A Skeptical Audience

So Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey, as everybody knows by now. This immediately drew parallels to the Saturday Night Massacre, where Nixon ordered his Attorney General to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

At the heart of the matter are three questions. First, whether Comey was the best person for the job. The second question is whether this will hinder any ongoing investigations, specifically the investigation into Russian involvement in the Presidential election; and what if anything will be done to safeguard these investigations.

The third question is the most important, and is simply; which of the first two questions did Trump answer when firing Comey? That is, did he fire Comey because he felt Comey wasn’t a good director? Or did he fire Comey specifically to stop the Russian investigation (or any other)?

If it’s the first, and Comey wasn’t the best fit for the job (or even if Trump just honestly thinks so), then there’s no real problem. If it’s the second, then basically Trump is abusing the office to enact a personal agenda, using the department of justice as a political tool, and obstructing justice. Essentially, what Trump did is either a standard (if somewhat unusual) way of acting as President, or an impeachable offense; either it was as bland as Bill Clinton dismissing FBI director William Sessions, or as corrupt as Nixon firing Cox.

* * *

Having just finished a class on negotiation; I was struck by an study by Huthwaite inc, called “The Behaviors of Successful Negotiators” which looked at (no surprise here) the behaviors of successful negotiators. It was one of those truly great readings, the point of which seems obvious to me after reading it, but never once occurred to me beforehand. There were some behaviors which were kind of boring, (such as skilled negotiators talking more about long term topics), some which were somewhat reasonable but not much use elsewhere (skilled negotiators don’t have a predetermined sequence of when they wish to discuss which issue), but some which were meaningful and profound.

The fact I was most impressed with were the fact that skilled negotiators rarely used words like “generous,” “fair,” or “reasonable” to describe their own offers. Within a negotiation, calling something “fair” which you present, even if you think it is fair, is unlikely to convince your counterparty; it will only serve to aggrevate him or her if they don’t think its fair.

The second fact which I thought was really valuable was that skilled negotiators often made fewer arguments in their favor; but those were typically better quality. That is, if you’re trying to convince a hostile (or even skeptical) audience of a fact, and you present 5 arguments, they’re naturally going to latch on to the weakest argument you make. People are not rational Bayesian calculation machines, 2 strong arguments in favor are greater at convincing humans than 3 strong and 3 weak arguments in favor.

In both cases, the lesson is similar, in convincing a skeptical audience less is often more. Using more neutral language is more persuasive than persuasive language, and using fewer arguments is more persuasive than using many. The stronger you believe something (or come across as believing that thing), the less persuasive you can be to a skeptical audience.

* * *

Today, while packing up my apartment, I was listening to a several months old episode  of Bill Simmons’ podcast, the BS report. Simmons’ guest was one of my favorite essayists, Chuck Klosterman. In it, they were discussing who the NBA MVP will be, Russell Westbrook or James Harden. Klosterman had a very intriguing argument, which essentially went like this (I am of course paraphrasing):

1: The people who favor Westbrook think its obvious that the MVP should be Westbrook and there’s no other choice. (Westbrook averaged a triple double over the season, something that hasn’t been done since the legendary Oscar Robinson).

2: The people who favor Harden think its an interesting question and there are arguments for multiple candidates, but Harden is overall their favorite.

3: The people who are undecided will see the above two arguments, and almost tautologically will relate to 2nd one more. Because (by definition) they haven’t made up their mind, they can relate to those who think its a close race, who favor Harden.

Its an almost brilliant idea, and I have no idea if it will be correct or not, but it has a certain logic to it. Underlying it all is the same lesson, your ability to convince a skeptical party of something can be inversely related to the strength of your own belief.

* * *

Trump’s approval rating is low, but its not historically low. 538.com has him at 41%; Gallup had Obama at the low 40’s for much of 2011 and 2014 (of course this time in 2009 Obama was in the low 60’s, 20 points better than Trump is now.) Gallup had W Bush’s low at 25%, HW Bush at 30%, Clinton at 40%, Reagan at the mid 30’s, Carter at 30%, and Ford at 40%. (the counterclaim is that none of these Presidents were this unpopular this soon in their Presidency, but that’s kind of beside the point).

I’m not a Trump fan, and I certainly don’t think I will be. I see a number of things which Trump has done as being bad, corrupt, or incompetent, and the demeanor in which he has conducted himself has at times seemed unhinged and almost crazy. This to go with his numerous scandals, problems, gaffes, and remarks he made while campaigning and as a public figure.

Yet as much as 41% of American voters still approve of Trump. Why is this?

* * *

All this brings us back to President Trump and James Comey. If you’re already inclined to believe that Trump is a despot you will probably see the Comey situation as analogous to the Saturday Night Massacre, and Trump as obstructing justice. If you’re a fan of Trump you’re much more likely to see the situation as nuanced, or as analogous to Bill Clinton dismissing Director Sessions. And if you’re in between? Well, articles like this probably won’t convince you.

I think that those people who either support Trump or at least still giving him the benefit of the doubt just see all the criticism blending together, drowning itself out. They see Trump detractors reacting to firing Comey in the same way the reacted to Trump’s February 16 press conference. As long as they see the tone and not the substance of their opponents’ arguments, they’ll get no new information, and of course won’t change their minds.

Take an article like this, very anti-Trump, which purports to list all the bad things Trump has done. Yet it seems like half the things listed aren’t things Trump has done, but rather things he’s said or tweeted. Going back to the fact about skilled negotiators, how they will use fewer stronger arguments. Then compare that to the list in the nymag article. For many of the “Trump said this” arguments, if you’re not convinced now, you may not be ever. And if that argument won’t convince a skeptic, then making it will probably make better arguments less convincing.

With a skeptical audience, the strength of your beliefs can often work against you. There’s no shortage of liberal antipathy towards the Trump administration, yet I wonder if the strength of the left’s beliefs is actually hindering its ability to make a convincing argument.

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