In my previous column, I noted how President Trump's rhetoric set him apart from every previous President in various ways and were considered political suicide during the campaign. I then claimed that raised three big questions. Here is the last: Just why did he think his tactics were a good idea?
Was he somehow able to sense that previous candidates and so many experts were dead wrong, and over-the-top rhetoric, outrageous claims made with no real evidence, and false statements repeated over and over after they'd been shown to be nonsense could all be winning tactics rather than disastrous ones? Because if not, someone who knew quite a bit of psychology must have taught him.
So let's consider all of the possibilities, from most to least obvious, to see if we can find even one that's not deeply disturbing in some way. . .
If President Trump was in the habit of lying long before 2015, he might have already learned he could convince people something was true, even if it wasn't, simply by confidently repeating it over and over. (According to psychologists, that can work well.) Likewise, if he had long made a habit of lying, he could have already honed his second tactic: denouncing those who clamor that he is mistaken or deliberately lying by calling them the liars. (That can also work well: He has successfully convinced many voters that much of the negative press he's getting is actually "fake news" put out by his enemies to hurt him.)
However, President Trump's third tactic, making especially outrageous claims, is more problematic. It seems blatantly obvious that outrageous lies should be avoided, yet he seems to have sensed an actual advantage in them. For example, consider his claim that terrorists were known to have infiltrated a migrant caravan, which he later admitted making up: In one poll, half of Republicans believed him that a terrorist invasion was coming their way. . . but how many people other than pathological liars would have expected that success? (So if this most obvious explanation is true, it's evidence for the claims that the President is a pathological liar.)
His fourth tactic, deliberately making people fearful, is known by psychologists to make people more likely to vote Republican - but one again that's not something that most people would have suspected - in this case, even liars. What's more, it would be even less likely that anyone would sense for themselves that all four tactics could be winning ones. That's a second con for our first explanation.
Another obvious possibility is that President Trump learned his tactics from books. By far the best-known practitioner of his third tactic, disturbingly, is Hitler, who named it "the big lie": repeatedly telling lies so outrageous (Middle Eastern terrorists invading from Central America!) that listeners had a hard time imagining someone would try distorting the truth so baldly. And President Trump has noted that a friend gave him a book by Hitler.
Denouncing those who expose lies as the real liars also has a particularly well-known practitioner - again, Hitler. His regime hammered incessantly on the idea of the "lying press" in much the same way that President Trump has. So the President could potentially have also learned his second tactic by reading his copy of Hitler's book.
However, his fourth tactic, fearmongering, is again a problem. It's far less obvious where he could have read about its potential. Besides that, President Trump apparently reads very little - even briefings by experts on national security threats. Thus, we also have two cons for this explanation.
The third possibility is that a fellow Republican deliberately coached him in how to manipulate us. However, they must have had no moral qualms about teaching a Presidential candidate key tactics used by Hitler (again, disturbing!), good access to him before he publicly announced he intended to run, and specialized knowledge of psychology. And the combination of all three in the same person seems like a big stretch. . . so I'd count four cons for this explanation.
The remaining possibility is that President Trump was taught his winning rhetorical tactics by a foreign government seeking to meddle in the election. Since he learned his tactics before he announced his candidacy, it would have had to be one with good inside knowledge about him when he was merely a businessman. I know of one, and only one, country that fits that bill: Russia. The big con here is that few conspiracy theories turn out to be true. Nevertheless, like any such theory, it is consistent with a number of curious facts. President Trump made repeated trips to Russia, his son noted that his business dealings were heavily concentrated there, the intelligence agencies of not only the U.S. but Britain and Australia were disturbed by contacts between people in his circle and people with ties to the Russian government before the 2016 election, and Robert Mueller and others noted over 100 more such contacts plus his plan to give President Putin a gift worth $50,000,000.
Of course, Russia would have had little reason to teach him how to subconsciously manipulate U.S. voters unless they expected him to run for President - but it was public knowledge that he had considered running in 1988, 2000, and 2012, so they would actually have had good reason to suspect it (or even encouraged him to make his unexpected decision to run for real the fourth time around).
Thus, Russia would have had the means (world-class expertise in psychology and rhetoric), the motive, and the opportunity to attack our democracy in yet another way - and I only count one con, which is actually fewer than for the other possible explanations. Thus, under a future President, it might be prudent to look into the possibility that President Trump learned how to manipulate us from his Russian contacts: If I'm wrong about that explanation being a long shot, it would be important to prevent any repeat. . .