Listening, genuinely listening, is one of the most powerful tools in politics. Not many politicians are good at it. Oh, they pretend to listen during campaigns. Mostly they want to deliver their heat-’n-serve talking points.
It took him long enough. But finally, in his 15th month, President Donald Trump is showing genuine signs of harnessing the persuasive powers of saying nothing at times, of listening, more importantly of being seen to listen.
During the 2016 campaign, he didn’t really need to work at being seen to listen. He talked up storm after storm day after day, often stream-of-consciousness, not always coherently.
This actually was a major reason why Trump the insurgent was elected. The astute essence of the billionaire’s bang-on message about forgotten Americans and a hollowed out heartland resonated so profoundly in the hearts and minds of enough Americans in the right places they just knew he was listening.
From the June day he announced in 2015, I’ve not been a fan. Bull-headed self-indulgence is unappealing, even if you can afford it. And even if his supporters can look past that behavior to what they desperately hope he’ll do to demolish the rigged bipartisan D.C. political system of cronies that has ignored and marginalized so many millions for so long.
But from decades of observing, covering and participating in U.S. politics, I’ve become an avid observer. Here’s something to notice. It’s a small thing for now, and doesn’t outweigh other controversies. But it is revealing about Trump’s ability to alter tactics.
Three times in recent weeks, Trump has held so-called listening sessions – with Congress members of both parties on immigration, with grieving families after the Florida high school shooting and then a bipartisan session on guns. They ran a little over an hour each.
As in reality TV, Trump presides over these listening sessions, which he likes. He used to do this sometimes in the real estate days when he needed investors to buy in, for example.
He presents himself as a reasonable deal-maker apart from either political camp. He looks good as a listener, non-toxic. Listening flatters others, especially if the listener is the president. Trump might even look to lean Democratic at times. He needs them to buy in.
POTUS throws out little observations to show he’s informed. And he injects wisecracks at times, which can sting. He suggested one GOP senator was afraid of the NRA. Trump smiled, but he wasn’t kidding.
However, here’s what’s so striking about these sessions: The blowhard, who’s supposed to be all about himself, listens more to others. Attentively. He seeks divergent views. He goes around the table calling on everyone by first name. And as the number of these listening sessions increases, he talks less.
During the Jan. 9 White House meeting on immigration and DACA, participants spoke about 11,000 words. Half were Trump’s. In last week’s session on school and community safety, just over 10,000 words were spoken; 32 percent were Trump’s.
The often raw Feb. 22 listening session with emotional students, teachers and parents elicited almost 11,000 words. The president of the United States uttered but 19 percent of them.
Unusually and smartly, Trump had the media pool stay to witness. Those who watched live, in CSPAN.org archives or later read transcripts on WhiteHouse.gov, got his message unfiltered, as did his nearly 49 million Twitter followers. They’d see for themselves a chief executive in charge, concerned and, above all, paying attention.
Predictably, subsequent news accounts focused on “the news,” Trump’s jousts with fellow Republicans, statements that appeared to contrast with the NRA and his professed eagerness to put guns out of the reach of crazy people, even without court orders. All legitimate angles.
But in Trump era politics what’s becoming more important is what doesn’t get said.
Andrew Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.