We can defeat Trump—but first we need to get on his level

We’re well into election season and the Republican field is finally whittling down to what looks like one frontrunner—Donald Trump. Makes you miss the days of needing two Republican debates, doesn’t it?

Right now everyone who’s not a Trump supporter seems to be able to come behind one idea: Stopping Trump. The problem is no one knows how to do it. And that’s because aside from “Back to the Future II” and the oddly prescient Simpsons episode we have no template for how to deal with this kind of candidate. How do you knock down a ball of hot gas? Well, first you have to play his game.

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The truth is Trump is not a standard candidate, by any means. Though his claims about a “fully self-funded campaign” are not true, he has operated with a large margin of autonomy—and his supporters are eating it up. In 2004 election, Howard Dean was the Democratic election until he let out his infamous “Dean Scream,” and the media onslaught demolished his campaign. But the truth is there seems to be no such gaffe Trump can pull that would alienate his supporters; his vulgarity makes him more and more offensive to those not in his corner, but voters around the country seem to be eating it up with a spoon.

“House of Cards,” supposedly dealing with a fictional U.S. where politics is dark and cutthroat, hit a little too close to home when a candidate in the latest season publicly unearthed a photo of his father with the leader of the KKK. His calls for a ban on Muslim immigrants—while he “figures things out”—have found (sadly) found a surprising base, while long lists of the sexist things he’s said during the campaign seem to fall on deaf ears. Volunteers for the Trump campaign seem to be illegally indentured to him for possibly a long time. He’s revived dreams of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to halt illegal immigration, and promises to make the Mexican government pay for it. They say they won’t, but supporters don’t care. It’s not like they cared when he went after the Pope. When was the last time we had a candidate who had been endorsed by leading White Supremacist groups and took his time to disavow the connection? The ability to compare Trump to Hitler has seemingly gone from an on-point joke to a shocking reality.

Even his past is proving fruitless: He’s been in the public eye perhaps longer and more prominently than any other candidate, and there’s plenty of dirt to sling at him, but nothing’s sticking. The hypocrisy of the Republican party’s support of him (and vice versa) has fallen by the wayside. We have audio from days after Princess Diana died saying he thinks he “could’ve nailed her.”  He’s being sued by past models and former students at his Trump University. Buzzfeed recently unearthed an old website for his ill-fated mid-2000s radio show “Trumped!” Though no audio recordings seem to have been archived (or found yet—this is the Internet after all, and it’s tough to get fully deleted) there’s plenty of quips they were able to pull. Like how although he believed in “the hair department he was doing better than most guys,” it might be cool for technology to allow people to clone their hair so “they can go out and have their original hair.” Or how Britney Spears falling off the the sexiest women list was unsurprising—or as he apparently put it on his show, “She’s gone down, there’s no question about it. That’s what a marriage can do for you.”

Any other candidate might find coverage like this sinking their campaign, if not outright prohibiting it. But like Darth Vader, whatever hatred grows in the hearts of his opponents only seems to make him stronger.

The problem is he’s not like other candidates. He literally wrote the book on negotiation, and it’s those skills he’s honed over the years that have made his campaign so adept at sidestepping blunders. Scott Adams, creator of “Dilbert,” argued on his blog last August that writing him off as just a narcissistic blow-hard isn’t giving him enough credit, let alone enough to take him down. You have to understand that the game he’s playing is on a whole different level.

For example Trump’s claim that he’s worth $10 billion has been repeatedly debunked. But Adams says that’s just an example of Trump’s salesmanship; utilizing a technique known as “thinking past the sale.” Though we may not think Trump is worth the $10 billion he claims he is, our subconscious minds have already linked Trump with wealth. Once you understand that Trump’s “anchor” is almost never what he’s saying (or rather belligerently yelling) at rallies, it becomes clearer to see what his game is, according to Adams:

But it gets better. You probably cringed when Trump kept saying his appearance gave FOX its biggest audience rating. That seemed totally off point for a politician, right? But see what happened.

Apparently FOX chief Roger Ailes called Trump and made peace. And by that I mean Trump owns FOX for the rest of the campaign because his willingness to appear on their network will determine their financial fate. BAM, Trump owns FOX and paid no money for it. See how this works? That’s what a strong brand gives you.

….On a recent TV interview, the host (I forget who) tried to label Trump a “whiner.” But instead of denying the label, Trump embraced it and said was the best whiner of all time, and the country needs just that. That’s a psychological trick I call “taking the high ground” and I wrote about it in a recent blog post. The low ground in this case is the unimportant question of whether “whiner” is a fair label for Trump. But Trump cleverly took the high ground, embraced the label, and used it to set an anchor in your mind that he is the loudest voice for change. That’s some clown genius for you.

Over his decades of business dealings—whether successful or not—he’s honed these skills of persuasion to an split-second art. In Buzzfeed’s exploration of the Trumped! website, they even found a post from 2005 wherein he details the advantage of being “underestimated.”

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From Buzzfeed’s screencaps of “Trumped!”

It’s clearly effective. President Richard Nixon apparently believed his wife back in 1987 when she said that she believed if Trump ever ran he would win. At this point his campaign plan aligns so closely to a “Simpsons” episode it’s almost as if he lifted it entirely.

So how do you stop a guy who seems to be playing an entirely different game? First you have to understand how he does what he does; start seeing him not as Emperor Palpatine, but as the used-car salesman, right-wing Bernie Sanders that he is. Like Sanders, he’s appealing to the frustration Americans feel towards their logjammed government.

After that it’s only a matter of hitting him where it hurts. So far the only thing he hasn’t been able to fully disassociate from.

Maybe it’s time we stop holding Trump up as a wacky mainstream candidate, and instead hold his small, stubby hands to the fire.

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