Trump’s Brilliant Positioning


He is a master negotiator, and much of his success comes from superb positioning. He has repeatedly and very effectively applied this chapter’s principles in business and presidential negotiations. Please note that I am not judging – either positively or negatively – his objectives. That’s not my job. My only job is to teach you and other people how to negotiate. You, I, and everyone else can learn from President Trump’s words and actions.

He Is Extraordinarily Deceptive.
Information is power, and he increases his power by knowing much more about what other people think, want, and will do than they know about him. He has made many statements that conflict with each other or with solid evidence. Very few people are sure they know what he really believes.

He is always negotiating, and some of his opponents don’t realize they’re involved in a negotiation until long after he has established and exploited a strong position against them. Some never realize it. I’m writing this chapter about a year after his inauguration, and many media people still don’t realize how much they helped their “enemy” to strengthen his negotiating positions. They deny the obvious evidence that – without their help – he never would have been elected.

If they had really listened to him instead of mindlessly attacking him, they would have realized that he wanted them to attack him. He obviously craved publicity and had even said, “No publicity is bad publicity,” but they gave him an immense amount of free publicity.

It’s an extreme mistake to underestimate your opponents, and the media and his other opponents did it again and again. They insisted that he couldn’t get the nomination, then that he couldn’t get elected, and then that he would be impeached.

In all competitions – including negotiations – you gain a huge edge by knowing more about the competition than they know about you. Again, we see that Trump outplayed the media. They didn’t know what he would do, while he read them accurately, predicted what they would do, and played them the way a master plays the violin.

He Takes Outrageous Positions.
These positions frighten people, make them wonder whether any deal is possible, and they create immense bargaining room. He sometimes backs down very quickly, surprising everyone. He always knew that he couldn’t get some of the “deals” he proposed. He frequently said something outrageous, scared people, and then backed down to a more realistic position.

For example, he scared countless people by saying he believes in torture. Shortly after his inauguration, he said the Secretary of Defense (who doesn’t believe in it) would decide whether to use torture. Many people were extremely relieved by his “concession,” but I doubt very much that he ever intended to implement an official torture policy,

He said that he would build a wall on the Mexican border wall, demanded that Mexico pay for it, and threatened to place a 20% tax on Mexican imports. He also told the Mexican president not to visit him if he wasn’t willing to surrender.

A few days later he had a long telephone call with the Mexican president. He reported that their talk was very friendly, that he had great respect and affection for Mexico and its people, and that he and the Mexican president had agreed not to comment publicly about the wall. Many people were relieved, but Trump certainly knew that Mexico would never pay for that wall and that a 20% tax would hurt American businesses and consumers.

His executive order preventing people from several Muslim countries from entering the U.S. was outrageous and deceptive. There was no warning, no waiting period, no clear definitions of who could or could not enter. People with Green Cards were temporarily barred. Families with small children were taken off airplanes. He deliberately created chaos to put people off balance.

He Uses Tweets To Reinforce His Frightening Image.
Tweets and other direct communications to the public were never used so frequently or effectively by a presidential candidate, president-elect, or president. The whole idea of frequent tweeting or making so many public statements seemed undignified, far beneath such lofty positions. His use of them indirectly said, “I’m not constrained by the rules that inhibit other people, including other presidents. I am so special, so unique, that I can and will do whatever I like. If you don’t like it, that’s tough.”

He Uses Extreme Language.
His language has been unprecedented for a presidential candidate, president-elect, or sitting president. His predecessors almost never publicly used words like, “piece of ass” nor did they say the liberal media are “the most dishonest people.” His extreme language reinforces his “I can’t control myself” image.

He Started “Fights” Over Trivial, Even Silly Issues.
One of the silliest was the fight over whether more people watched his inauguration than Obama’s. Photos and other evidence clearly indicated that fewer people had come to see it in Washington, but nobody can say how many watched it on international television, YouTube, and other websites. He and the media had a childish argument, complete with name-calling, over a trivial issue.

The media insisted that he was lying, and he said they were extremely dishonest. But nobody could prove his point, and it didn’t matter anyway. All the fight did was reinforce the perception that Trump can’t control himself, which is exactly what he was trying to do.

That point will be expanded in moment, but there is another reason for these fights: My friend and occasional writing partner, Preston Oade, emailed:

“The ‘silly issues’ are just part of his overall strategy of constantly fighting the media, portraying them as biased and unreliable. It’s disruptive, allows him to control the daily news cycle, and plays to his base voters.  Most people know that the media is biased against him, so he plays this card at every opportunity, even relatively poor ones.  He’s a fighter and wants the media and everyone else to know it.”

He Very Effectively Applies The Law Of Irrationality.
His outrageous offers, frequent tweets, extreme language, and silly fights have created an “unbalanced” image. As this book stated earlier, an irrational image creates immense power. Irrational people may not care about extremely unpleasant consequences. For example, if you and a lunatic are ten feet apart, and you both have hand grenades, who has the power?

He does!

You’re too rational to use your grenade, but you can’t tell what he will do.

Richard Nixon called this law, “The Madman’s Advantage,” and he used it to keep the Vietnamese, Russians, Chinese, and others off balance. Trump uses it much more frequently and effectively than Nixon did. He has been called a psychopath and a narcissist. Even people with a more positive image have doubts about his ability to control himself, and virtually everyone regards him as extremely unpredictable.

Like Khruschev at the UN, he has successfully established a frightening character, but his character is much scarier. Khruschev’s shoe-banging was a fairly isolated event. Trump has shown an apparent lack of control hundreds of times. He has even scared prominent members of his own party. A few of them even said he was “unfit to be president.”

His apparent instability greatly increases his bargaining power. People will make concessions to him that they wouldn’t make to someone they believe is more rational, predictable, and controlled.

WARNING #1: Many Of His Tactics Won’t Work For You.
Although his tactics have had extremely successful short-term results, it’s too early to say which long-term effects they will have. He has had such extreme short-term success because he has a unique situation:

  • He’s the most powerful man in the world. He is the leader of the only superpower, the largest economy, and the strongest military. He can destroy anything, including the entire world.
  • He had created an extremely dominating and aggressive image by years of ruthlessly successful business deals, a savage election campaign, a best-selling book, and a successful television show.
  • He took all the steps we just discussed, and he did them again and again.

You don’t have remotely as strong a position, nor do you have such a unique and scary image, nor are you willing or able to take all these steps. You can’t go as far as he does, but you can learn from his successes and copy some of his tactics. Select only the ones that fit your situation and personality.

WARNING #2: His Positioning Tactics Work Only When You’re Pure Bargaining.
He’s a master bargainer, but – like many other extremely dominant people – a terrible joint problem-solver. We will discuss the effects of personal styles in chapters eight and nine. His tactics build his bargaining power, but prevent or destroy trust and open communication. As we saw in chapter one, you can’t have a good joint problem-solving session without trust and shared information.

WARNING #3: His Positioning Tactics Prevent The Development Of Good Relationships.
His extreme deceptiveness, overemphasis upon pure bargaining, obsessive need to win, excessive personal attacks, and repeated attempts to scare people make it almost impossible to have good relationships. He beats up people and enjoys doing it. He even tried to trademark, “You’re fired.”

WARNING #4: His Tactics Sometimes Backfire.
He often pushes so hard that he makes The Law Of Irrationality work against him. Some people become so angry or intent on protecting their egos that they care more about beating him than their own objective interests.

What’s The Bottom Line?
As noted earlier, I have often written about the similarities of poker and business. One of the most important principles of both is that the correct decision almost always depends upon the situation. Here’s a quotation from the first few pages of my book, Business Is A Poker Game.

“Many weak players have asked experts, ‘How should I play pocket aces (or some other hand)?’ They want a simple answer, but the experts nearly always reply, ‘It depends upon the situation.’

“The experts then ask questions about the players’ skills, styles, images, stack sizes, and so on. The weak players can’t answer many questions because they’ve never thought about some issues. They don’t want to analyze the situation, and they certainly don’t want to consider many variables. They just want a simple, all-purpose strategy, and – as every good poker player knows – there aren’t any simple, all-purpose strategies.”

Should you use Trump’s positioning tactics? The only intelligent answer is, “It depends on the situation.” You can’t make a good decision about positioning tactics without first answering many questions:

  • What are your objectives?
  • How powerful are you?
  • What kind of people are your dealing with?
  • How do they perceive you?
  • Can you credibly act the way he does? If his tactics would make you too uncomfortable, you probably won’t appear credible.

If you’re thinking of copying him, carefully answer all these (and many more) questions, and then discuss your answers with a good negotiator.

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