Donald Trump’s speaking style is said to be off the cuff and spontaneous. Far from it. He’s actually using a very sophisticated doublespeak.
One of the obligations of a candidate is to commit to policy solutions. You review a public problem, decide what you will do when in office, and report in detail how you will address the problem. You make yourself accountable for your position.
Instead of doing this, Trump practices what one might call “multiple-choice communication.” Whenever he speaks on a given topic, he gives multiple options on what he might mean.
For instance, at a recent rally in Fresno, Trump stated that, despite five years of low rainfall in California, “There is no drought. They turn the water into the ocean. If I win, believe me, we’re going to start opening up the water so that you can have your farmers survive.”
Now, this is a very confusing statement. What could he mean? Go ahead and choose your answer to this multiple-choice problem. Does Trump mean that:
1. There never was a drought (perhaps the drought was a myth?)
2.There was a drought, but it has ended naturally.
3.There was a drought, but somebody’s fixed it.
4. There is no drought, because what others call a drought is simply their inability to drain the Sacramento River Delta and use its water for farming.
5. There is drought, but as president of the United States, Trump will singlehandedly change California water policy. The fact that a huge engineering project, like draining the Sacramento River Delta, is theoretically possible, is the same as there never having been a drought in the first place.
Do you see how many options Trump gives us to believe? Which answer did you choose?
Now imagine some attendees at Trump’s rally. They get to choose their own answers, just like you. Some people simply feel reassured by Trump’s words there is no drought. Whew! What a relief.
Some are farmers who hear Trump say he will send them water. Thank you, Donald Trump!
Some are anti-government and are happy that climate change is a myth. No further government intervention needed. Amen!
Some are pro-government and welcome a huge engineering project. This would destabilize the ecology, the water table, real estate values, and would have countless other consequences. If you want this option, you want heavy government intervention.
These different listeners at the Trump rally are not in agreement on what needs to be done. However, because the speech is given in multiple-choice format, each hears a different promise. It may seem they’re cheering together, but they’re cheering for different results.
Back in the Republican primaries, Trump got massive media coverage by making extreme promises about immigration, trade and religious discrimination. This won him the loyalty of political extremists such as anti-foreigners and white supremacists. At this point in the campaign, Trump needs to expand his share of the American voter base by appealing to more moderate voters.
How does he appeal to moderates without losing his early extremist fans? Multiple-choice communication. This enables him to speak separately to the different listeners without changing his tune. He still speaks to the racists. But he now he’s also speaking to the moderates.
Here’s how it works.
At a rally in San Diego Trump spoke publicly about a judge presiding over a lawsuit against Trump University. After calling him a “very hostile judge” and a “hater,” Trump adds, “What happens is the judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great. I think that’s fine.”
In fact, the judge, Gonzalo Curiel, was born in Indiana.
So let’s do the multiple-choice. Which of these is Trump saying?
Anyone who gets in my way, I can single them out in a speech and focus the crowd’s hate on them.
I can single out any American at any time and bring public focus on their ethnic or religious heritage.
I can describe any American as foreign (as "Mexican") rather than as an American.
My racist fans may follow my lead and also single out other Americans based on their ethnic, cultural or religious heritage.
Judge Curiel’s professional behavior may be based on his being Mexican.
Judge Curiel’s ethnic heritage is up to my approval, and I think it’s great that he is Mexican (even though he’s not Mexican).
Let’s imagine how this sounds to the different listeners.
Say one of the people in the audience is a man named Tim, who is a white supremacist. As he listens, he hears Trump say that this American-born judge is essentially a “Mexican.” Tim thinks, “I can’t believe Trump can say this out loud! A candidate after my own heart.”
Another listener, Maria, hears this: Anyone who gets in Trump’s way might suddenly be singled out and labeled as a non-American. Especially if you’re “Mexican.” You could lose your citizenship rights. Scary! Keep your head down.
A third listener, Steve, is a moderate independent who came because he was curious. When he hears Trump saying, “it’s great to be Mexican” he thinks “Gosh, I was worried Trump was a racist. But he says Mexicans are great. I guess he’s not racist.”
You see, if Trump communicated his proposed policies (build the wall, deport, ban Muslims) like a normal candidate, we would be seeing him as an extremist and as a cruel man. That would not be very fun and would not win more voters. It’s smarter for Trump to court moderates and undecided voters by confusing them with multiple-choice statements.
Multiple-choice communication is not unique to Donald Trump. You may also have seen it in advertisements, especially when the advertiser doesn’t intend to deliver on their promises. For instance, you may see shampoos that promise men “thicker hair.” Men buy it thinking they will solve their hair loss. Nope. The shampoos make your individual hairs thicker, but don’t stop hair from falling out. The shampoo maker knows customers will make this mistake, but it’s not false advertising. You simply heard the wrong option.
The problem, of course, is that people at a Trump rally each leave having heard a different promise. And if Trump should become president, there is no way he can fulfill all of those different expectations. Which reminds us that the people who would be most let down by a Trump presidency are the people who believe in what he says.