Monday, November 27, 2017

Trump gives people an excuse to believe the unbelievable.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"   


The quotation is by Upton Sinclair, who got a hands-on lesson in politics, by running for governor of California and "getting licked."

Click: 20 seconds. "Who are you going to believe. . . . "
Donald Trump is giving the American people a long-form lesson on political messaging, by showing us the power of sticking to ones story, even in the face of direct, obvious, unmistakable evidence to the contrary.   

The line, "Who do you believe, me or your own eyes?" is from Duck Soup, a Marx Brothers comedy, but the technique is deadly serious and effective in politics.  Trump does it.  Like Groucho, he is brazen.  Like Chico, dressed as Groucho, he stands tall and asserts his story.  Click.  It's funny.

The Rufis T. Firefly character gives people a basis for believing what they want to believe, not what their own eyes tell them. He denies what she has just seen.  Kellyanne Conway and Donald Trump are demonstrating how to do it in their messaging on Senate Candidate Roy Moore.  Give people the tiniest, least probable,  but still possible, basis for questioning what they see.  Roy Moore denies it, they say.  Therefore, who know's what is true?  There is a basis for doubt.  

Trump kept raising doubt and questions regarding the Obama birth certificate.  No evidence was dispositive.  He kept alive the desire of his base to deny Obama legitimacy, until near the election when he reversed course 180 degrees and said he was a hero for ending this ugly birther smear, and asserted it was all Hillary's idea.  Then he stuck to that story.   It worked. He seemed so confident.  Who do you believe, me or a long record of videotape to the contrary?

Maybe you don't have to believe what you are hearing.
This weekend's news--that Trump is now raising the question whether the Access Hollywood tape is actually legitimate.  

This is new.  

His immediate response to the Access Hollywood tape had been unique in the Trump approach to messaging: he apologized.  He minimized it: just "locker room talk." 

Minimization is not a version of denial.  It is the opposite of denial.  Minimization denies its importance.  True denial denies its reality.

Trump is now attempting a do-over, a political version of a golf Mulligan, regarding the Access Hollywood video.  Maybe the tape was not real, he is reported to have said to Mitch McConnell and others.  Maybe it was doctored.  

This changes things for his supporters and takes a document off the table.  His supporters are not stuck with that piece of evidence, after all. If they can transform what they heard from a stipulated document, from something they must incorporate in their thinking, into something merely "questionable"  and disputed, then they can mentally dismiss it. What a relief.  

It is what his supporters want to think.  The tape is fake, maybe. The jury of his supporters are getting the excuse they needed and wanted. If the gloves don't fit, you must acquit.  The tape is just more fake news.  Forget it.

Trump cannot openly support a guilty Roy Moore.  He can support Roy Moore only if he can maintain a fig leaf--an arguable basis--for saying maybe it is not true that Moore dated and attempted sex play with 8th, 9th, and 10th grade girls.  The evidence of Moore's own minimizing of it, "generally no," in a taped interview with Sean Hannity, makes outright denial implausible, but Kellyanne Conway and Trump have their strategy: hold onto that fig leaf of doubt. Forget what you heard Moore say. Moore denies wrongdoing, therefore it is questionable, therefore it can be wholly dismissed.

The fig leaf of doubt makes Trump wholly justified in condemning Al Franken. There is an arguable distinction between Franken and Trump.  Al Franken admitted wrongdoing.  Moore and Trump are denying wrongdoing. 

Shockwaves are going through our political system. Women are coming forward. There is a period of bloodletting and it is unlikely that the punishments will fit any kind of proportionality.    Which officeholders lose their positions will depend on the success of the messaging, not on their degree of misbehavior.  If Roy Moore is elected and Al Franken is pushed from office then politicians will observe a bright, unmistakable signal on how to proceed in the future:  Deny, stick to the story, trash the woman.


Don't believe your eyes.  Vote for Moore in good conscience
Of course it is cynical, dishonest, morally indefensible.  But this isn't Sunday School.  Evangelical voters have made clear that church can be church and state can be state.  Vote your interest, not your conscience.  And to make it easier, we will give your conscience an escape route of arguable doubt.

We will see if theTrump formula is the one that works: give your partisans some basis for not seeing what is right before their eyes.  That would be the message.   Deny and win; apologize and lose.

Trump and Moore are providing a field experiment on what strategy might work, and it is playing out in real time.

    1 comment:

    1. Because for Trump supporters, it’s about a world that is turned against you. Politicians call you “basket of deplorable,” you can’t find a job, you see people not born in the country getting good jobs, you may have fears (that some news channels stoke) about a Black president. Etc. etc.

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