President Donald Trump often gives speeches that are outrageous, angry, insulting, or packed with falsehoods. Yet he also gives many speeches in which he speaks kindly and professionally. In these personable and reasonable speaking events, which are often ceremonial, he turns on the charm and uses his business skills to encourage discussion, hear people’s viewpoints, and advance our national polity. On April 11, 2019, President Trump met with a small group of World War II veterans in the Oval Office. One of them wore his old uniform, which still fit just fine. President Trump started with a personal story:
“Well, thank you very much. This is a special moment. I spoke with Allen Jones about a year ago. And Allen now is 95 years old. Great World War II hero. And when I spoke to him, I said, 'Come on up to the White House sometime and I’ll see you.' And guess what? He called and he said, 'Hey, you promised.' And I deliver, right? I deliver. We don’t play games.”
I imagine that many people think that the president does play games, but that isn't really the point here, is it?
Mr. Trump also introduced Sidney Walton, a 100-year-old World War II veteran, as well as Floyd Wright and Floyd Wigfield. He continued: “And Paul – where’s Paul? Paul Kriner is fantastic. Paul is — let’s see, 103. He doesn’t look a day over 90. (Laughter.) A hundred and three. You look fantastic. Congratulations. Congratulations. War hero.”
The president next introduced a veteran’s daughter, Mrs. Ellie Walton. She said, “This is our dad, right here. Yeah.” Trump responded, “The most wonderful dad.” Mrs. Walton said, “The most wonderful dad you could ever imagine.” Paul Walton then explained that “What he’s doing, Mr. President, is incredible. He’s traveling the whole country — all 50 governors, and now meeting the President — he’s spreading the word of how few World War II veterans there are left. And —” It was called the “no regrets tour.”
The president asked how many World War II veterans were left. Mr. Walton said it was just a handful. They chatted informally for a bit. Mr. Kriner narrated his experiences in the war:
“And, well, I started out in Africa, and Italy, France, and Germany. And I was in the Alps mountain area when the war ended. Our last position was at Füssen, southern Germany, in an Alps mountain area. We were pulled out and went into Schongau. It was a German army camp where they trained Air Force identification people.”
After some more chit-chat, Mr. Trump said, “Well, I want to thank all of you. Great heroes. Great warriors. Highly respected. And you folks do a fantastic job. I want to thank you. And congratulations to everybody.”
This event, which was reported in the news but got little attention, was more important than one might think. The president established good will. He made a good impression on the group. The event was entirely positive. The contributions of the veterans were noted and their lives were put forwards as role models. Fatherhood and family values were acknowledged. CBS News reported the event.
Mr. Trump's critics routinely underestimate his persuasive skill. I have previously asked, "will the real Donald Trump please stand up?" Although Donald Trump is a very complicated man, he knows how to work a crowd, turn on the charm, and make a point. His critics underestimate him at their peril.
For other posts about President Trump, search for "Trump" in the box at the right.
P.S.: My father, Casper Allen Harpine, Jr., was a veteran of the World War II invasions of North Africa and Southern France, and my father-in-law, Rev. Jesse D. Clanton, was a disabled combat veteran of the US Navy in World War II. My uncle Peter Feduska lost his life at the Battle of the Bulge. World War II touched many families, and the veterans should be remembered.
A couple weeks ago, I posted about the Talking Points Disease. Politicians suffer from this terrible disease when they spew out standard conservative or liberal talking points even though they know nothing the topic. My example was of Senator Mike Lee, who gave a preposterous speech in the Senate in which he made fun of the Green New Deal for things that the Green New Deal didn’t say.
There are more ridiculous talking points about abortion than any other topic, and it’s been quite a while since I have heard any liberal or conservative politician say anything intelligent about the topic. Mostly, the two sides just mindlessly repeat talking points. Let’s hearken back to the third presidential debate in October 2016, in which Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both suffered from Talking Points Disease.
Debate moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump a question about Roe v Wade. That is the famous Supreme Court decision that allowed women the right to abortions during the first two trimesters of pregnancy. Trump said he was against it. Clinton made a careless mistake when she brought up late-term abortions, which Wallace hadn’t asked about. I assume that late-term abortions were part of her prepared abortion statement and she repeated it without thinking. (That’s one way that Talking Points Disease gets started.) Lashing into her, Trump then repeated the conservative talking points that we have all heard many times:
“Well I think it is terrible. If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby. Now, you can say that that is okay and Hillary can say that that is okay, but it’s not okay with me. Because based on what she is saying and based on where she’s going and where she’s been, you can take baby and rip the baby out of the womb. In the ninth month. On the final day. And that’s not acceptable.”
As we'll see in a minute, that was a complete wrong statement.
Trump said to turn the abortion issue back to the states.
Clinton then gave an uninformed response in which she just repeated talking points. She said, first, that “well that is not what happens in these cases.” She was right there; it isn’t what happens. She said that Trump was using “scare rhetoric.” That was also true; Trump was using scare rhetoric. Clinton then said: “This is one of the worst possible choices that any woman and her family has to make. And I do not believe the government should be making it.”
Now, that is the standard liberal talking point: abortion is a woman’s decision. She said that it was a horrible choice that women might face. That was true, but beside the point. Here’s why: neither Trump nor Clinton seemed to know that Roe v Wade did not legalize third-trimester abortions! Roe v Wade leaves the states free to regulate late-term abortions. Really, any well-informed citizen should have known better, much less someone who wants to be president.
Worse, neither Trump nor Clinton seemed to know that Congress had passed and President George W. Bush had signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, which prohibited partial-birth abortions. The law's sponsor was conservative Senator Rick Santorum.
That was inexcusable. If you want to be president of the United States and if you want to talk about abortion, you should be prepared to talk about basic abortion law. In other words, Roe v Wade did not legalize the horrible things that Trump talked about and Congress had already passed a law that criminalized partial-birth abortions. Trump said something that was utterly ignorant, and Clinton, who liked to act as if she were smarter than Trump, didn't seem to know any more about abortion than he did.
Trump and Clinton repeated standard talking points that they had heard and on which, I imagine, their obviously incompetent staffs had briefed them. But neither of them had done the basic research and all they really did was to display their ignorance. They were unprepared and both made elementary mistakes that would get them bad grades in any college debate class. Abortion is a hard issue. Careless, ignorant thinking does not help us solve it.
For a public speaker, there is no substitute for in-depth knowledge. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato explained that in his beautiful dialogue Phaedrus and no one has ever shown him wrong. In my younger days, I was an active high school and college debater and, later, a college debate coach. We were taught that research was the secret to good debating. The side that could prove its points usually could set the agenda and win the debate. Trump and Clinton knew the talking points—but talking points are a shortcut. There is no substitute for doing the research.
Talking Points Disease is bad for a democracy’s health.
P.P.S. Clinton and Trump are both capable of giving good public presentations. Their outlandishly bad debates in 2016 were not among them. Interested readers can use the search box on the right to see what else I have said about these two prominent speakers.
Talking points are not debate points. Talking points harm our national dialogue. Most politicians try to win elections by targeting groups of people who hold particular attitudes. The politicians learn what their target voters believe, and then they parrot those opinions back to their target voters. Often, the politicians have no idea what the issues really are and have no clue why people care about them.
We talk about issues when we compare a policy's pros and cons. We use talking points when someone feeds us arguments that we don't understand about issues we know nothing about. Most politicians spew out talking points. Few of them know a blessed thing about issues. This is no way to run a country.
Mike Lee's GND Speech
So, let us talk some more about Arizona Senator Mike Lee’s embarrassing speech yesterday about climate change. A nonbinding Green New Deal (GND) resolution,sponsored by Senator Edward Markey, called for dramatic action to reduce the speed of climate change and reduce income inequality. Conservatives predictably responded by ridiculing the proposal rather than talking about the issues that it raises.
Lee claimed to have read the GND (I am reluctant to believe him) and said that it was ridiculous. To prove that it was ridiculous, he misstated what the GND said. He said that the GND would outlaw cows and air travel. Lee’s speech used visual aids showing Ronald Reagan riding a dinosaur, Aquaman doing something, and commuters riding seahorses to Hawaii. He concluded that the solution to climate change was to have more babies. Easily amused people thought this was funny, while people with brains and judgment think that Lee made a fool of himself.
Lee didn’t attack the GND’s real points; instead, he attacked a fictional version of the GND that conservative talking points had created. FactCheck.org notes that, although draft documents suggested reducing cattle agriculture and air travel, the resolution itself does not mention cows or propose to abolish airplanes. So, Lee overstated what the draft document said while refuting points that the resolution did not mention. Lee didn't exactly lie about the GND, but he didn't exactly tell the truth, either.
The Rise of the Talking Points
When the GND came out, conservatives quickly announced their talking points, all of which were ridiculous exaggerations: the Green New Deal will abolish cows and get rid of air travel, even for overseas areas. Senator Mitch McConnell tweeted, I kid you not: “We're going to vote in the Senate and see how many Democrats want to end air travel and cow farts.”
“If you are not familiar with it, here’s the cliff notes version: it calls for rebuilding or retrofitting every building in America in the next 10 years, eliminating all fossil fuels in 10 years, eliminating nuclear power, and working towards ending air travel (to be replaced with high-speed rail).
“There are even crazier things in this ‘Green New Deal,’ but why bother, it’s not a serious policy idea; it’s a unicorn. It’s like an idea conceived in a dorm room or the dark back room of a liberal think-tank by people who have never had a real job in their lives.”
These talking points are not serious arguments; they are hyperbolic accusations that feed people’s phobias. Once stated, however, conservatives ran with them. That’s why Mike Lee gave his absurd speech that claiming people in Hawaii would need to ride seahorses to get to the mainland. Conservative media praised Lee, probably because they were already ridiculing the GND themselves.
What about the GND?
I have not yet formed an opinion about the GND. Is it a good plan or nor? I don't know. But the fact that the GND's opponents attack it only by misrepresenting it makes me think that the GND must have merit.
Do You Believe Your Own Talking Points? Oops!
Great speakers and writers love hyperbole. The problem comes when you start to believe your own talking points. If you embellish your argument by joking that the GND wants to abolish airplanes, that might be OK. Trouble comes when you start to believe your own jokes. Lee, McConnell, and Scott did not do their research. They didn’t know what the GND said; they were not funny, they did not come to grips with the proposal's points, and they were not persuasive. They were just confused.
By the way, Democrats are just as bad to spew out talking points they do not understand. I will try to write about them in the next day or two.
I first got interested in political communication during my years as a high school and college debater and later a college debate coach. To win a debate, you do your research. The side with better research can set the agenda and win the debate. Politicians, with their secret polls and focus groups and media consultants, have forgotten about the issues. Voters have not. Politicians use talking points; voters care about making their lives better.
To cure the talking points disease: do your research. Learn the issues in depth. Know your topic. Make real arguments that mean something. Who knows? Voters might like it.
P.S. to planners: Businesses, schools, and agencies often circulate draft copies for comment. Politicians should never circulate drafts; they are just inviting ridicule. Oops to them, too. Publishing the draft was a bad, wrong, stupid mistake. Dumb. Careless. Only publish ideas when you are ready to debate and then stand by what you said. Once it's on the Internet, it lives forever. Oops again.
Also, here are two other recent posts about speeches that ridicule ideas:
Mike Lee, a Republican senator from Utah, gave what he thought was a humorous speech about climate change on the floor of the United States Senate today. The speech was hilarious, but not in the way he thought. Lee attacked the Green New Deal (GND) by showing posters of Aquaman and Ronald Reagan riding on a dinosaur while wielding an automatic weapon. He discussed the seahorse gap between the United States and China, ending his speech by proposing that the solution to climate change was to have babies. Many of the people I follow on social media thought that the images of this speech were Photoshopped: they couldn’t believe that a senator could really be that, well, let’s be frank, stupid. Lee, in turn, proudly posted this speech on his website (when wisdom would require him to pretend he had never delivered it).
Plenty of pundits are mocking Lee's ridiculous speech. I’m going to take a minute to show that speakers need research, which Lee didn’t have.
Attacking the draft, not the final copy
The basis of Lee's embarrassing spectacle was that the Green New Deal’s advocates made the mistake of circulating a roughdraft that included some impractical and poorly phrased ideas. Conservatives have ridiculed this draft for weeks to avoid dealing with any real issues.
The draft proposal called for, among other things, “Totally overhaul transportation by massively expanding electric vehicle manufacturing, build charging stations everywhere, build out high-speedrail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary, create affordable public transit available to all, with goal to replace every combustion-engine vehicle.” That’s obviously impractical, but to say that even this draft proposal would ban air travel overstates the text.
Satirizing the GND, Lee showed a picture of people commuting from Hawaii on seahorses (since they wouldn’t have airplanes.) I have no idea what purpose was served by picturing Reagan riding a dinosaur, and I suspect that Lee didn’t, either. Lee expressed worry that if the US banned airplanes, we would face an bio-industrial race with China, which might outbreed the US in seahorses. He claimed that the GND would abolish cows: “If they think cows smell bad, just wait until they get a whiff of the seahorses. No more milk, no more cheese, no more hamburgers.” The GND resolution does not, of course, ban cows. Following a conservative theme that liberals want to impose a new way of life, Lee warned that the GND would “restructure our very way of life.”
Tacitly admitting that he was attacking a draft, not the actual resolution, Lee criticized the GND’s advocates for sending the wrong press release. On the one hand, yes, they should have been more careful. On the other hand, he accidentally admitted that he wasn’t attacking the real proposal.
Lee's bizarre solution
Lee asserted (consistent with conservative ideology) that the federal government would not be climate change’s solution. Fine, we expected him to say that. The solution, which no one expected was, he said, apparently in all seriousness, was to be “found in churches, wedding chapels, and maternity wards.” His reasoning? To combat climate change required “technological innovation.” Innovation requires people to innovate.
“Climate change,” Lee insisted, “is an engineering problem – not social engineering, but the real kind. It’s a challenge of creativity, ingenuity, and technological invention. And problems of human imagination are not solved by more laws, but by more humans!”
So, if people have more babies, we will have more future innovators. This led him to conclude that “The true heroes of this story are not politicians and they are not social media activists. They are moms and dads.” He told people to solve climate change this way: “Fall in love, get married, and have kids.”
Lee read - droned - the the speech slowly in an unexpressive voice. He sounded tired, nervous, and apathetic. The Senate chamber looked pretty much empty. I heard no one laugh.
Ridicule is hard to do and avoids the real issues Ridicule can be a powerful if childish weapon if a speaker has the moxie to pull it off. Humor requires comic timing, which Lee lackked. His delivery was as stiff as it could be.Lee isn’t the first Republican to attack the Green New Deal by saying false things about its content. This a weak debating tactic will convince only people who are willing to delude themselves. There are, however, many such people. The conservative Daily Caller called Lee’s speech “hilarious,” which proves, if nothing else, that the Daily Caller’s editors are easy to amuse.
In normal organizations, planners often circulate advance drafts for markup and discussion. In Congress, however, that practice invites ridicule of the type that Lee tired to express. Politicians need to perfect their ideas before they go public. The GND's sponsors are lucky that Lee botched his attack. That gives them breathing room to build their case for next time.
Lee’s speech will go down in history as one of the most senseless speeches in Senate history. Given the number of awful speeches that Senators have given in our nation’s history, that’s an impressive accomplishment. Overnight, Senator Lee sabotaged his once-stellar reputation, which is now firmly destroyed for centuries to come. I predict that “Mike Lee” will become history’s metaphor for legislative idiocy just as “Benedict Arnold” is a metaphor for treason and “Florence Nightingale” stands for mercy. This was a speech for the ages, but not in a good way.
Maybe Lee had research, but it was just bad research
Well, did Lee really have no research? He sort of did. He researched the GND's rough draft. Most of his talkin gpoints, minus Aquaman, Reagan, seahorses, and his proposed baby boom, have been circulating in conservative media. He had, indeed, researched the conservative talking points. He knew them thoroughly. He did not, unfortunately, research any current, accurate information about the proposal under debate. Not coming to grips with the real GND, he attacked a fictional version that conservative media had invented. Sexist logicians of the past once called this a straw man fallacy. Lee had informed himself about various ridiculous accusations and wild falsehoods that conservatives had circulated about the GND in recent weeks. He made no effort to find out what the resolutionsaid or to come to grips with its arguments. His bizarre visual aids and irrational solution entertained only the most radical and uninformed conservatives, while allowing the GND advocates a chance to breathe and to recover from their slip-up while they assemble real issues supported by real arguments.
Here’s my previous post about ridicule. People make fun of other people when they can’t think of anything intelligent to say. We’re seeing more and more of this: when someone makes a proposal, it is easier to make fun of it than to debate the facts. Good satire is hard to pull off, isn't it?
Spotted this in the news: the Greybull High School speech team won first place in the 1A/2A Wyoming state championships and seventh place in the state overall. This was a wonderful result, especially for a small-town high school. Various Greybull students triumphed in such events as Oratory and Program Interpretation, Duo Interpretation, Humor, Informative Speaking, and Debate. Congratulations! Much hard work went into their victory.
Many years ago, I participated in the Oakton High School debate club. My partner Ken Marton (a future Ph.D. scientist) and I qualified for the state championship, where we finished somewhere near the middle of the pack, and four years of debate at the College of William and Mary, where John Vile and I took first place at the LaSalle University debate tournament. Debate coaches Barbara Sue Carter and the late Patrick Micken were among my major influences. Although William and Mary was and still is a first-rate school, and I learned a lot in all my classes, my experience in competitive debate became my undergraduate college highlight. Many of my debate team friends went on to various spectacular careers in business, academia and law. And, of course, my wife, Dr. Elaine Clanton Harpine, was a speech and debate team member at Southwest Texas State University (now called Texas State). Obviously we were made for one another.
Speech and debate contests give students far more speaking experience than any class could. Speech and debate team students gain confidence and skill. Public speaking contests teach students to prepare, to understand their audiences and relate to other people, and to express their ideas and feelings clearly and persuasively. Debate and speech contests teach students critical thinking and research skills far beyond even the best classroom opportunities. My speech and debate experience shaped my post-college career in more ways than I could have imagined. I pride myself on careful research and evaluation, and I thank my debate experience for teaching me how. Many outstanding leaders in and out of government learned about persuasion by debating in school.
In an era of tight budgets and anti-education propaganda, too many schools and colleges have cut back on these expensive, time-consuming programs. From the standpoint of education, these wonderful programs are worth every dime and all the effort. Congratulations again to the Greybull students. I expect to see you do great things in your lives.
Democratic Arkansas Senator Stephanie Flowers spoke loudly and forcefully against stand your ground laws during a meeting of the Arkansas Senate Judiciary Committee. Stand your ground laws, found in several (mostly red) states, abolish the traditional duty to retreat from danger in public places, and instead authorize ordinary citizens to stand their ground and shoot people who make them feel threatened.
But we all need to see different viewpoints. In her short speech, Flowers pointed out two different ways to see the gun rights issue: First, that the stand your ground laws make life more dangerous for black crime victims, and, second, that, since people who are armed and ready to stand their ground pose a threat, it might be reasonable to feel anxious, shoot them, and claim a stand your ground defense. I don’t think anyone has ever put it that way before, but she had a point. Oops.
Let’s look at the first perspective that Flowers offered. Feeling that stand your ground laws discriminate against and threaten the safety of African-Americans, Flowers said: “I’ll be as quick as I can, as quick as it takes to kill someone, I guess.” She protested the limits on debate on this important issue. Noting that her children had a different experience than the children of the white legislators, Flowers asked, “How many black kids, black boys, black men are being killed by these stand your ground defenses that these people raise, and they get off?” She based her credibility on her motherhood: “I am a mother and I have a son.” She told the white members of the committee, “My son doesn’t walk the same path as yours does.” She said that she feared for her son’s life until he left Arkansas.
This led to her second new viewpoint. She told one legislator, “You don’t have to worry about your children, Will. But I have to worry about my son. And I worry about other little black boys and girls. And other people coming into my neighborhood and to my city. And they are saying they got open carry, right, walking right in front of my doggone office in front of the courthouse.” She said that anyone who did that was a “bully.” Such open-carry people were, she felt, intimidating her, but in doing so they posed a threat and she wondered whether she would be justified to kill them. So she asked: “Do I have a right to stand my ground with some crazy-ass person walking around with a doggone gun? I don’t know what . . . he intends to do.” She noted that legislators were walking around the legislature with their guns.
She cursed a bit. She shouted. She didn’t shout any more than the Republican senators at the recent Michael Cohen hearing. That was too much shouting then, and Flowers shouted too much this time, but turnabout is fair play. Like the other members of the committee, I don’t approve of her foul language, but I heartily approve of her breaking the time rules to say what she needed to say. The Republicans on the committee were obviously trying to rush the bill through, and she insisted on making her points anyway. Her anger and passion gained her much attention. Her speech hit the national news. Internet videos of her speech attained millions of views in a short time.
So, here is what she accomplished and how she did it: she made people across the nation see the stand your ground issue in a new light. Her passion gained attention. She made the issue seem real, not theoretical, by putting stand your ground laws in personal terms. She helped people realize that stand your ground laws might endanger the pro-gun people who support them. Her speech got noticed, and more people may be thinking about the stand your ground laws. So, good for her.
Side note: the traditional legal doctrine, which is the duty to retreat in a public place if you can do so safely, developed from centuries of legal experience. Conservatives are supposed to favor tradition. So how do conservatives reconcile stand your ground laws with tradition? I don’t think they can. Do note that the legal issues are more complex than political talk would make us think.
For my other posts about gun control speeches, click here.
In his two-hour speech at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), President Donald Trump refuted the charge that he and the Russian government had colluded to get him elected in 2016 by ridicule, and nothing else. Ignoring the issues, he made fun of the Democrats because they had the nerve to quote him accurately about Russian collusion. Trump had said, "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing." Later, when he was criticized, he said, "Of course I’m being sarcastic.”He doubled down at CPAC: "These people are sick." But he hadn't been sarcastic the first time, and at CPAC he used ridicule instead of argument.
One reason for speakers to ridicule their opponents is that their opponents say things that are, well, ridiculous. People who say ridiculous things have, for the most part, immunized themselves to reasoned argument. However, ridicule does not persuade them, either, for people who are unwilling to reason are also unwilling to be humiliated.
Another reason for speakers to ridicule the other side is that the speakers themselves have nothing else to say. This was the case with Trump at CPAC. He could neither deny nor defend his indefensible comments. What could he do?
So, let’s start with a seemingly indisputable fact: during his 2016 election campaign, future president Donald Trump clearly and explicitly (with a straight face) asked the Russian government to steal Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Here is what Trump said: "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 [Clinton] emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let's see if that happens. That'll be nice." That certainly sounded like an invitation to commit a felony. It turns out that this foolish comment got the president into political trouble, and the Democrats, of course, continue to make it political. Worse, the Mueller investigation alleges that Russia did, indeed, hack the Democratic National Committee’s emails within a few hours after Trump's request. Oops. If his request had been private, instead of public, it would have been an obvious criminal conspiracy. Is really it OK if it's public?
What could we expect President Trump to do about it? He could not deny what he said, since his comment was recorded and broadcast around the world. When he was criticized, his response at the time was that he was being sarcastic. He did not sound sarcastic: he didn’t wink, didn’t sneer, and, worse, promised the Russians that the American media would reward them if they committed this crime. A joke? No.
The obvious way for Trump to deal with the continuing controversy would be to apologize, assure Americans that he never intended to commit a crime, and deny any interest in receiving stolen emails. Instead, in his CPAC speech, almost denying the obvious, he made fun of Democrats for bringing the point up at all. At CPAC he did bring out his humorous, sarcastic voice and gestures to full measure.
So, years later, at CPAC, while the controversy still burned, Trump said that: “And then that fake CNN and others say, ‘He asked Russia to go get the emails. Horrible.’ (Laughter.) I mean, I thought — like, two weeks ago, I’m watching and they’re talking about one of the points. ‘He asked Russia for the emails.’ These people are sick. (Laughter.) And I’m telling you, they know the game. They know the game, and they play it dirty dirtier than anybody has ever played the game. Dirtier than it’s ever been played.” This was ridicule: “fake CNN.” "These people are sick." "Dirtier than it’s ever been played.” If you can refute, then refute. If you can’t, just insult your critics. Trump gave no information; his denial offered no content.
Trump continued: “if you tell a joke, if you’re sarcastic, if you’re having fun with the audience, if you’re on live television with millions of people and 25,000 people in an arena, and if you say something like, ‘Russia, please, if you can, get us Hillary Clinton’s emails. Please, Russia, please.’ (Applause.) ‘Please get us the emails. Please!’” He sneered quite effectively (to the audience’s evident delight) as he spoke. (What a shame that he did not sneer in 2016. We might have believed that it really was a joke.)
So: Trump did ask Russia to hack Clinton’s emails. They hacked the DNC the same day. Trump later said it was a joke. He blamed the press for having the temerity to report something that he and the audience knew to be true. His claim that his request was “sarcastic” is implausible. So, having no facts to offer, he ridiculed the press and insulted his opponents for saying something true.
Democrats ridicule Republicans for thinking that Obama faked his birth certificate. Doesn’t it just seem fair that Republicans should also be able to ridicule what the Democrats say? Even if the Democrats happen to say something true? Or is that just a case of two wrongs not making a right?
Should we just admit that all appeals to ridicule are fallacious? Or, worse, does being ridiculed just force people to harden their (silly) beliefs?
President Donald Trump wins because he is outrageous. Being outrageous is not, as his critics seem to think, his rhetorical fault; it is his stock-in-trade. His polarizing rhetoric did what all polarizing rhetoric does: it reinforced a large but active minority, while driving everyone else away. When he offends the mainstream, well, fine, that’s exactly the point, because he also energizes his base: us versus them.
Here’s my point: The mainstream media, politicians, and traditional voters think that Trump’s fringe behavior appeals only to a fringe. They think that, the more outrageously he speaks, the more supporters he’ll lose. They think his outrageous behavior weakens him. Never-Trump conservative Jennifer Rubin often talks about Trump going "downhill." People who think that way are admirable, but they are also mistaken. In fact, they are totally, completely, and cluelessly wrong. Journalists, not to mention my fellow academics and fellow liberals, tend to miss the point. Being outrageous is Trump’s main technique, and his core voters – millions and millions of them – love it.
Let’s look at a few examples from Trump’s 2019 CPAC speech:
Trump didn't defend his actions with respect to Russia; instead, he just ridiculed the Russia investigation. It will be recalled that during the 2016 campaign, Trump told a news conference, on video, that he wanted Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. That sounds vaguely criminal. In the CPAC 2019 speech, however, Trump ridiculed the idea that he had ever asked Russia to do anything: in a sneering voice, he said, “Please, Russia, please get us the emails.” The CPAC crowd cheered: “Lock her up! Lock her up!” Trump continued: “Then that fake CNN says he asked Russia to get the emails. Horrible.”
(Fake? It wasn't fake. Trump is on news videospeaking from Doral, Florida in 2016. He did say it. His exact words were: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” A moment later, he said, “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”)
Trump filled his speech with raging insults, such as: “I saw little Shifty Schiff yesterday.” He meant Democratic Senate leader Adam Schiff. Shifty Schiff? What a childish insult! The crowd loved it: Schiff had, they thought, become their enemy, and they rejoiced when Trump ridiculed him. Trump also complained about the Mueller investigation: “They are trying to take you out with bull---t.” He complained that everyone hated Mueller, and the crowd cheered “USA, USA.” He said that “we have people in Congress who hate our country.” The crowd booed. This kind of thing went on for about two hours.
So, let’s sum it up. Trump lied. He insulted and raged. He cursed. He ridiculed his opponents. He denied obvious facts. His friendly audience of Republican politicians, conservative reporters, and activists cheered. They applauded. They booed. They chanted. They loved it. They had a great time. The more outrageous Trump was, the happier his crowd became. They saw that he was fighting. That, and that alone, is what they cared about. Trump sensed their energy and pushed them onwards.
Trump does not appeal to his base in spite of being outrageous, foul, dishonest, uninformed, and incompetent. Those are the features that his base likes the most. Attacking him for being outrageous, foul, dishonest, uninformed, and incompetent just makes his base voters love him more. And as the 2016 election proves, that base is not a mere fringe. Trump’s base is big, and Trump fired them up. And yet, at the end, he praised national unity, saying that we are all one people "forever united behind one great American flag." Whether that was too little too late or wishful thinking, that comment hardly fit with the polarizing speech.
As an aside: Trump’s core voters are totally correct that traditional Republican and Democratic voters neglect their needs and concerns. Does Trump have anything to offer them? Yes, but no. No, for Trump’s policies, insofar as he has policies, are ludicrous. But, yes, Trump offers them hope. And hope wins elections.
This speech taught us a lesson about Trump. It taught us a lesson about American voters. Are we ready to learn?
(Also see my post about Charlie Kirk's empty but inspiring CPAC speech.)
For more information about polarizing rhetoric, two good sources are:
Also look at the chapter on tactics in Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals. Conservatives love to make fun of Alinsky, and I don’t know that Trump has ever read this book, but he has Alinsky’s persuasive methods down pat. Read the book, email me, and tell me if you think I’m wrong.
Charlie Kirk, leader of Turning Point USA, which organizes college students toward conservative causes, gave a remarkable speech at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). In his firebrand speech, Kirk defended conservatism against the forces that he said wanted to destroy American culture. He gave a classic statement of conservative victimology: in Kirk’s view, the United States greatest adversary is not Russia, China, or Al Qaeda, but America’s own left wing. He appealed with great power to people who think that liberalism is a disease. Although he gave little or no support to his often-wild accusations, his passion carried the speech. After all, let us be honest, conservatives aren’t really victims, and so Kirk needed to make his point with something other than content. But make his point, he did: if I didn’t know better, I would have been convinced. Kirk drew a picture of a left wing that opposes good and stands for malice and that attacks conservatism to destroy America. His nonverbal communication and his skillful use of words, not his content (which was utterly shallow), made his point.
Early in his speech, Kirk said:
“What we find is that students are not opposed to our ideas inherently because they’re not exposed to them at all in the first place. It’s that the left has done everything they possibly can to ensure that our generation has never heard why America is the greatest country ever to exist, or why free markets are the most moral proven effective economic system ever discovered, or why the Constitution is the greatest political document ever written, or why abortion after birth is immoral and should be rejected in modern decent society. They’ve never heard these ideas.”
Notice how that passage used balance and contrast: he opposes “what we find” to “It’s that the left has done everything they possibly can.” And the parallel language: “why America is the greatest country . . . why free markets are the most . . . why the Constitution is the greatest . . . why abortion after birth.” His language carries the reader along; more than a list, Kirk’s statements create a cascading stream of righteous indignation.
No content supported Kirk’s indignation. What makes the Constitution so great? He never said. Why are free markets moral? Not explained. What is he talking about, “abortion after birth?” He never explained. He assumed that his audience would accept his platitudes and so his platitudes were enough. He took up the platitudes, expressed them in powerful language, and moved on.
Kirk later said that “They have always hated this country they have always hated our history” and that “I don’t want to live in the country that the left wants to create.” As content, that seems bizarre. Even the most liberal colleges require history courses, which the students rarely want to take. What about our history is hated? He didn’t say. He could, all the same, assume that his audience agreed with his point, whatever exactly, that might have been.
Kirk said that “I don’t want to live in a country where it’s okay to execute a newborn child.” This referred, I imagine, to a proposed Virginia law that allowed parents to decline to resuscitate a baby born with severe birth defects such as those incompatible with life. “Execute” is a powerful word: he didn’t say “to let a suffering child pass away,” but to “execute” the child. In language lies power.
Some conservatives excuse liberals with the view that liberals mean well but are unrealistic. Kirk rejected that idea and condemned the left as inherently immoral: “If you want to fundamentally transform and destroy this country from within, you do not mean well, you do not have good intentions whatsoever. If you want to suppress conservatives from coming on college campuses, you do not mean well. If you want to deplatform conservatives from social media, you do not mean well.” Stark, uncompromising, judgmental, taking the moral high road. And note the continuing parallel language: “If you want to fundamentally transform . . . you do not mean well . . . if you want to suppress . . . you do not mean well . . . If you want to deplatform . . . you do not mean well.” “If this,” and “if that,” all to prove that the leftists “do not mean well.” The cumulative language, again, conveys Kirk’s message with power. One suppression of conservatives piles into the next.
What about Kirk’s content? Kirk’s accusations were bold: the left is evil; the left seeks to destroy America; the left thrives on ignorance. What was his proof? I have met many public-school teachers; most of them were very conservative. Most high school social studies textbooks are conservative; indeed, many school boards are reluctant to approve textbooks that aren’t. What was Kirk’s evidence? He gave none. He equated allowing a hopelessly ill child to die in peace with execution. Are conservatives “deplatformed?” Conservatives thrive on my social media feeds, so how are they being deplatformed? Answer: they aren’t. But Kirk presented no evidence because his claims, questionable or false though they were, are heard so often on talk radio and the Internet that his audience required no proof.
Conservatives often think they are under attack. Kirk’s speech appealed to the victimology: the left was, in his speech, not a group of sincere people with wrong ideas, but a sinister cabal of evildoers. His speech posed “us versus them.” It was a call to destroy the left. Clear, sharp, uncompromising. Factually ridiculous, but compelling.
But it wasn’t just language; Kirk’s delivery also helped him persuade. He was vibrant and energetic. He paused with effect. He raised his voice as he spoke key words: “execute.” His gestures were rehearsed, bold, and decisive. He did not read his speech; his delivery seemed to be extemporaneous, which makes his sophisticated language seem even more impressive. He smiled, frowned, and scowled. As the speech continued and his outrage grew, he got louder, faster, and angrier. His enthusiasm swept across the audience. His enthusiasm jumped off the YouTube screen.
Did Kirk really have much to say? I don’t think so. His angry, shallow speech contrasts starkly with the specific, high-content speeches that conservative Ronald Reagan gave during his rise to the top. It was Kirk’s speaking skill, divorced from his content (and, alas for Kirk, good content is the first and most important speaking skill) that made his speech so powerful.
I can’t help but to reflect on the almost-equally charismatic presentation of alt-right leader Richard Spencer that I blogged about a couple years ago. Shallow speakers like Spencer and Kirk can succeed for a few months or a few years. To create a lasting movement, however, requires real ideas, and neither Kirk nor Spencer even pretends to have any.
In his magnificent book The Ethics of Rhetoric, the great conservative theorist Richard Weaver wrote about the “spaciousness of old rhetoric.” What he meant was that, in the old days, speakers didn’t need to give details because the speaker and audience shared common values. Kirk perverts that noble idea with a rhetoric that is not spacious but vacuous: he assumes a fact-free ideology that he and his audience share and opposes it to a demonized version of liberal ideology. If Kirk is right that liberals don’t care about history, well, neither does he. Ironically, what conservatism needs today is not firebrands like Charlie Kirk, but thinkers who seek to nourish and cultivate our nation’s value-laded roots. Such a person is nowhere to be seen. Ironically but truly, American conservatism has lost its roots. What happens to a tree when its roots fail?
Technical note for my fellow communication researchers: of the five classical canons (invention, arrangement, style, delivery and memorization), rhetoric scholars in recent decades concentrate on the first, giving short shrift to the other four. Maybe we think that studying content makes us look more scholarly. But, as Kirk’s speech shows, delivery and style still make a huge difference. My post of February 27, 2019 pointed out how arrangement can be a speech’s central focus. Indeed, all five canons make a difference.
Michael Cohen's credibility is the issue in today's House Oversight Committee hearing, which is ongoing as I write this. Cohen is testifying today about his relationship with President Donald Trump, and his opening statement addressed that forthrightly: "I recognize that some of you may doubt and attack me on my credibility. It is for this reason that I have incorporated into this opening statement documents that are irrefutable, and demonstrate that the information you will hear is accurate and truthful." Cohen admitted that he had committed crimes and had told lies: "I have told lies, but I am not a liar." He expressed shame.
Personal credibility versus documents: (1) Republicans today are concentrating on Cohen's credibility, but it's the documents that matter. (2) The Republicans have been shrill (sometimes I worry that one of them will have a stroke) and rarely discuss or ask about substantive issues. Are they just trying to distract public attention from the issues? Cohen's opening statement accused Trump of being a racist and a conman, and reported instances of threatening people who were in a position to harm Trump. Democrats on the committee asked questions about Cohen's interactions with Trump. Republicans have at this writing (about 1:52 pm EST) have asked no questions at all about Cohen's knowledge of Trump, but instead complained that Cohen was a convicted felon, accused him of being a liar (which he had admitted), and objected that he was even brought to testify. Cohen at one point protested: "All I wanted to say is I just find it interesting, sir, that between yourself and your colleagues that not one question so far since I'm here has been asked about President Trump. That's actually why I thought I was coming today. Not to confess the mistakes that I've made."
Their voices ringing with indignation, Republican representatives have reiterated Cohen's confessed crimes. Rep. Carol Miller called Cohen's testimony a "media circus." All true enough.
Cohen was therefore wise to present documentary evidence, including cancelled checks reimbursing him for hush money payments, financial statements, and letters to Mr. Trump's educational institutions, and a document in Mr. Trump's handwriting about a possible misuse of Trump charity funds. Interestingly, Republicans have not spent much if any time discussing these documents or trying to refute their validity.
So, Cohen's credibility is an issue. Republicans are hitting him very hard on that question. But:
1. If Republicans were fully sincere about their attacks, they would spend more time addressing the documents' validity. 2. The Republicans often rant at length without letting Cohen respond. Why? 3. Ultimately, if Watergate taught us anything, it is that truth emerges and that big conspiracies don't stay secret forever. 4. By confessing his guilt, Cohen tried to reestablish his personal dignity and credibility. Did he succeed? Only time will tell.
Is Cohen credible? Not so much. But he presented proof for some of his points. In the long run, a stroke of a pen outweighs a witness' memory. That principle is getting little attention today, but it dominates in the long run.
Let's also consider that Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz tweeted shortly before Cohen's testimony: "Hey @MichaelCohen212 - Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful when you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot." That sounds like witness tampering, and people don't tamper with witnesses unless they fear their testimony, do they? Why was he afraid of Cohen's testimony?
Has the full truth yet emerged? Are Cohen's documents conclusive? Will Cohen ever have much public credibility? I think not. But a big point in Mr. Cohen's favor is the Republican members' panicky, shrill-sounding, content-poor response to his testimony. Thus, although the questions are about Cohen's credibility, the bizarre behavior of the Republicans raises questions about their own credibility. Image: House Oversight Committee