Trump’s Strategy Signature: Plays of the Annenberg Analysis

January 4, 2018

The analysis published this week by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, “Disruption, Demonization, Deliverance, and North Destruction: The Rhetorical Signature of Donald J. Trump,” moves us closer to solving America’s most unusual president. As well, its descriptions of Donald Trump’s foremost persuasive characteristics — what the authors Prof. Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Doron Taussig call rhetorical signatures — provide the makings of a strategy signature as described in the exhaustive third edition of the Taxonomy of Influence Strategies. Here’s how it breaks down:


That Donald Trump is hard to track and even harder to trap is nothing new, but recognizing chaos as one of his basic rhetorical capabilities is smart.

But it’s not the strategies that explain how Trump keeps us guessing. It’s the variables that animate this Trumpism. As shown above, Accuracy, Clarity, Attribution, Balance, Transparency and Velocity are relevant, but that the president is so consistently inconsistent is one piece of the Annenberg puzzle.


A new word to most mortals: Manichean. Its goes back to an apostle — a guy named Mani from the ancient Mesopotamia — whose thinking in 240 AD was more black and white than shades of grey. What the UPenn authors are getting as it that Donald Trump is likewise in love with simple answers for a simple script: Right and wrong, winners and losers, patriots and prisoners, etc. Among the 23 plays in the Taxonomy of Influence Strategies, one stands out as Trump’s most obvious vehicle for modeling Manichean mindset, Declare.

Accounts of a shoe-banging Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev inspired this play. “We will bury you,” he once bellowed at Western diplomats in a 1959 U.N. speech. Sound familiar? Declare, is one of four strategies that press an agenda and part of a larger category of plays that confront. It’s the influence strategy that allows players to make things so by saying they are so. This is gas lighting if you speak urban slang.


Another astute casting of Donald Trump’s rhetoric is the president’s tendency to issue and inform on his own facts and figures. By degrees, this can be described by the play we call Equate, a low-engagement strategy in the framing family that invokes issues, ideas and events to expand a player’s position or point of view. Think of how a wanting candidate might hang with a celebrity or speak in the shadow of a monument. Trump, after all, is never shy to point to his own idols. “I have a pilot who’s a real expert…,” the paper cites him saying to airline executives. But there’s a better play to express Trump’s penchant for arguing specious positions: Reflect.

Called Mirror in System 2, this is the strategy that’s more often used by the rational than the rationalizer. It’s the play that uses facts, figures and usually non-fiction to drive a point. But that doesn’t stop Donald Trump from using his own fiction to rebut his rivals. To wit, this famously-cited premise, “…I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”


The fourth framing of the president’s persuasive ploys might involve a host of plays in the family of diverting strategies, most especially Decoy (aka, the Red Herring). When cornered, Trump tosses rhetorically rotted fish to distract a dogged news media. It is, ironically, the president’s best strategy for creating the fake news that he himself derides. More important, it is the play that keeps eyes and attention onto what Trump is selling and off what’s really happening.

In moviemaking, this strategy is sometimes called a McGuffin, a term coined by the late director, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, who routinely concocted side-plots for his audience to decode. By analogy, President Trump sends us sniffing at signs and signals that mask his own activities. Hillary’s emails, radical Islam, and voter fraud are just a few of the decoys his White House deploys to de-position or de-emphasize such things as the Mueller investigation, nascent white supremacy, and the swelling ranks of minority voters.


A final insight from the Annenberg scholars is Trump’s disdain for all things of authority, institutions and traditions — particularly those attached to the government he campaigned to run and which he now commands. The play that Trump employs to separate himself from the sacred is arguably the freezing strategy called Reject.

It was another campaigning American president whose public rebuke memorialized this play. In 2008, when Barack Obama’s long-time pastor was found to have seethed, “God damn America,” Obama was forced to run from Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Similarly, President Trump has sought to distance himself from, even snub or rebuke, what is commonly respected and revered…like the FBI, Department of Justice and the Paris Climate Accord.

While the paper’s authors are keen to marry rhetorical styles with the metaphor of a signature, it may be helpful to superimpose the four plays described above onto the Taxonomy of Influence Strategies.

What can be said of this simple exercise is that (1) Donald Trump’s rhetorical routines are located more toward the right side of the Playmaker taxonomy. This indicates higher relative levels of strategic engagement. (2) His preferred strategies are housed in the Diverting and Pressing families of influence plays, which confirm’s the Annenberg’s characterization of a president who is prone to misdirection and confrontation. What can also be seen is (3) where the president does not primarily play — in the categories of Probing, Framing, Freezing and Provoking, a finding that can inform strategists who seek either to keep the president in place or to unseat him. The info cards above offer standard guidance for achieving either end.

Post by Alan Kelly