How to handle Donald Trump

Donald Trump thrives in the realm of snap judgments on issues like immigration and trade. Logic takes more time, and his GOP rivals won't have much of it in a debate. He thrives on anger, too. What's left is mockery. 

Darren Abate/AP
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks during a brief stop at a campaign event in Laredo, Texas, on Thursday.

The following brain teaser helps explain why Donald Trump has done well in some polls.

A bat and a ball cost a total of $1.10. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball.  So what does the ball cost?

Most people will immediately think, “Simple: The answer is 10 cents.”  But that answer is wrong. If the ball costs a dime, and the bat costs a dollar more, then the bat costs $1.10, and together the bat and ball cost $1.20.  The correct answer is five cents, which puts the cost of the bat at $1.05, for a total of $1.10.

This math problem comes from "Thinking Fast and Slow," by renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman. In this book, Kahneman explains that two systems shape the way we think. System 1 is quick, emotional, intuitive:  It’s the realm of snap judgments about questions to which we do not devote much time. System 2 is more logical and deliberative, and it takes longer. In this math example, the wrong answer pops up instantly in your brain, while you have to spend a few moments to figure out the right answer.

What does this bit of psychology have to do with the Trump campaign? With the election more than a year away, few voters are thinking seriously about politics. Their views on public issues largely reflect the first mode of thinking – which is exactly what Trump is appealing to. Consider his effort to link undocumented aliens with rampant crime. He appear to be relying on this snap judgment:  If people are here illegally, they must also be committing all kinds of crimes, right? Actually, the data do not support that notion, but voters will seldom go to the trouble of checking it out. It sounds right to a lot of people, and they respond accordingly.

On trade, similarly, he offers a simple solution: Slap tariffs on cheap imported goods. Never mind that such a policy would violate trade agreements and set off an economy-crashing trade war. Also never mind that a good deal of Trump-branded merchandise is made in China and Mexico. The idea gets applause from people who think that other countries are taking advantage of us. They do not ponder the consequences of protectionism.

What can the other candidates do?  The System 2 answer is that they should patiently explain why Trump’s ideas are bad and theirs are better. Even under the best of conditions, however, such reasoned deliberation is tough to achieve in the heat of a political campaign. And 2016 does not present the best of conditions. With so many Republican candidates, debates will not give anybody enough time to develop arguments at length. In 1858, Lincoln and Douglas each had up to 90 minutes to make their case. In the 2016 debates, candidates will be lucky to get 90 seconds.

Some commentators say that Trump’s opponents should angrily denounce him. That approach would eventually backfire. Like a classic schoolyard bully, Trump thrives on hurting people’s feelings and getting them to respond angrily. 

A better tactic comes from radical organizer Saul Alinsky, who wrote: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” Instead of deconstructing Trump’s statements or sternly delivering “have you no sense of decency” lectures, the other candidates should just make fun of him. That way, they could turn System 1 thinking against him. Once voters start seeing him as a clown, they will automatically treat everything he says as a joke waiting for a punchline. Dan Quayle can attest to the impact of this process.

And like most bullies, Trump does not respond well to mockery. “It’s hard to counterattack ridicule,” wrote Alinsky, “and it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage.” 

Trump’s opponents should give that observation some careful, deliberative, System 2 thought.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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