe Biden by major news networks.
  • “We will never concede” and then “Even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless there will be an orderly transition on January 20th”.
  • Did Trump incite the January 2021 storming of the US capitol building, including the ensuing violence.

In these kinds of arguments, the answer is always obvious to each side. Trump doesn’t speak in a complicated way that needs unpacking, and it’s always clear that Trump himself puts little time into preparing his prose. Trump attributes most of this ability to instinct. So, with these factors in mind, it seems clear that an interpretation of Trump’s output should be at least as simple. And yet it is not. In my observation, it seems that each person interprets Trump’s words in almost exactly the way that Trump would expect or be ready to play off of. A few main ways:

  • Many of his supporters are always enthralled: it is either an omen to their values (whatever they may be), or a trap for the other side. They see everything is part of the master plan, and anything that does’t seem to fit with this as a necessary evil or “the damage has already been done”
  • Many of his critics have their expectations of disappointment confirmed yet again, and are again ready to write Trump off as unpresidential, orange, and otherwise unworthy of a substantial rebuttal. They see Trump’s presidency is an objective mistake with no caveats, and they categorically dismiss anyone who hesitates to support his opposition as full-heatedly condoning Trump’s attitude.
  • Everyone else is usually overwhelmed by the constant “what did he do today?” Almost everything is seen as hyper partisan, and it’s hard to take much of it seriously anymore. Yet it seems that so many general principles are on the line e.g. “the integrity of our country.” But for the most part there’s a sense of Trump being ridiculous, and that his ridiculousness has infected the media that used to trusted.

So what does Trump mean when he says (or more often, tweets) something? What does he mean when he gives you a silly yet catchy nickname? What does he mean when he capitalizes a random word? What does he mean when he capitalizes all the letters in a word? What does he mean when he hints at something serious but gives no hint to whether he intends a serious undertone or is just being over the top about everything as always? Is Trump the greatest dog-whistler of all time or does he have a weirdly calibrated impulse to say what the crowd wants to hear, on the national stage, 24/7?

Case Study: Fine People at Charlottesville


Plausible Deniability

General trends:

  • Extemists (on both sides of the left-right political spectrum) see many of Trump’s proclamations as calls to action.
  • The left takes Trump’s too seriously — warning of impending violence from radicals — yet never takes Trump seriously in any other situations.
  • The right dismisses Trump’s most worrying proclamations as obviously hyperbolic, yet also takes Trump seriously whenever it’s something they agree with.

Emotional Un/Appeal

The reason that Trump supporters like Trump is the same reason that Trump critics dislike Trump: he doesn’t let anything hold him back from bashing the institutions that he doesn’t like and/or don’t accept him, regardless of what the most effective course of action might be.

[more-for-black-comm]: [shithole-countries]: [greenland-tower]: [worst-trade-deal]: [best-words]: [fine-people]: