The “Trump-Russia Connection:” Anatomy of a Perfect Influence Campaign

This isn’t a post that I wanted to write. Mainly, I just can’t stand the hysteria anymore. But, after this week’s much-ballyhooed Comey hearings that turned out to be mostly hysteria piled on nothing, and which helped Donald Trump in the long run, I recognized that, to my knowledge, there has been no practical handbook to all things “Russia” and the persuasion tactics that are being used in pushing this story. I also wanted to go over what has been one of the most persuasive ad campaigns I’ve ever seen, arguably even exceeding Trump’s own campaign. The Trump-Russia connection story may be an absurd hoax, but no one ever said that facts mattered a terrible lot, and it’s very intricately engineered. Let’s now explore how.

Foundation

The foundation of the “Trump-Russia connection” story is largely based on two things that happened during the campaign.

  1. The publication of DNC emails by Wikileaks during the Democratic National Convention that exposed shenanigans by the party establishment and eventually forced the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Shultz as chair.
  2. The hacking of the email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta and the subsequent publication of his emails by Wikileaks.

These are the two events from which the Russia connection story has sprung so far, as the assertion is that the Russian government was behind these events, but the evidence even for this has been dodgy and circumstantial, so far anyway.

First Julian Assange and Wikileaks denies that a Russian was his source, emphasizing the DNC emails in particular as a leak, not a hack. Because Wikileaks has a very accurate record far in excess over the big media outlets, that warrants attention going forward.

The FBI never examined the DNC servers that were supposedly hacked. The conclusions that the Russians were responsible stem from the cyber security firm CrowdStrike, whose founder is a member of the anti-Russia Atlantic Council and which has connections with the DNC, the Clintons, and Ukrainian Oligarchs, and was under contract with the FBI for unspecified services at the time. Recently, after an influential think tank and Ukraine’s military disputed its reporting, CrowdStrike was forced to retract some of its findings which were the bedrock of its assessment that the Russian government was responsible for attacking the DNC servers (which stemmed to purported malware similarities). This raises some doubt about their conclusions, and again, why was the FBI never allowed to examine the DNC servers? During the recent French election, emails from Emmanuel Macron’s campaign were leaked, with the predictable bloviation of “Russia!” When the French security services examined the servers, they found no such evidence, saying that the attack was so simple “anyone could have done it,” which sounds an awful lot like what happened to John Podesta. For more on this saga of fuzzy facts, I recommend this thread.

From these vague, often conflicting foundations, the storm brewed. The vague, conflicting foundations are in fact one reason why the Trump-Russia story has been so persuasive, as they lend themselves to speculation.

End Goals

Every advertising or marketing campaign has end goals, attempts to influence human behavior toward believing certain things or taking a certain actions. What would the attempt at persuasion be in the “Trump-Russia connection” story? The ends seem obvious, and all the reports in the media seemed geared toward them.

  1. Derail the Trump presidency, possibly to the point of forcing him out of office.
  2. Prevent any kind of thaw in US-Russia relations.

Here are the methods that I’ve seen being used to influence people (which includes you) to acting toward those ends.

1. Pacing the Mood

Very successful persuaders attune themselves to the identities of their targets before making suggestions to change their behavior. They seek to mimic their likes, moods, desires, even body language and breathing patterns, creating an atmosphere of trust and liking. In hypnosis, this is called pacing and leading. There are multiple ways to pull this off, but the persuaders behind the Trump-Russia connection story probably went about it this way: they saw that the election was a deep shock to so many people (and you know who they are). They not only couldn’t believe that Trump won, but they were beside themselves in grief and rage that this crazy, racist, orange Cheeto who didn’t know anything could be president. That was the movie on their screen.

In such a mood, they were in a greatly heightened state of suggestibility. A trained persuader would easily see this. The seeds had already been planted for the Trump-Russia connection story (the Clinton campaign was rolling with it and planned to blame it for their loss as early as November 9th), and in their mood, many people were eager to accept it. Not only would it provide a reason for Trump’s win, but it also served as a way to deligitimize the result and maybe even annul it. It is worth noting that it wasn’t until December that the Trump-Russia connection story began in earnest.

2. Dominating the Space

One of the reasons why Trump’s campaign was so prolific was that it dominated all the space around the discussion of many issues, including immigration, trade, jobs, foreign policy, healthcare, etc., to the point that none of his competitors, including Hillary Clinton, had much of a message of their own. They largely reacted to the things he was doing. Hillary Clinton would probably be better off reading Stumped’s second chapter, where this is explained in depth, than going on her excuse tour.

It’s for this reason that my antennae were tripped when the Trump-Russia connection storyline began to get pushed in December. I noticed it as an attempt to dominate space. Russia was one subject that Donald Trump didn’t quite dominate in the campaign (it probably wasn’t important enough). Now, suddenly, by going so far with the stories about Russia’s nefarious actions, that story commanded attention, and commanded it in a way not of Trump’s choosing. Now if Trump did anything that didn’t toe the establishment, indeed, neocon line on Russia, it would look bad, and the Russian connection label would intensify. Note that the leaks and the Trump-Russia connection story abated for a few weeks and he was lauded in the media after he lobbed cruise missiles at Putin’s client, Bashar al-Assad and his regime in Syria, just as many in the (dare we say it?) Washington swamp wanted.

In short, the dominance of the story was highly persuasive to modifying beliefs and behavior, including Trump’s.

Chinese Go
By going so far, the Russian connection story has boxed in Trump on the issue.

3. Yes-Set Agreements

In persuasion, when you get your prospect in the mood of agreement, future agreement is easier to obtain. You start by getting smaller agreements and then transition into bigger ones. Unlimited Selling Power explains:

As the patient agrees with these yes-set questions, he or she begins to experience the comfort and relaxation that are being discussed. The earliest yes-set questions you use should be the ones that are easiest to agree with. As a “climate of agreement” is built, bigger requests can be made. The patient, who is now in a “habit of agreement” is much more likely to follow these suggestions.

As people agree with a salesperson or hypnotist, they tend to fall into a habit that increases the likelihood of continued agreement. The more people agree, the more they are likely to continue agreeing. Many highly skilled persuaders seek some form of minor or major agreement, at least once each minute during their presentations.

This sort of agreement isn’t limited to questions, either. When you secure agreement and rapport, starting small, bigger suggestions are possible to make.

Now look at the Russia story. It didn’t begin with a Trump connection. Though there were accusations of Trump admiring or having a “bromance” with Putin (more on that later), it began in earnest with the accusations that Russia was behind the DNC and Podesta email distributions. Afterward came the suggestion that Russia “hacked” or “interfered” with the election to help Trump. This was actually a double whammy of persuasive prowess. Yes, it was the next progression in the overall “yes-set,” but it was also a presuppositional story when it exploded in December. By presuming that the Russian government tried to help Trump, you necessarily assume that “hacking” or “interference” took place. Now the debate becomes not whether, but how Russia “interfered” – to help Trump or merely cause chaos? The declassified “assessment” of this came out a short while later asserting the latter, even if the evidence (when presented at all) was based on the dodgy information cited above and the report was mainly dedicated to the Russian state TV station, Russia Today. Significantly, it also escalated earlier reports, saying that Putin himself ordered the “interference,” making for another progression. After this news cycle, with which a large part of the country agreed, the next suggestion was that the Trump campaign somehow colluded with the Russian government.

Note the progression of suggestions:

  1. Russia “hacked” or “interfered.”
  2. Russian efforts were to help Trump.
  3. Putin ordered the effort (which makes it more personal).
  4. The Trump campaign colluded with Russia.

Had this progression happened too quickly, it wouldn’t have been as effective – too much, too soon stretches the limit of tolerance, but making small suggestions to secure belief followed by bigger ones is far more effective, and the progression in the Trump-Russia connection story was done perfectly.

4. Vagueness

Speaking of terms like “interference,” these were chosen deliberately as well, and for good reason. There was also a “yes-set” progression involved in this terminology. Note that the stories started with “hacking” and “interference” to then become the equally vague but far more sinister-sounding “hacked the election” and “attacked our democracy.” What do these terms mean? Your guess is as good as mine, but that is precisely their strength. Because they can mean anything, you can fill in the blank with whatever drives your passions in the moment. They can also be used as rhetorical weapons to dominate space and channel attention according to the demands of the situation.

Question the validity of the hysteria? How dare you side with the people that “hacked our election” and “attacked our democracy!” It has been a gift that keeps on giving, linking it with natural human in/out-group tendencies (see below). The result has been a campaign with potentially calamitous foreign policy consequences and the creation of a full blown McCarthyite atmosphere, but it has been very effective persuasion.

It also does a marvelous job of, as mentioned above, of channeling attention, inviting you not to ask this question – assuming Russia did indeed “interfere” in ways that the story purports so far, what did it accomplish? The allegations are, to repeat, that it dumped the DNC and Podesta’s emails. Not changing vote tallies. Not blackmailing anyone. Not bankrolling candidates illegally, but dumping emails. In other words, the extent of their purported “interference” (aside from the crime of the hack itself), so the story has gone so far, was orchestrating the release of newsworthy information, much as foreign outlets like the BBC or Guardian might. Is that scenario considered a foreign “attack on our democracy” or even a “Pearl Harbor event?” Would it be called “collusion” (another deliberately chosen, nefarious-sounding term) if a campaign was involved in such reporting? Maybe, but it is questionable, to say the least.

More recently, there was the leak by the infamous “Reality Winner” (which is her actual name) which finally seems to put the “interference” story on solider ground, asserting that Russian actors attempted to breach some electronic voting systems (all of which were optical scanners based on paper ballots anyway), but that has yet to be demonstrated. It is merely an assessment by some in the NSA. It’s also worth noting that Comey, NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers, and others have said that if it did take place, it had no effect and also that, if true, Obama lied to the public in December. For these reasons, this part of the story probably won’t spread as wildly.

Then there’s the matter of the aforementioned Trump-Putin “bromance,” another vague term. This stems from Trump’s supposed failure to be belligerent with Putin, instead “praising him endlessly.” This is confirmation bias. He mentioned Putin little, and never in ways that would be considered over the top praise under normal circumstances, except perhaps saying he was “strong” a few times. The beef with Trump was mainly that he wasn’t belligerent enough, but that would make sense if you want to do deals with Putin (say, over ISIS and Syria). On the flip side of the story (and which supposedly indicates a Russian connection), Trump said some bad-sounding things about NATO. Yet, this ignores that he wanted NATO members to pay for their defense as agreed (which is not unusual for any President, as Obama, too, was upset at the “free-riding”), so that necessitates getting tough and bringing negative attention to their failure to live up to their obligations. From a persuader’s perspective, it all makes sense, but trained persuaders also know how to turn something like this around for their own side. It was easy to make it part of the confirmation bias was used against Trump, and the vagueness of the “bromance” label has helped to intensify the Russian connection story. An entire presidential campaign often overwhelms the mind, and details get lost (more on that below). By spreading the vague-but-engaging “bromance” label around, it served as another useful plank in the Russian connection storyline.

Trump Putin Russia connection

5. “17 intelligence agencies”

According to the renowned social psychologist Robert Cialdini, authority is one of the universal principles known to influence people to change their beliefs or comply with requests. This he explained at length in his highly influential bestseller, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

By repeating the phrase “17 intelligence agencies” constantly, the messengers of the Trump-Russia connection story have done a marvelous job of narrowing the range of debate. By channeling attention to this authoritative statement, it increases the receptivity to the main message. The statement is given added power by the number 17, which sounds high in this context. Humorously, the number was bumped up to 22 in a recent segment on Tucker Carlson Tonight by someone repeating this line, even though, as Tucker reminded him, there are only 17, and in point of fact, only three agencies (FBI, CIA, and NSA, along with the DNI’s office) signed on to the aforementioned report with their conclusions. These details are lost in the atmosphere though (see below).

The phrase also benefits from its easy repeatability, its meme power, if you will. That, the high number (for more on the persuasive effects of numbers, I recommend Cialdini’s Pre-Suasion), and the attention to authority, make this a very well-crafted phrase, so much so that I doubt it was an accident. Whoever originated it likely knows what he’s doing.

6. Outrage Dilution

Anonymous sources, usually cited as “current and former officials,” working with a very eager media, have pushed new “bombshell” (in their own, non-random word) reports roughly every week, sometimes twice or more, to dig the Trump-Russia connection hole deeper. That many of these stories are mostly or entirely false, including, by former FBI Director Comey’s admission, a February New York Times report suggesting ties between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence operatives, hardly matters. The initial outrage and hysteria trends in a wildfire, while the retraction or correction maybe lights some matches. Then, the next few stories come, and they all come at such a pace that it becomes impossible to pay attention to details.

As you may have surmised, this is a variant of spatial dominance. The cumulative effect of each supposed “bombshell” report on the Trump-Russia connection is to spread agreement and acceptance of the story arc, trigger confirmation bias, and make discernment extremely difficult. In such complex conditions, normal mental shortcuts or cognitive biases beg to be used. Again, this is not a random occurrence.

Outrage mob

7. The Unity Principle

In Pre-Suasion, Robert Cialdini went over a seventh universal principle of influence he claims to have missed in his earlier work – that of togetherness or unity. By being together and acting together, self-identity blurs with that group you share common characteristics or actions with, and differences with other groups get starker. In hindsight, this isn’t a groundbreaking revelation. I covered its use in great depth in Stumped as in-group/out-group dynamics. Note Trump’s constant stress of “we,” “us,” “our country,” and “movement” in his campaign as compared to “me” or “I.”

It is, ironically, the classically “globalist” establishment and the political left, who normally seek to break down group identities in favor of an individualist, monolithic, global society, that have used the unity principle to great effect in the Trump-Russia connection story.

As I mentioned in Stumped, one of the best ways to draw attention to your opponent’s negatives and lower his status is to accuse him of treasonous conduct to your/his tribe or in-group. By setting up the out-group menace of Russia and channeling attention to “treason” to the American in-group, the Trump-Russia connection story is by default, but especially in this atmosphere, emotionally charged, less open to reason, and confining to the field of acceptable opinion. It is ironic that the supposedly “anti-racist” leftists and establishment figures have used the unity principle at its ugliest extreme, venturing into rhetoric that would be called blatant bigotry in any other context. Witness former DNI James Clapper’s recent quip that Russians are “genetically driven to co-opt and penetrate.” I wonder what the millions of Americans of Russian descent or Russian immigrants have to say in response.

Conclusion

James Comey this week made fairly unambiguous what was obvious – Trump is not under investigation for any wrongdoing, there is zero evidence that there was connection or collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, and that anonymous “officials” weaponized by the media aren’t reliable arbiters of truth. Or maybe it wasn’t obvious and I just picked up on it quickly because of my being versed in the tactics I’ve laid out for you here.

Perhaps the fervor of this story has peaked, but with the special council Robert Mueller (who was appointed after Comey’s well-executed moves), it won’t fade into obscurity for a while. This story will unfortunately linger for some time to come, as it’s gotten to the point that even casting doubt on the existence of the conspiracy means you’re in on it. Witness the treatment of anti-Trump liberals like Glenn Greenwald who simply haven’t been sold on the Russian “interference” and connection angle and think this road is dangerous. By cynically pushing this story with scant to no evidence in their hopes of damaging Trump or even removing him from office, the establishment, media, and leftists have imperiled relations with a nuclear power, marred and destroyed reputations for no reason, undermined the legitimacy of the social institutions further, and made the forces of factionalism worse. The late Roman Republic doesn’t seem so far out of whack in comparison.

Regardless, I can’t say that I don’t have respect for the persuasion being used. It’s been very well-done, and any aspiring persuader should study the Trump-Russia connection story arc, which is partially why I wrote this post I didn’t really want to write. It’s gotten very good results – Trump’s agenda has stalled, the cloud has marred his popularity, and any attempt to have a new era of relations with Russia, on say, peace in Syria or combating terrorism, looks very far away now. Note again that the one time Trump was cheered in his presidency was when he bombed Assad’s forces, in contrast to his campaign platform. Mission accomplished.

As for what this tells us about the establishment and the leftist activists under them? The Trump-Russia connection arc has taken the mask off a few things and shown us mainly that they don’t care about “anti-racism,” fighting bigotry, respect for democracy, facts, reason, or peace. They only care about power. They always have. To get it and keep it, they will gladly traffic in everything they claim to oppose and unleash reputation destroying, far reaching witch hunts. They’ll even help in starting wars. Their vision is pure. Anything standing in its way must be destroyed and humiliated.

But these kinds of demagogues have always been with us. I’d therefore like to draw attention to the opening of Caesar’s speech when debating the fate of those attached to one (Catiline and his conspiracy) over 2,000 years ago:

Conscript fathers, all men who sit in judgment on uncertain issues ought to be truly free from rancor, favoritism, anger, and sentimentality. The mind cannot easily perceive the truth when these emotions obstruct us; and no man ever obeyed both passion and consideration at the same time. When you concentrate your mind, it produces sound judgment; if passion controls, then the mind is in its grip, and the intellect produces nothing.

Circumstance, time, and the whim of Fortune direct all nations. Whatever happens to the defendants here will be justified; but consider, conscript fathers, the precedent of your decision for other cases. Every bad precedent first came from good cases. But when official power is wielded by incompetence or men who are less than good, this new precedent is transferred from those who are worthy and suitable to those who are unworthy and unsuitable.

IE: in the hands of bad men, the bad precedent damages people who don’t deserve to be damaged. I’ll let this speak for itself.

But where do we go from here? The start of the answer is to first “concentrate your mind.” The best thing you can do is keep mind of these words and make yourself aware of these tactics, not only to persuade others, but in this case, so that you’ll be more aware if someone is trying to pull a fast one on you, as the Trump-Russia connection story has largely been. Make yourself aware right now by grabbing a copy of Stumped.

  • Clarence

    Hmm. From the persuasive point of view, very well explained and true.
    But there are a few things I think you overlooked that do have a real-world impact on this.
    What are the Ultimate Goals of this conspiracy – selective (as to timing) leaks(some of which are downright false and others that are reported misleadingly), the use of several major media outlets as tools for what is propaganda campaign, the yammering of partisan democrats (who’ve been caught in plain testimony in several lies that their organs don’t hold them accountable for) etc? I think there are 3:
    1. As you mentioned, in-group solidarity. The so-called ‘resistance’ needed an explanation as to why they (on the Right Side of History) lost, the baby boomer women (who are feminists almost all regardless of whether they claim the label or not) needed an explanation for why many of them had been told “NO” for the first time in their long, spoiled lives. The ‘professional’ media and intellectual castes were also appalled that the Orange Cheeto had triumphed over Ursula the Sea- Witch, er Hillary Clinton.
    2. If they can accomplish it (believe it or not this is still, when you look at it, and look at Trump a VERY BIG ‘if’, so not likely) they wish to get Trump impeached. Believe it or not, Pence is more to their liking and would probably (while still not totes corrupted) play more ‘ball’ with them. Plus Pence would keep The Base (aka Regressives, aka “Resistance”, well you know who they are) energized. Or get Trump to quit. Plenty of leftwingers think he’s a stupid ape who will easily be driven out by all the hassle.
    3. Fine, it’s not likely (despite all this smoke and fire) they can get rid of the Donald and assassination is – when you consider that parts of the so-called “Deep State” and MOST of the military seem loyal to him(plus, lets not forget his own private security) -problematic and risky. Too risky. So let’s just work at ruining his agenda and Presidency. That as you point out, is what this “Muh Russia” thing seems most successful at doing, even though quite a few Americans (lets say Trumps hardcore base of deploreables, alt-right, libertarian conservatives, nationalists of various stripes and working white people ) of somewhere between 15 and 35 percent have totally tuned them out and probably at least half, if not more are skeptical of The Narrative at least about collusion.

    The real questions to me that the so-called mainstream media hasn’t tackled and you don’t mention:
    A. How many politicians in both of the two parties are brought off by $ to their Superpacs? How many are are actually owned because of something the NSA or other rogue intelligence agency has on them that is criminal or embarrassing or worse? The fact is REAL intelligence reform would include whistle-blower protections and probably a rotating (randomly chosen at that) congresscritter who would basically have the access of the President and the director of those organizations. Otherwise, you and I both know that petabytes of data on American citizens -esp social media data- WILL be misused. Either by the intelligence agencies themselves or by a future OVERT dictator.
    Anyway, if enough are controlled, then Trump can be stalled no matter HOW things turn out with Muh Russia. The 2018 mid-terms become even more important in that context.
    B. I think the ‘mainstream press ‘ is slowly but surely destroying its credibility with all but the most fanatic leftwingers and anti-Trumpers. Do you have any idea WHY they(the people that own these media conglomerates) would sacrifice their press organs and what, if anything they intend to replace them with?
    C. How much of this is money and power (intertwined in our society and the $ involved is in the trillions) and how much of this is political or racial (everyone hates the White Working Class it seems)?

    Anyway, thank you for the educational read. I had most of that down, but not some of the specific techniques. I do think (thankfully) that this would have been even more effective in the recent past when there were only 5 non-cable tv channels, most people read their local news, and the internet wasn’t a ‘thing’. Thank God for the internet or I think Trump WOULD be impeached by now.

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    • The media is indeed destroying its credibility, but they still have the outsized power to channel attention, so this is having a disproportionate effect. They’re also trying to trip Trump up into making the coverup the actual crime.

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    • Son of Efreet

      “…needed an explanation for why many of them had been told ‘NO’ for the first time in their long, spoiled lives…”

      Sadly, this is a huge part of it.

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      • Indeed it is. They’re so convinced that they’re entitled to power because they’re moral and their opponents are benighted sub-humans that this came as an unimaginable shock. Hillary herself is the best example. Suggestibility would be at stratospheric levels for them.

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  • Great article. I came across a Stefan Molyneux tweet that reminded me of this article.
    https://twitter.com/StefanMolyneux/status/874018378276536320

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  • Son of Efreet

    Solidly explained.

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