When a U.S. President Won’t Be Persuaded — What Then?

The first day of teaching graduate and undergraduate persuasion classes, I’ve always included a discussion of the primary enemy of effective persuasion — unexamined assumptions.

We all base our views and most of our actions on assumptions. To be persuasive, it’s important to understand the assumptions of others and how our own differ from or overlap with those.  The formulation of effective arguments depends on such knowledge.

The Trump administration likes to keep people, particularly the press, off-guard with regard to underlying assumptions.  Such knowledge is therefore difficult to ascertain.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer regularly argues that controversial choices made by President Trump are similar to those made by President Obama, Bush or Reagan.  On the other hand, the president and his coterie of enablers regularly demean the actions of those same presidents.  So, which is it?  Are they guided by the choices of their predecessors or not? They really don’t want you to know.

The term for such contrived confusion is strategic ambiguity.  The goal is to confound people.  Apparently, Trump Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is known for applying this strategy by overwhelming people.  Rather than roll out change incrementally so people understand and come to grips with it, he prefers to keep hitting them with “stuff” until they’re beside themselves.

So, what does this mean for persuasion?  Can it be used to influence people like this?

Persuasion is something done with people, not to them. Compared to other forms of influence, it tends to be up front.  At its best it relies on reason, evidence, expert opinion, experience, passionate argument and facts.  When people act rationally, when they share similar rules and at least respect each other, persuasion can be very effective.  It’s fair to say that while the preferable means of influence in civil society is persuasion, it usually does not work directly with people who prefer to coerce and manipulate.

Does that leave us with becoming bullies and manipulators?  Must we sink to the level of liars who think little of us?  If coupled with power, perhaps not.

Eliot Cohen, former Counselor to Condoleezza Rice and Director of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins, believes that eventually Trump will make too many enemies — trounce on too many toes.  Payback for those who supported him at high levels will be on an installment plan lasting a long time.  Those with power who see the light may best the president at his own game.  The question is whether this will happen soon enough to protect democracy.

That’s where protesters seeking to persuade can make a difference.  They can urge the powerful to see how they’re being duped and used.  They can alert those with the capacity to confront Trump that their time to be harmed will surely come — that people who think so little of those outside their circle are not in the habit of keeping promises.

Persuasion is useful to expedite change even with those who coerce and manipulate.  It can influence those with power to stand up and take action.  It can help them realize that the tentacles of deception so beloved by the Trump team will one day reach their doors and harm the country they love — what former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Christiane Amanpour is among the key dangers we now face.

The sooner those with power outside the Trump circle begin to worry about such things, the sooner they realize that they’re being deceived, perhaps being used, the sooner they’ll feel the pressure on their toes predicted by Eliot Cohen and begin to fight fire with fire.  In that sense, all of us have power.

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