- Terry R. Bacon
Profiles in Power: Donald Trump
Donald Trump is a paradox. He lacks many of the traditional sources of human power, and he primarily uses negative influence tactics as a leader, yet he is undeniably powerful and influential, even after losing the presidency and leaving office. As someone who has spent much of his professional life researching leadership, power, and influence, I have been puzzled by Trump’s ability to build and sustain an extraordinary amount of power despite personal flaws and copious failures that would cripple most other leaders in his position.
In this paper, I will examine Trump’s sources of power and his use of influence techniques and then focus on the single technique he uses most often to sustain a phenomenal amount of influence, particularly in today’s Republican Party.
The Sources of Human Power
Power and influence go hand in hand. To wield influence, a person must have power. The research on power shows that people have eleven common sources of power: five personal sources (knowledge, expressiveness, history, attraction, and character), five organizational sources (role, resources, information, network, and reputation), and one meta-source—will. To learn more about these power sources, visit www.powerandinfluence.com or read my book The Elements of Power: Lessons in Leadership and Influence.
I examined Donald Trump’s power sources using observations of his presidency and his life and reading books and articles written by people who worked with him and know his style well. This analysis was challenging because Trump has a grandiose view of himself, so his statements about himself must be leavened by an objective view of his behavior, as well as observations by people who were in his inner circle like Michael Cohen, John Bolton, and James Mattis.
I also considered views by Trump loyalists, but their views had to be assessed in light of their unwillingness to speak out against Trump for fear of retaliation. Considering all sources, I rated Trump’s power sources on a 1 to 10 scale, as shown in the chart below. This chart depicts Donald Trump’s Power Profile, i.e., the strength of each of his power sources.
Trump’s Strongest Power Sources
Donald Trump has four major sources of power: his role as president, his extraordinary drive or will power, his effective use of media, and his control of resources, financial and otherwise.
Role power was extremely high for Trump (10 out of 10) when he was president. He was able to make executive decisions by himself, often contrary to the advice of his senior advisors and cabinet members. Now that he is out of office, his role power has diminished substantially. Today, he is a private citizen and holds no defined post in the Republican Party; however, many Republicans consider him the unofficial head of the Party, and that entitlement gives him a limited but nonetheless real amount of role power, even as a private citizen.
I have divided Expressiveness into three subcategories. In his speech, he scores extremely low. He has a flat voice and speaks with little affect, which makes him sound wooden and artificial. Moreover, his language use is at the fifth-grade level. However, during his presidency, he was very savvy about messaging through social media. His use of Twitter, in particular, gave him a broad platform to express his views and energize his base. Post-presidency, his media use has diminished considerably, partly because he was banned on Facebook and Twitter and partly because he has not found alternate platforms with nearly the reach of Twitter and Facebook. That may change as he resumes his rallies and finds other more receptive social media platforms. However, he attempted to create his own social media platform (From the Desk of Donald J. Trump) and it failed quickly because so few people signed up.
Will power is one of Trump’s greatest strengths. His tenacity and determination took him to the White House. There is no question that is willpower is very high and remains so after leaving office. He has all-but-articulated a desire to run for president again in 2024 and may do so if conditions are favorable.
Resource power has been and remains one of Trump’s key sources of power. Although his exact net worth is unknown and controversial (he apparently has often claimed to be worth more than he actually is), it is clear that he controls hundreds of millions of dollars and owns many properties (although we don’t know to what extent they are mortgaged and otherwise have debt associated with them). His control of financial resources gives him considerable power.
Network power has traditionally been a moderate source of strength for Trump. He gained the presidency by building a network of supporters and donors, including some people like Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, who were initially opponents and critics, and some powerful spokespeople at Fox News, who acted as his mouthpieces to his base. After leaving office, he has maintained part of his network of Republican cronies and donors. However, post-presidency, he is not the network hub he used to be, and some former members of his networks have deserted him for various reasons.
Trump’s Weakest Power Sources
Donald Trump’s weakest sources of power are knowledge, information, character, attraction, and reputation.
Knowledge: The evidence does not support Trump’s boast that he is a very stable genius, so his rating on knowledge and skills is very low. During his presidency, he made numerous factual mistakes and other gaffes that revealed ignorance of often-basic information. Not only is knowledge not a strength for Trump, it was often a power drain because his factual errors made him look ignorant and uninformed.
Attraction is also more of a power drain than a source of power for Trump. He is not physically attractive, nor does he have a warm and engaging personality. Some psychologists have labelled him a paranoid narcissist, both of whose characteristics are off-putting. His self-centeredness, his refusal to admit mistakes, his trashing of opponents, his calculated divisiveness, and his preoccupation with image—all these traits are disagreeable, and many people, repulsed by Trump’s manner and behavior, regard him with disdain.
Character is another of Trump’s weakest sources of power. He lies constantly, is disloyal, boasts about himself in non-credible ways, and lacks courage although he pretends to be courageous. All these failings diminish his character power to the point where character is a hindrance rather than a strength. (For insight on his lies, see Daniel Dale’s “The 15 most notable lies of Donald Trump’s presidency.”) Among his ardent supporters, his disregard for tradition and protocol, his dismissal of the status quo in Washington, and his racism and crudity are admirable qualities and form a kind of anti-character that gives him some power among this segment of the population. But in the world at large and throughout most of America, Donald Trump’s lack of character diminishes his power.
Information power is also weak for Trump. As president, he had access to a watershed of information, but he is not a reader and apparently does not retain information. When he does offer “facts,” he is frequently wrong or has inflated facts or distorted them to the point where his “facts” cannot be trusted. His command of information has been proven to be so untrustworthy that instead of this being a power source, it is a power drain. He is more a master of misinformation.
Reputation power is very low for Trump except among his most ardent followers, some of whom believed he was godlike. Among many of his MAGA-hat-wearing followers, he is still held in high repute, but the majority of Americans and most of the rest of the world have a very poor opinion of him.
History refers to strong personal and family relationships. His family connections remain moderately strong, but he has lost many of his close personal relationships in part because of his pattern of attacking former allies who have distanced themselves or angered him in some way. They have often shown loyalty to him that he does not reciprocate, so, for Trump, the power that comes from strong personal ties is relatively low.
For anyone, power is not a constant. It increases and decreases as a people’s circumstances change, as they interact with others, and as they perform their work. Trump’s overall power has certainly diminished since the 2020 election, in large part because he lost the legitimate power of the office along with the bully pulpit that he used to great effect for four years. Despite his assertion that the election was fraudulent, it is clear that he cannot and will not regain the White House prior to 2024. Yet his power to punish those who disagree with him remains strong, and he is clinging to a considerable amount of power within his Republican base and among most Republicans in the House and Senate.
Curiously, his egregious failure to address the Covid-19 pandemic and his role in the attempted insurrection on January 6 should have ripped the seat of power out from under him. Why hasn’t it? To understand that, we need to examine how Trump uses various influence techniques to exercise power.
Trump’s Use of Influence Techniques
Influence is the application of power. There are ten positive influence techniques and four negative tactics. The positive techniques are logical persuading, legitimizing, exchanging or bargaining, stating, socializing, appealing to relationship, consulting, alliance building, appealing to values, and modeling. This chart shows Trump’s use of the ten positive techniques:
Trump uses logical persuading very little. When he attempts it, he often misuses facts and undercuts his message with people who care about the facts and know the truth. His appeals sometimes appear quasi-logical, especially to those who want to believe him and are therefore subject to confirmation bias. Trying to unpack Trump’s attempts at logic is dizzying because they are so bloated with logical fallacies.
He uses legitimizing considerably more frequently and often successfully. His legitimizing usually took the form of, “I’m the president so you will do as I say,” or he would claim that, “Many people I’ve talked to say this or agree with me.” Those statements wore thin during his presidency either because they were obviously manufactured or because it seemed clear that he was only speaking to loyalists who would tell him what he wanted to hear.
Exchanging is a method of influencing where you trade for cooperation or agreement. Trump’s exchanges often took the form of, “If you vote for me, I’ll build a wall on the southern border” or “If you support me, I’ll speak highly of you” or “I’ll give you what you want if you give me what I want.” His exchanges, like his relationships, were almost purely transactional, and that worked often enough for him. It doesn’t work as well now because he no longer has the power of the presidency to deliver favors, although his unofficial role in the Republican Party still gives him some powerful, although limited, bargaining chips.
Stating is asserting what you want. This is one of Trump’s most-used influence techniques. He used it throughout his business life, he honed it on The Apprentice, where he wielded absolute power, and he mastered it as president. He combined stating with threatening, which is discussed below. There were consequences if someone did not do as he wished, so his stating always came with an implied threat.
Socializing is an attempt to influence by finding commonality with the people you are trying to influence. Trump’s socializing has always been done from a position of superiority (president, business leader, wealthy person, reality TV show host), so it lacks the authenticity in which socializing is most often used. Moreover, Trump does not see himself as an equal to most other people, so there is no common ground between him and others. His basis for socializing is artificial and forced.
Appealing to relationship is based on close, personal relationships and family or tribal ties. Trump continues to rely on this influence technique, but like most people it has limited range. His inner circle has been shrinking, and their reach beyond his inner circle is constrained, particularly now when favors for Trump could bring unwanted scrutiny.
Consulting means influencing by asking questions of people and gaining their support because they feel some ownership of the solution. This technique is the diametric opposite of stating, which Trump uses frequently. Consequently, he rarely uses consulting as a means of influencing others. If he asks questions, they are purely rhetorical because he really doesn’t care what others think.
Alliance building is his most-used influence technique, and I’ll discuss it in more depth below.
Appealing to values means inspiring others by aligning yourself with their values, and Trump has mastered this technique—at least insofar as it animates his base. What gained him the presidency was having an infallible instinct for what ailed a significant portion of the voters: anger at being left behind, the disenchantment of the working class, resentment of foreigners and immigrants, fear of rising minorities, disdain for liberals, and distrust of the government. In his crude, cruel, and callous way, he spoke to the disenchanted and demonized his opponent. He understood populist sentiment and captured the presidency through an effective appeal to those voters’ values. That same appeal failed in the 2020 election, but 74 million Americans still voted for him. He still uses that same appeal to values, but the majority of Americans no longer embrace (or even tolerate) his message.
Modeling means influencing by acting as a role model. This has never been Trump’s strength. Even many of his supporters agree that he is a deeply flawed human being and not a role model as president, party leader, or man.
The ten influence techniques I have just discussed are positive in the sense that they are not manipulative or coercive. The people whom the influencer is trying to influence have the latitude to say no. But in the entire spectrum of how people try to influence others there are four negative tactics: avoiding, intimidating, manipulating, and threatening. This chart shows Donald Trump’s use of these influence methods:
Donald Trump’s nature is to be dominating and authoritarian. He holds himself to be superior to others and is likely to use threats and intimidation where it is expedient to do so.
Threatening is one of his most oft-used tactics. He will cajole, threaten, or punish people who oppose him or do not do his bidding. His use of name-calling and his punitive attacks on Twitter were not merely intended to strike back at a person who thwarted him, they also warned others not to refuse him lest they become targets of his wrath.
He also frequently tries to influence by manipulation—by lying, concealing or distorting facts, and misleading people into believing something that is not true. His Big Lie, that the 2020 presidential election was stolen by the Democrats, may be his most pernicious lie, but the extent of his lying is legendary. According to the Washington Post, during the four years in the White House, he lied or distorted the truth more than thirty thousand times. Even some of Trump’s supporters admitted that he had only a loose connection with the truth. He was able to manipulate millions of his supporters with his lies, but a greater number of other Americans held him in contempt for his frequent and callous disregard of the truth—and the stark character flaw his lies exposed.
Trump is a large man, standing six foot three and weighing somewhere north of 250 pounds. He has an imposing presence. Coupled with his glowering demeanor and brusque manner, he is naturally intimidating. Add the power of the presidency to that package, and you have a man who uses intimidation as comfortably as he breathes.
Trump uses avoiding less often than the other negative tactics. Avoiding occurs when the influencer doesn’t want to confront an issue or avoids dealing with it so others are forced to. We have seen Trump do this on several notable occasions, such as in April 2020 when he forced state governors to make the decision on locking down their states as Covid-19 raged across the country. He knew that decisions like locking down and wearing masks would be unpopular with voters, so he influenced governors by avoiding. Similarly, he avoided dealing with Russia on many occasions when Russian misdeeds or aggression should have been confronted.
Where Trump Excels: Alliance Building
In this post-2020 election era, Trump’s greatest source of power is his loyal base—the MAGA-hat-wearing, Qanon supporting, conservative, flag-waving true believers in the BIG LIE. Throughout his 2016 campaign, Trump built this loyal base and catered to it during his presidency. He built it through an adept appeal to their values and a propaganda engine that manufactured an image of Trump as an iconoclastic warrior for the working class who would drain the swamp and put America first. Now his base is an aggrieved but fanatical minority that continues to terrorize Republican legislators who fear Trump’s wrath if they speak out against him. Liz Cheney is their most notable recent victim, and she is an object lesson for any Republican disloyal to Trump.
The purpose of alliance building as an influence technique is to enhance your power through the coercive pressure of a collective, to create a bandwagon effect through the shared vision and voice of allies. While the influencees may readily resist a single person’s attempts at influence, they will often bend under the weight of pressure brought about by an alliance. Strategic alliances among nations are the most evident use of this technique. The Allies defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan during World War II is an example of the power of alliance building writ large. But commonplace examples of it occur when a group of students unite to persuade a reluctant friend to skip homework and go out with them or when the children in a family gang up and successfully lobby for a pizza dinner.
What makes Donald Trump’s use of alliance building so notable is, first of all, the strength and tenacity of his coalition. Trump’s base has remained loyal despite overwhelming evidence that he is deeply flawed as a leader and a human being. Despite multiple scandals and a tsunami of lies and corruption in his administration, they have stuck with him like superglue on fingertips. That speaks to their almost desperate need to believe the stories he told them and to their deep-seated desire to preserve a country and a way of life they felt was slipping away from them. Fearful people crave deliverance, and Trump was savvy enough to build an alliance out of their hunger for salvation.
The second notable aspect of Trump’s alliance building is the degree to which he has weaponized his base to prevent the majority of Republican lawmakers from deserting him—even to the point where some have denied the reality of the January 6 insurrection, reiterated the BIG LIE, and blocked a congressional commission to investigate the insurrection. As distressingly self-serving as their subservience is, it highlights the potency of Trump’s alliance.
As Trump’s example shows, alliance building can be an extraordinarily effective influence technique. He has been able to wield considerable political influence through this technique. However, alliances can be sustained only as long as the alliance members remained committed to their shared vision, purpose, and goals. Things change. People’s circumstances could improve in the post-Covid era and life returns to normal. The policies and practices of the Biden administration may prove to be less damaging than Trump warned. People move on, and the disenchantment Trump’s base felt prior to his election may weaken—or not. The legal scrutiny Trump escaped while president may return, vengeful and persistent. As Trump’s post-presidency legal woes deepen, he risks losing the loyalty and fidelity of his base. If his alliance crumbles, as indeed it might, he will lose a vast amount of power.
Alliances are only as durable as their members’ interests remain unified. While they last, however, alliances can bring enormous influence to bear.