At some point during Donald Trump's long disquisition last night on politics, the American Dream, border walls, his renovation of the Old Post Office building in D.C., and so much more, I'm sure I went into oxygen debt.
But I also think I stumbled upon one of his secrets to success: He's "negging" his rivals and, in many ways, the Republican electorate.
Negging refers to a tactic used by self-styled pick-up artists and it revolves around first insulting a woman and then following up with a compliment (it is apparently a core concept of the pick-up artist's bible, The Game). The effect, supposedly, allows shlumpy men to bat far above their average when it comes to scoring with the opposite sex.
From a New Statesman description of it:
Negging, as it is called, is in essence a trick. The idea is to undermine a woman's confidence by making backhanded or snide remarks – give a compliment with one hand, and take away with the other. It is about control, putting the man in charge of the interaction by pushing the woman to earn his approval….
Here are a few lines that women I interview have had used on them. "You look amazing. What have you done?" "If your face was as good as your legs I'd have to marry you." "Nice eyes – even though one is bigger than the other." "How brave of you to wear an outfit like that," and even: "You have a great body. Are you bulimic?" (The last interviewee adds that she was, at the time, bulimic.)
I first came across negging while watching the second season of HBO's Silicon Valley. At a certain point, the startup at the center of the show, Pied Piper, is trying to raise venture capital and figure out how to work toward an eventual IPO. One of the characters in the show, Ehrlich Bachmann, realizes that investors are low-balling the value of Pied Piper during negotiations. He says they are effectively negging the compay and he decides to reverse the energy by "negotiating with hostility and rudenss."
Which pretty much sums up Donald Trump, going back at least to The Art of the Deal.
Trump has a seemingly super-human ability to suck up all the O2 not just in the room he's in but every place he's connecting to via TV, the phone, or the Internet. Last night, he spoke off the cuff for well over an hour and his shtick was like classic talk radio. It was also a microcosm of his campaign presence so far. Again and again, he tossed out hostile invective that he would then subsequently minimize. For instance, he spent almost as much time talking about how much he loves the "Mexican people" as how badly we need to build a "real" wall to keep those people out of the country. He picked on his GOP rivals and his Democratic rivals, and he was forever citing unnamed people that he talked to "just the other day" whose travails and situations just happened to prove his point about the need for trade barriers, strong leadership, or whatever.
In all, he was like that know-it-all uncle you see a couple of times a year at the holidays: self-aggrandizing and a serial bullshitter about his own success and wealth; a brassy opinion about everything; certitude usually reserved for generals about to lead the charge of the Light Brigade or economists discoursing on their preferred policy to change everything; repetitive about his own past (I'm curious if Wharton is happy that the Donald can't go 10 minutes without invoking his alma mater); and finally, a dispenser of patently phony compliments to his rivals.
It's that last rhetorical flourish that got me thinking. Trump is forever insulting people and then complimenting them. Indeed, this pattern has been front and center since he first announced. Recall what he said about Mexicans:
They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Then there's this on Ben Carson:
Ben is a nice man, but when you're negotiating against China and you're negotiating against these Japanese guys that are going to come against you in waves, and they think we're all a bunch of jerks 'cause our leaders are so stupid and so incompetent and so inept, we need people that are really smart, that have tremendous deal-making skills and that have great, great energy.
When Bernie Sanders got pushed off the stage by Black Lives Matter activists, Trump averred that he "felt bad for the guy" and praised the Vermont senator for "getting the biggest crowds" among Democrats. But he also insisted repeatedly that Sanders was "weak" and "disgusting."
When he mocked John McCain's war experience, he declared that the former POW is "not a war hero….He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured." Without apologizing for those comments, he softened the blow by allowing, "If somebody's a prisoner, I consider them a war hero."
You can see a similar pattern in most of his yammerings. Last night, he castigated Hillary Clinton as the worst secretary of state ever even as he has praised her husband as the "best" president of his lifetime. Back in 2013, he said he was going to support Hillary Clinton in 2016, assuming she didn't die of old age first.
If he's not following what Scott Adams has dubbed "linguistic kill-shots" with vague, insincere compliments, then he's just leaving his targets to bleed out. Hence, he's dubbed Jeb Bush as "low-energy" and called Carly Fiorina as just this side of a gorgon. As Rolling Stone captured his patter at an event after the first GOP debate:
"They had 24 million people [at the debate the other night].?.?.?.?Do you think they were there for?.?.?.?Rand Paul? Rand, I've had you up to here!" He touches his armpit, zinging the vertically challenged Paul: "He didn't like it when I said you have to pass an IQ test to get up on the stage." Then he pivoted to Carly Fiorina. "Carly was a little nasty to me — be careful, Carly! Be careful! But I can't say anything to her because she's a woman.?.?.?.?I promised that I wouldn't say that she ran Hewlett-Packard into the ground. I said I wouldn't say it! That her stock value tanked. That she laid off tens of thousands of people, and she got viciously fired. I said I will not say that. And that she then went out and ran against Barbara Boxer, and?.?.?.?lost in a landslide. And I said, 'I. Will. Not. Say. That!'?"
According to the New Statesman writeup of negging, the technique ironically works best on attractive, thoughtful people who are open to acknowledging the limits of their talents and appeal. One "pick-up artist" tells the Statesman,
"Yes, of course it works," Dan tells me. "I like to think of it like currency: every insult increases the value of my compliment stock—which I then choose to spent wisely at maximum value and the most opportune moment for maximum effect to make my acquisition."
Both practitioners and critics of negging grant that it works on people "still seeking love and approval at all costs from the world, from their substitute father figure, or from themselves" and folks with "low self-esteem."
Precisely how any of that translates into a political context is anybody's guess, but there seems to be little question that Trump is pushing voters and rivals alike to "earn his approval." Nobody wants to be on the end of his withering declarations of just who is a "loser" or not.
Ted Cruz, who invited Trump to the anti-Iran Deal rally he held last week in D.C., has essentially sworn off critizing the billionaire. And Scott Walker could barely wait to follow Trump's lead in demonizing immigrants and birthright citizenship. Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard initially announced that Trump was saying "some useful things" and then distanced himself slightly by saying the Donald "had jumped the shark" and we had reached "peak Trump." Most recently, he has sworn to back a third-party candidate if Trump wins the GOP nomination. But as The New Republic sees it, Kristol "keeps returning to Donald Trump."
Whether America writ large is so desperate for esteem in a socio-economic-political context remains to be seen. On the eve of the second GOP debate, he's doing just great in polls of likely Republican voters and he does well, too, in matchups against Hillary Clinton.
Are we that sad as a country that we really are ready to be lead by a know-nothing blowhard who expertly and strategically mixes insults and compliments like some pimple-faced pick-up artist cruising closing-time at a bar? I doubt it, though perhaps Republican voters are that desperate. Going back to 1992, the GOP has only won the presidential popular vote once, (in 2004) and the party of Lincoln seems desperate for a win. What the GOP is digging at the moment, though, doesn't necessarily work with the country writ large. The most recent poll from the Washington Post/ABC News finds large majorities of Republicans believing Trump to be qualified for office (64 percent to 35 percent) and trustworthy (60 percent to 35 percent). Those percentages are almost exactly reversed when it comes to non-Republicans.
Like that blowhard, know-it-all relative you seen a few times a year, it's tough as hell to take Trump on a regular basis. The first few minutes of any given interaction can be good for a few laughs and arguments. But once you realize he actually is as superficial and full of shit as he seems, well, you start reaching for the booze or heading for the doors pretty fast. There are still 10 GOP primary debates to go and there's simply no way that Donald Trump will be standing at the end of it all. The eventual Republican nominee may well be less than inspiring, but it's not going to be Trump, either.
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