Trump just gave the world a masterclass in the persuasion tactic known as “pacing and leading”

A new new low.
A new new low.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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Remember how shocking it was when Donald Trump threatened to bring Gennifer Flowers, Bill Clinton’s former mistress, to his first debate against Hillary Clinton? It was a new low, both for Trump and for politics—but only briefly.

It also was an opening salvo in a two-part persuasion tactic that has become a hallmark of Trump’s campaign.

The cartoonist Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, explained the concept, and Trump’s skill with it, in his Sept. 26 endorsement of the Republican nominee. The technique comes from the controversial self-help movement known as neuro-linguistic programming.

Trump “paces” the public – meaning he matches them in their emotional state, and then some. He does that with his extreme responses on immigration, fighting ISIS, stop-and-frisk, etc. Once Trump has established himself as the biggest bad-ass on the topic, he is free to “lead,” which we see him do by softening his deportation stand, limiting his stop-and-frisk comment to Chicago, reversing his first answer on penalties for abortion, and so on.

Trump always takes the extreme position on matters of safety and security for the country, even if those positions are unconstitutional, impractical, evil, or something that the military would refuse to do. Normal people see this as a dangerous situation. Trained persuaders like me see this as something called pacing and leading.

So the idea that Clinton, the first woman ever to stand at the podium in a US presidential debate, would have her husband’s former paramour paraded in front of her at the invitation of her opponent? It wasn’t just galling. It was positively unthinkable—that is, until Trump went ahead and suggested he’d do it.

That was the pacing. And it set the stage for what came after it: the thinly veiled allusions to the things Trump could say about Clinton’s family; the apology in which he sought to excuse his nonchalant talk about sexual assault by attacking Bill Clinton’s own history with women; the hastily planned press conference just before the Oct. 9 debate, where Trump sat alongside three women who have accused the former US president of unwanted sexual advances and a fourth woman whose alleged rapist was defended in court by Hillary Clinton when the victim was 12 years old.

By the time the women from the press conference were seated inside the debate hall, at Trump’s invitation, for his second face-off with Clinton, there was nothing left to be shocked about.

Once the debate got going, Trump offered up yet another example of his skills with pacing and leading. That call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” which he issued back in December? It’s been downgraded to a plea for “extreme vetting” of refugees from certain parts of the world.