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The Art of Persuasion

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A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on December 2, 2019. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

Journalism is always conducted better in person than through networked technology. I’ve long regretted never having seen Richard Nixon speaking live before an audience rather than watching him on a television screen, which can distort the human body as well as the human voice. A man uncomfortable in his own skin, Nixon kept a good proportion of his neurosis hidden as he sat at his desk in the White House, his hair neatly combed, his image protected by Madison Avenue account men and art directors.

That’s the reason why, on November 12, I took the trouble of going to the New York Hilton Midtown to attend the speech President Donald Trump was scheduled to deliver at a luncheon. His views shaped by TV reality shows, Trump has broken with his predecessors by generally refusing to adhere to scripts prepared by advisers wiser than he. Of course, following his own instincts has brought him quite far. According to a lawyer friend of mine in Washington, “Trump has a twenty-word vocabulary, but he uses those twenty words in a very effective and disciplined way.” I wanted to see if the twenty words would be sufficient to impress the members of the Economic Club of New York, every one of them fully aware of this president’s manifest lack of discipline, and of the fact that he is currently the target of an investigation that could lead to his removal from office.

I was therefore surprised to discover that Trump, sporting a long red tie, followed his prepared text for a good ten minutes, touting in all seriousness his administration’s supposed successes: more jobs, a lower unemployment rate, the resurgence of the industrial sector, improvements in the conditions of minorities and the poor. You would have thought you were listening to one of Franklin Roosevelt’s Democratic heirs. Perhaps Trump was inspired by the introduction he’d received from the president of the ECNY, Barbara M. Van Allen, who’d presented him as “the author of 14 bestsellers,” among them The Art of the Deal, considered “a business classic.” Quite a boon for some lucky students from the Harvard and Columbia business schools, whose presence in the ballroom Ms. Van Allen pointed out with great pomp.

But the CEO-in-chief wasn’t able to control his tendency to exaggerate for long—even less able, in fact, than poor Van Allen—and soon felt compelled to give free rein to his imagination. Abruptly, the speech swerved in a more normally Trumpian direction. Making fun of the negative interest rates offered by some European banks, Trump sniggered, “Give me some of that…I want some of that money.” In my corner of the hall, around table 121, several merry-faced brokers and accountants applauded. Their job, in fact, is to squeeze money out of their clients continuously, and Trump, uninhibited in that area, could not help appealing to the small fraternity of the financial world. On my right, Bob, visibly delighted following on his iPhone the movements of the stock market minute by minute, in the hope, I believe, of intercepting a few of the bucks spat out by the market currents Trump had just stirred up.

By way of contrast, I noticed much less approval in the prestigious seats closer to the podium, where the high-end financiers had taken their places, maybe because they were expecting what came next. Paying tribute to his daughter Ivanka, whose official role in the administration is to promote better-paid employment and improved job skills for American workers, Trump launched into a narrative that may have beaten his own record for absurd invention: “She wants to make these people have great lives,” and, thanks to this desire, “she’s now created 14 million jobs,” well beyond her more modest ambition, two years previously, of 500,000. This spectacular figure grows from day to day, the proud papa declared. A good percentage of the audience reacted with applause though one of the guests at my table didn’t share in the general enthusiasm; he was an old friend of George W. Bush’s and had held some important posts during the course of his former Yale classmate’s two terms in office. As an expert in public and private finance, this fellow politely advised me to distrust Trump’s affirmations on the subject of his daughter, among other subjects.

How can Trump’s bizarre behavior be analyzed? In his new book, Losing Reality, the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, an expert in the study of cultish thinking, argues that Trump is quite probably incapable of following anyone’s advice or of controlling his own ridiculous words, for he is a solipsist more than he is, as many assert, a narcissist. To paraphrase the definition of solipsisme in Le Petit Robert, a leading French dictionary, there is for the president “no reality other than himself.”

I’m not saying that Trump, tactically speaking, is necessarily wrong to talk like a madman for discipline, after all, whether media-related or simply mental, has its limits. On March 14, 2008, the day when the momentous collapse of the investment bank Bear Stearns took place, George W. Bush, the gentleman president, speaking in front of the same audience in the same room, did exactly the opposite of what Trump was to do. At a time when the global financial system was on the verge of failure, Bush made everyone laugh—“It seems like I showed up in an interesting moment,” he said—and then fell to reciting some previously written clichés as if nothing was wrong. Did he do any better than Trump? Given the financial catastrophe that followed, my answer is no.

If reality catches up with Trump, if he’s removed from office for his crimes and his whims or the stock market tanks, what member of the American class of businessmen in the Economic Club’s audience will be up to the task of putting things right?

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