In a brief, rambling, extemporaneous speech during the press conference at the recent Helsinki Summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Donald Trump talked about Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign. Mr. Trump failed to endorse the findings of American intelligence agencies, which concluded that Russia interfered in the election to help Mr. Trump, mostly by spreading rumors and false accusations against Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump bluntly criticized two American officials by name and blamed both sides for the problems. A political storm broke out, with charges of "treason" seeming more credible. But, as of today, Mr. Trump's voters still support him. Why?
Defying the overwhelming evidence, only 1/3 of Republican voters believe that Russia interfered at all in our election. Trump's relationship with Russia does not trouble the majority of Republican voters. A Reuters/Ipsos poll taken yesterday - after the Helsinki summit - found that about 70% of Republican voters felt that Mr. Trump had done nothing wrong. That's partisanship for you. Evidence means little to most voters; partisan loyalty means everything.
Your high school social studies teacher was only partly right. Voters should study campaign issues; most voters don't. People don't pick a candidate for the issues; people pick a candidate, and then agree with whatever the candidate's issues might be.
Researchers who study political communication have known ever since the 1948 Elmira, NY voting study that partisanship is the main factor in election decisions. People will change their issue beliefs willy-nilly to suit their candidate and party, not the other way around. Two years ago, Republicans thought that budget deficits were awful, but a Republican Congress passed the 2017 tax cut for the rich; now, most Republicans think that deficits are just fine (or blame them on Democrats). When President Ronald Reagan was anti-Russia, Republicans were anti-Russia. Now that President Trump is sort of pro-Russia, Republicans are, well, much less anti-Russia. For no real reason. That's politics.
People hold political opinions strongly, but flip them without losing a breath. That's partisanship.
Some Republicans spoke against Mr. Trump's appalling performance at Helsinki, and #TreasonSummit trended on Twitter. Mr. Trump later issued an obviously insincere claim that he "misspoke" in Helsinki. I don't think so. But, in the long run, although Mr. Trump's core supporters might wobble, they won't budge.
Could Mr. Trump's Helsinki speech harm him politically? Yes and no. Although his supporters will stay true and hold strong, Mr. Trump's shocking performance might motivate Democrats and Independents to show up at the polls in November. That, and pretty much only that, could make a political difference.
Also, once Congress figures out that the voters' opinions about Mr. Trump haven't changed, Republican representatives might mostly fall back into line. Their main goal is to win elections. Partisanship, not issues, not patriotism, not self-interest, not common sense, drives political opinion. Partisanship rules.
Nothing new was said at the Helsinki summit, but we communication people know that public speaking is, first and always, about your audience. And Donald Trump really, really, really misanalyzed his audience this morning. Bigly
President Donald Trump caused a firestorm at the Helsinki summit. Asked whether he accepted the charge that Russia interfered in the US 2016 election - which is now known beyond any practical doubt - Trump mostly ignored the question and instead spewed out the usual unlikely, unproven, discredited conspiracy theories that have been floating around the right-wing media for years: 1. Nonsense about missing computer servers. Mr. Trump said: "So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server. Why haven’t they taken the server? Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee?"
What groups? Why would they need the server? Who knows? Anyone can ask questions about anything.
2. More nonsense about servers. Mr. Trump added: "What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC? Where are those servers? They’re missing. Where are they? What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails? 33,000 emails gone — just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily. I think it’s a disgrace that we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 emails."
More questions, but no evidence. Politifact has thoroughly discredited the Pakistani accusation, not that Mr. Trump seems to care about fact-checking.
3. Then, Mr. Trump hedged with some false equivalency: maybe there's truth in both sides, he said:
"I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server. But I have confidence in both parties."
Quite bizarre, but milder than what we heard from Republicans at the Peter Strzok Congressional hearing a few days ago. Why did Helsinki cause so much more controversy? It comes down to audience and situation: A. Mr. Trump said these ridiculous things at a major international summit, which is supposed to be a serious event. We expect Congressional hearings to be stupid. We don't expect an international summit to be stupid. Different setting. Different audience.
B. Mr. Trump had a chance to confront Mr. Putin about his misdeeds, and didn't. This made him look weak, and conservatives hate it when people look weak.
C. Face-to-face with an adversary, Mr. Trump endorsed his adversary over America's own intelligence and law enforcement services.
Trump Deep State conspiracy theory tweet
The content was, pretty much, the same silly stuff that Mr. Trump has been saying (and tweeting) for months. It was unloading the usual nonsense to a world-wide audience, in front of his adversary, that made him seem weak, tone-deaf, irrational, and morally dubious. Wrong place, wrong time - wrong audience!
President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a bizarre press conference earlier today at the Helsinki summit. Even the normally sycophantic Fox News found fault with Mr. Trump’s performance, with Douglas E. Schoen writing, “President Trump’s unwillingness to stand up to Russia” about its misconduct “only serves to weaken the Western alliance and encourage further Russian incursions into the territory of sovereign nations now that Putin knows Trump will give him a pass.” Schoen also noted that Trump declined to acknowledge Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Trump instead repeated conspiracy theories about various Democrats.
The most important thing, however is that President Putin had a chance to deny that he had compromising information about President Trump, and yet he didn't deny it.
Let’s take another look at the rhetoric of silence – what it means when someone is silent at times that call for speech. The most important event occurred when AP reporter Jonathan Lemire asked, “does the Russian government have any compromising material on President Trump or on his family?” Putin dodged the question. Let’s look at his response. The first part of the response was:
“And now, to the compromising material. Yeah, I did hear these rumors that we allegedly collected compromising material on Mr. Trump when he was visiting Moscow. Well, distinguished colleague, let me tell you this: when President Trump was at Moscow back then, I didn’t even know that he was in Moscow. I treat President Trump with utmost respect, but back then when he was a private individual, a businessman, nobody informed me that he was in Moscow.”
This was a basic non-denial. It reminded me of the non-denials that the Nixon White House issued when accused of wrongdoing during the Watergate crisis. The fact that he didn’t know Trump personally does not mean that his intelligence agencies did not gather compromising information. As anyone who has even read spy novels should know, the Kremlin routinely gathers compromising information on distinguished foreign visitors.
Here is the second part of President Putin’s response:
“Well, let’s take St. Petersburg Economic Forum, for instance. There were over 500 American businessmen, high-ranking, high-level ones. I don’t even remember the last names of each and every one of them. Well, do you remember — do you think that we try to collect compromising material on each and every single one of them? Well, it’s difficult to imagine an utter nonsense of a bigger scale than this. Well, please, just disregard these issues and don’t think about this any more again.”
Again, Putin denied nothing. He asked a question: “do you think that we try to collect compromising material on each and every single one of them?” He called the accusation “utter nonsense.” But he never answered even his own question. And he instructed the press to “just disregard these issues and don’t think about this any more again.” Those aren’t denials: a question, followed by a request, but no denial.
Now, does the Russian government have compromising information about Mr. Trump? Of course, I don’t know. I still have to wonder, however, why President Putin didn’t just say, “No, I don’t have such information.” Suppose, for example, that the police arrest somebody named Spike. The police ask Spike, “Did you steal the Volvo?" If Spike is innocent, Spike will say, “No, I didn’t.” If he is guilty, he might lie, but he might just dodge the question. So, . . .
Silence can be literal, when somebody says nothing. In this case, President Putin said quite a bit, but he dodged the question. Why? This can only make people suspect that, in fact, President Putin has the goods on President Trump. Does he?
Quite a few people on television, especially on certain cable news channels, are spreading increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories. How do conspiracy theories begin? I am talking about conspiracy theories that are unfounded; we all know that real conspiracies occur all the time, and that it is important to shine light on them.
In this post, I instead want to talk about the methods that persuaders use to invent and spread conspiracy theories. The Benghazi conspiracy theory is an example. I do not especially want to defend Hillary Clinton – she will have to defend herself, and her political career is obviously over – but I want to uncover the methods that dodgy people can use to take a real tragedy, and a real set of mistakes, and turn them into a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Benghazi conspiracy, which says that Hillary Clinton or officials under her control blocked rescue efforts, uses a full set of propaganda methods.
Philosophy professor Brian Keeley talks about “unjustified conspiracy theories.” These are unlike conspiracy theories that are justified or proven, such as the famous Watergate conspiracy, or the less famous but very scary Operation Northwoods, in which high-ranking Pentagon officials wanted to fake a terrorist attack against the United States. We also have obviously unjustified conspiracy theories, such as the belief in Chemtrails, that is, the idea that the government is spraying mind control chemicals out of airplanes, or the even sillier beliefthat Siri had announced the apocalypse. Don't laugh; many people believe such things. They aren't kidding.
So, I’m not talking about real investigations where people uncover real conspiracies. I’m talking about con artists who invent and spread unjustified conspiracy theories. A moment's critical thinking would destroy any of these conspiracy theories, so how do persuaders convince us?
Let's back up a few years to the Benghazi conspiracy theory, which has convinced a great many people. The persuaders who spread the Benghazi conspiracy theory know, I suspect, that their conspiracy theory is wrong, yet have convinced millions of people. Here's how:
The Benghazi conspiracy theory holds that, when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, on September 11, 2012, the United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya was attacked by terrorists and burned, due to Clinton's negligence and betrayal. During the attack, United States Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed. The Obama administration wrongly thought that the attack was a response to an anti-Islam video (a video that had led to demonstrations in several countries), and only later corrected themselves.
Now, the attack was a terrible tragedy, and it is obvious, at least in hindsight, that the Department of State did something very wrong to let it happen. The conspiracy theory goes farther to hold that Clinton repeatedly refused to send help during the attack and that, in fact, she, or people under her influence, called a stand-down order to prevent rescuers from reaching the mission. How did conspiracy theorists get from the real tragedy to their conspiracy theory?
Step One: Start with strong elements of truth.
The Benghazi conspiracy theory, for the most part, says things that are true. Therein lies its power. A reconstructed timeline shows that the attack began at about 9:40 PM, and the bad guys breached the mission wall about 20 minutes later. A small CIA rescue team, together with a team of Libyan authorities, reached the mission at about 10:30 PM, engaged the terrorists, and ended the attack. By that time, Ambassador Stevens and other Americans were already dead. A CIA rescue team from Tripoli arrived at about 1:15 AM. Terrorists attacked a different compound at about 4 AM. The CIA rescue team’s supervisor had held them about 10 minutes while they obtained additional weaponry. Some time later, a Special Forces team in another city started getting organized, but their dispatch was delayed, partly because of the need to guard outposts in other Libyan cities. So, there was an attack; there were brief delays in sending rescuers, and supervisors didn’t always know exactly what was going on. All true. And Americans died, also true.
Step Two: Omit key information
There never was any evidence that Secretary Clinton or any other high-ranking official in Washington asked the CIA team to wait. Furthermore, neither the CIA or the Special Forces is under the Department of State’s authority, so it is difficult to imagine how it would even have been possible for Secretary Clinton to order them to stand down. Conspiracy theorists always leave this out - or lie about it. Thus, conservative web site RedState.com: “Now we know a rescue offer was made to Hillary Clinton. We have to assume the rescue forces had a chance of arriving in time to save lives, otherwise the offer would not have been made, yet it never launched. If the White House didn’t give the stand down order we can only assume that Hillary Clinton told the Pentagon, thanks but no thanks.”
“We have to assume,” the conspiracy theorist writes, because there is no evidence.
Step Three: Wiggle with the timeline
Take a look at the timeline above. A joint CIA-Libyan operation secured the mission less than an hour after the attack began. It was obviously not possible for a team from Tripoli or, better, Italy, where the United States has major military bases, to reach the mission any faster than that. The entire incident, including attacks elsewhere than at the mission, was over before daybreak. So, the various stand-down orders, which were really delay to-get-organized orders, could not have harmed Ambassador Stevens. That's why Benghazi conspiracy theorists never, ever, not even once, discuss the timeline.
Step Four: Play word games
To military and paramilitary personnel, a stand-down order means to cancel the operation entirely. The order that caused so much initial controversy, which was given by an official at the scene, not by Secretary Clinton, was, as we saw above, just an order to delay the operation for a short time so that adequate weaponry could be obtained. That was an order to delay and prepare, not to stand down. But conspiracy theorists call it a stand-down order because a stand-down order sounds cowardly, if not treasonous. In contrast, an order to delay for a few minutes to obtain weaponry does not sound bad. By calling this operational decision a stand-down, which is not the right term, and by implying that it was political, Benghazi conspiracy theorists made the entire thing sound not only mistaken, but evil.
A detailed congressional investigation, led by Republicans, found no proof to support the Benghazi conspiracy theorists. This didn’t slow them at all. To this day, they continue to spread their accusations on social media.
Step Five: Ask QuestionsQuestions are not proof, and minor inconsistencies do not necessarily discredit an entire narrative. What we often call “the fog of war” means that an incident like Benghazi will always lead to questions, and some information will always be inconsistent. That’s human nature. When people lack proof, they ask questions. But asking a string of questions is a well-known propaganda technique.
For example, an articlein the once-great National Review, in the wake of a months-long, Republican-led investigation, published an article entitled, “No, the Benghazi Questions Aren’t All Answered.” The article talked about what the author admitted to be “unspecified evidence.” The article asked a whole string of unanswered questions:“At any point during the evening did the commanding officers reevaluate the decision to keep those four special operators in Tripoli instead of letting them attempt a rescue in Benghazi? How did the U.S. mission in Libya reach the point where one of the most consequential choices of the night was the decision to keep four men guarding the embassy in Tripoli instead of attempting a rescue in Benghazi? Whose idea was it to have a special-operations unit assigned to the European Command, known as a Commander’s In-Extremis Force, on a training mission on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks? How did the U.S. reach the point where neither the U.S. military nor a single NATO ally had any planes that were combat-ready and capable of assisting in a battle on the other side of the Mediterranean?”
Some of these questions are worth asking, but they do not support the implied accusation that the administration committed misconduct on the night of the Benghazi attack. One can ask limitless questions after an event like this, but questions prove nothing. When one question is answered, you can always ask five more. When one lacks proof, one asks questions.
Questions are good, but they are not proof.
Step Six: Get angry
Rage and rational thought don’t work together. If we sit down to have a nice discussion, like what might happen in a high school or college debate, the Benghazi conspiracy theory would collapse in minutes. But we don’t think clearly when we are angry, and anger is contagious. After the House Select Committee on Benghazi released its report, which discredited the wilder accusations against Clinton, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh responded with this:
“I thought I had adjusted to it, but I haven’t. It just makes me sick. It depresses me. It makes me sick all over again. This Benghazi thing, it’s so emblematic of what has happened to us as a country. It is so enlightening as to what has happened to institutions that we need to be able to trust. It exposes this administration as, gosh, I don’t know, incompetent, uncaring, self-focused. It’s just, I don’t know, folks.”
No content, just blind anger.
Note that the real incident provided plenty of ammunition against Secretary Clinton. It could reasonably be argued that the Benghazi mission should never been established at all. It could be argued that Clinton should have used her authority to insist that diplomatic missions needed have full security, and if full security was not available, they should be closed. She didn’t do that, and it is entirely reasonable to fault her for that.
However, claims like that can't produce hysteria, nor can such claims, which allege everyday errors, compare with accusing Secretary Clinton of committing evil deeds for evil reasons.
So, conspiracy theorists use propaganda methods to convince people that wrongful events are the results of wrongful motives - even if they have no proof.
Let's go back to the past and see what we can learn about the present day. On July 9, 1986, William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska gave his famous "Cross of Gold" speech. His thesis, which was to make coins out of both silver and gold, was silly. His opponents' idea, the gold standard, was equally silly. Neither Bryan's "free silver" crowd nor the "gold bugs" knew a thing about economics. But monetary standards became a stand-in for social policy, and Bryan's argument was eternal: he stood up for the ordinary American against big business interests. Here is a key, very eloquent passage: "We say to you that you have made too limited in its application the definition of a businessman. The man who is employed for wages is as much a businessman as his employer. The attorney in a country town is as much a businessman as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis. The merchant at the crossroads store is as much a businessman as the merchant of New York. The farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, begins in the spring and toils all summer, and by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of this country creates wealth, is as much a businessman as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain. The miners who go 1,000 feet into the earth or climb 2,000 feet upon the cliffs and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured in the channels of trade are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world."
When conservatives say that economic policy should be pro-business, they always mean pro-big business. They give only lip service to small business or wage employees. Bryan's speech changed the conversation. Business success, to Bryan, meant success for everyone.
We still talk like this today. Congress' 2017 tax cut, which gave massive tax cuts to rich people and tiny, itty-bitty tax cuts for the rest of us, continues the tradition that angered Bryan (without the gold, of course, but with new anti-worker tricks): Congress' argument was that helping the rich would ultimately help us all.
But Bryan said that policy should help ordinary people, farmers, and small businesses, and the country would then flourish. Ending his speech, he angrily called out the gold standard's advocates:
"If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world."
"Producing masses!" His point was that workers actually make things, and that rich people - the "financial magnates" who "in a backroom corner the money of the world" - merely control them. Very polarizing, very powerful. Bryan ended melodramatically:
"Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."
I talk about the "Cross of Gold" speech in Chapter 4 of my bookFrom the Front Porch to the Front Page. The point in my book is that Bryan's speech was so polarizing that it was poorly adapted to the general election. Even today, people who speak for ordinary Americans are often perceived to be polarizing, are they not? And often enough, they speak in a polarizing way, do they not? So, how does that work out? Bryan ran for President of the United States three times, and lost every time. Yet many of his ideas ultimately became law. He favored votes for woman, which was a great idea, and Prohibition, which didn't work out so well. He favored a stronger central government, which we certainly have today.
Let’s look at FBI agent Peter Strzok’s testimony before a joint Congressional committee yesterday. The pyrotechnics blazed away through the entire day. So far, the Republicans' attempt to tear Strzok apart seem to have fizzled in a blaze of random sparks.
Strzok is one of two FBI agents (the other is his adulterous lover, Lisa Page, a former FBI lawyer) at the center of the Republican Party’s Deep State conspiracy theory. The Deep State conspiracy theory says that a massive group of government officials, including uncounted FBI agents and many Trump appointees, have been working behind the scenes for illegitimate purposes to undermine President Donald Trump’s administration. The evidence for this is that Strzok and Page had exchanged text messages expressing hostility to President Trump; for example, about Trump’s election campaign, Strzok texted: “We’ll stop it.”
Trump tweet about Strzok
President Trump has often attacked Strzok on Twitter. Strzok’s testimony will not end the conspiracy theory – nothing will do that – but he crimped it. Conspiracy theories depend on fear, not logic, despite the mountains of dubious evidence and twisted logic that conspiracy theorists offer to support their opinions. So it was with the Deep State conspiracy theory that the Republican Congressional Representatives angrily but unsuccessfully spewed out yesterday.
Strzok’s testimony began with a prepared statement. He apologized that his “private messages” had led to “misguided attacks against the FBI.” He noted that he also had sent text messages criticizing Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and various other politicians, so he wasn’t just against Trump. He denied that his “personal opinions” affected his official actions as an FBI agent.
Strzok’s most telling point was that, because of his involvement in the Russia-Trump investigation, he knew enough information to “derail” Trump’s campaign – and didn’t release it. He stressed that the Russia investigation “is not politically motivated, it is not a witch hunt, it is not a hoax.” He noted that he could not answer questions about the ongoing investigation, but assured the committee that “the answers would doubtless be disappointing to the questioners and undermine the conspiracy narrative being told about the Russia investigation.” That could be true, and the Republican majority obviously didn’t get the point. Strzok complained that he had not been given enough time to prepare his testimony, and that the committee had not provided a transcript of his earlier testimony.
Trump Tweet about "Witch Hunt"
Finally, Strzok pointed out something that is, although obviously true, surprisingly controversial: “I understand we are living in a political era in which insults and insinuation often drown out honesty and integrity. But the honest truth is that Russian interference in our elections constitutes a grave attack on our democracy.” President Trump routinely calls the Russia investigation a “witch hunt.”
Both sides met Strzok’s testimony with partisan explosions. After Republican Representative Trey Gowdy asked a series of accusations and insulted Strzok repeatedly, speaking in the frothing, wild-man style that seems to appeal to Gowdy’s constituents, Strzok expressed “great offense” at the question. Strzok pointed out that “any action I took” involved “multiple layers of people above me” and “multiple layers of people below me.” He did not, he noted, have the power to overcome the many safeguards that the FBI’s procedures provided. That, again, should be obvious. But isn’t.
Here are the takeaways about persuasion and public speaking:
1. Millions of people believe in outlandish conspiracy theories. These conspiracy theories often begin with a speck of truth. In this case, a few text messages did show Strzok’s strong anti-Trump political opinions. The conspiracy theory requires two additional, quite unproven steps: (a) did Strzok allow his political views to affect the investigation? Although Strzok denied this, it is possible that it occurred. But (b) the conspiracy theory also requires that many, many FBI and Department of Justice officials, most of whom are deeply conservative (it is surely no secret that law enforcement attracts conservative employees) would not only go along with Strzok’s supposedly evil deeds, but cooperate with them and facilitate them, while never taking their concerns to their supervisors or the public. This is not only unproven, but far-fetched.
2. Strzok should not have sent those text messages on his official FBI equipment. If Hillary Clinton’s email scandal should have taught us anything, it is that we should use work email for work and private email for private messages. This is not hard. The same rule surely applies to text messages. Still, many public officials, including some Trump officials, continue to have trouble following that simple rule.
3. The depth to which Russian interference in our election penetrated our democracy remains to be proven. Special Counsel Robert Mueller continues to investigate. Is President Trump vulnerable to this investigation’s results? I have no idea. Time will tell. But the hostile and often irrational responses that the Republicans on these committees gave to Strzok’s testimony makes me wonder if they know something we don’t. Are they running scared?
4. Truth has a way of coming out. Coverups don’t work. Not ever. This is another lesson that people refuse to learn, going all the way back to the Watergate scandal. Although there does seem to be a massive effort to sabotage or discredit the Russia investigation, there is no chance that that effort will succeed. None. We live in an open society, and, if President Trump and his officials have indeed done awful things, we will find out.
5. Although Strzok’s story did have some big holes, he was much better prepared and much smarterthan the Republican congressional representatives who tried to discredit him. Much of their preparation seems to have come from Fox News, talk radio, and conspiracy theory websites. Still, my Twitter feed is full of nasty comments about Strzok, few of which relate to his testimony’s content. Instead they complain about his adulterous affair, call him names, or ridicule his facial expressions. This shows that he scored points and that his opponents have little to stand on.
Be careful what you wish for. The Republican majority on these committees wanted to bring Strzok onto the carpet and let him have it. They gave it their best shot. But, overall, they made a tactical mistake. Strzok made a better impression than they did, and they lost points.
Was Strzok’s testimony the most important public speaking event of the day? Probably not. President Trump’s speeches at the NATO Summit were probably even more important. I’ll talk about them soon.
Speaking to a very friendly, very conservative crowd at a meeting of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Los Angeles yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions supported President Donald Trump's strict immigration policy. In the speech's key section, he called this policy's opponents a "lunatic fringe." His comments led to considerable controversy.
Now, I might use the term "lunatic fringe" to describe people who think the moon landings were faked or that the government is spraying chemicals in the air out of airplane exhausts. To be a "lunatic" implies that one is mentally ill or demonically possessed; to be a member of a "fringe" means that one is part of a very small, unpopular, and unrepresentative minority.
Instead, Jeff Sessions implied that the majority of the nation is a "lunatic fringe." But let's look at how he did that. The rhetorical tricks behind Sessions' name-calling extravaganza are quite interesting – twisted, but interesting.
The "zero-tolerance" policy that Sessions announced a few weeks ago has led to in the separation of many immigrant children from their parents, leading to confusion and controversy. Allegations are made that the parents don't even know where their children are, and that in some cases the government doesn't even know where they are. Time's cover featured a composite image of Donald Trump staring at a crying child. Two opinion polls last week found that most of the public rejects the administration's policy. A Quinnipiac University poll found that 66% of the voters, including more than 90% of Democrats and nearly 70% of independent voters, opposed the administration's policy. However, a large majority of Republican respondents supported the policy. An Ipsos poll published in the liberal Daily Beast found about the same thing, with 55% disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with the policy. In the Ipsos poll, almost half of Republicans supported the policy. The differences may have been due to slight variations in the way that two polls asked their questions. In any case, this policy is extremely controversial, there is a sharp partisan divide, and most Americans are against it.
So, let's start with the obvious. A fringe is, by definition, a very small group. That is what the word "fringe" means. Something that the great majority of Americans believe is not on the "fringe." We all know that. Attorney General Sessions knows that. So what is going on here?
First, Sessions identified immigration control with law and order, a message that he expected to go over well with his conservative, pro-law enforcement audience in Los Angeles:
"Onbehalf of President Donald Trump, I especially want to thank you all for your strong voice in speaking out for the enforcement of our immigration laws."
Flattering the audience is often an effective tactic.
Second, Sessions implied, without saying so, that the news media have created the entire controversy. Conservatives have for some time called mainstream news liberal propaganda. This attitude has, I'm sorry to say, come down to an assault on truth. If the mainstream press reports something, conservatives too often respond that is just liberal propaganda – even if it's true. Social media users didn't help when they carelessly mislabeled a photograph of a crying child in a cage. So, Sessions said this:
"The rhetoric we hear from the other side on this issue—as on so many others—has become radicalized. We hear views on television today that are on the lunatic fringe. And what is perhaps more galling is the hypocrisy. These same people live in gated communities and are featured at events where you have to have an ID even to hear them speak." Classic misdirection. He criticized the news media, not for inaccuracy – he had no reason to call them inaccurate – but because he felt there were hypocrites. He called them a "lunatic fringe." He attacked the messenger, not the message. Since he knew that the message was true, what choice did he have?Since he wasn't going to admit he was wrong.
He continued to make ad hominem attacks when he went after the conservatives' bête noire, Hillary Clinton:
"In 2013, Hillary Clinton reportedly said in one secret speech, 'My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders.' This is the presidential nominee of a major political party."
This poorly documented, five-year old quotation obviously had nothing to do with the current controversy, and, if Clinton did, in fact, say this, the obvious context is that she may have been advocating something like the European Union, which is a successful free-trade zone. In any case, this kind of fear appeal sorts the opposing sides into extreme views: on the one hand, separating children from their parents, or, on the other hand, unlimited immigration. Most Americans probably would like to see something in the middle, which Sessions' hyperbolic accusation made no room for.
People often accuse conservatives of joining a Trump-inspired "lunatic fringe." I'm sure they get tired of hearing that, and Sessions may simply have been dishing out name-calling in return.
To recap: Sessions said that the view held by the majority of Americans belong to the "lunatic fringe." He attacked the messenger instead of the message. Instead of admitting that his policy had faults, he accused the other side of supporting an equally extreme, but opposite policy. He made ad hominem arguments to avoid talking about the real issues.
So – (1) Does opposing a controversial policy make you a lunatic? And, (2) how can the majority be a fringe?You can't solve problems by calling people names.
President Donald Trump turned on the charm in his June 20, 2018 meeting at the American Workers Roundtable in Duluth, Minnesota. He brought up positive points about his policy (which he exaggerated, but politicians do that) while he interacted with other Roundtable members. This created the impression that he was listening to the public, that he was on people's side, and that his policies were good for the country. This was Trump's rhetoric at its persuasive best. Did he get plenty of facts wrong? Yes. Are his foreign trade policies wise? Probably not. But he was very persuasive.
1. Is the Tariff Really a Good Idea? Probably Not . . . But . . .
Almost all economists think that unfettered free trade is very good for the economy. Nevertheless, the American public has never been excited about free trade.
So, President Donald Trump's "America First" policy is nothing new. The protective tariff is one of the oldest controversies in American politics, and the tariff remains a popular policy– a winning presidential campaign theme, and not for the first time.
Henry Clay's famous speech "In Defense of the American System," which he delivered over three days (!) in February 1832 in the United States Senate, advocated nationalism and high tariffs to protect American industry.
Now, no statistics are available to support the tariff, since tariffs are generally bad policy for the nation as a whole, but there are plenty of individual people who will benefit from the tariff, or who think they will benefit from the tariff. This gave President Trump an opening big enough to drive a iron ore truck into, and he did just that during the Roundtable.
2. President Trump Worked His Audience
This was, of course, as one might expect, a very friendly audience. Let's look at how Trump worked his audience. First, he spoke, for the most part, in the calm, yet enthusiastic, rational style that one would expect at a business Roundtable. This was not a fire-breathing, angry speech like the ones that he gives at political rallies. He sounded like a businessman solving problems, which is, of course, what many of his supporters wanted all along.
Also, he recognized local leaders who were present, including Mayor Robert Vlaisavljevich, Minnesota representatives in Congress, various local officials, and blue-collar workers. This made the meeting sound friendly and collegial. In a clever move, he recognized Kelsey Johnson, the President of the Iron Mining Association. Since President Trump had recently announced high tariffs to protect the iron and steel industry, Ms. Johnson's support was a foregone conclusion. Mr. Trump also recognized various union members. This was quite a coup: industrial unions have traditionally voted Democratic, but industrial unions are also traditionally pro-tariff. He did this in a way that was casual and friendly: "We’re joined by wonderful union members and workers at the great American steel and iron mining companies: Adam Morse, Dean Carlson, and Mike Tichy. And also we have Craig Jussila. Where’s Craig? I love that name. That’s not bad, right? Jussila. That’s pretty good. Good. That’s about the easiest one they gave me today. (Laughter.)"
Mr. Trump then commented that ordinary citizens would benefit from his work: "Today, we’ll hear from citizens who are thriving as a result of our efforts to put American workers first. We’re putting America first again, folks. You know, we’re respected again, as a country. Okay? (Applause.)"
Mr. Trump then commented on the booming economy and the low unemployment rate. Fair enough. Like many Republican politicians, he emphasized that strength made success possible. He rambled a bit about his usual talking points, including border security, Obamacare, and tax cuts.Again, fair enough. He complimented his audience, and moved toward a discussion:
"We’re very proud of this state and the people of the state of Minnesota. They are incredible people. And you have some tremendous stories to tell. And maybe we’re going to start, Kelsey, with you, and you’ll sort of lead us around the table, okay?"
Ms. Johnson said, "Thank you. And I can’t thank you enough for the Section 232 and the steel tariffs." She commented about her industry's increasing productivity and employment. She said that she liked the tariffs better than the previous quotas, leading Mr. Trump to respond that: "Well, I don’t like the quotas as much as the tariffs." Thus, he agreed with her, playing off of her comments. Instead of lecturing, he interacted.
He then called on Adam Morse, a truck driver. Morse thanked Trump for the "America First" policy. Trump complimented Morris on his hat, a baseball cap with a pro-Trump slogan. Morse commented:
"The tax plan is working, and I’m seeing a difference in my paycheck. So thank you for that. And you’re right about regulation. We are — if certain groups get their way about sulfates and regulations in Minnesota, we’re going to be out of a job, and the Iron Range will suffer. We’ll be out of business."
Again, remembering the truck drivers are a traditional Democratic constituency, Morse's comments were telling. Trump used that comment to create a transition to the next speaker, Commissioner Pete Stauber (who is also a congressional candidate). Stauber commented favorably on Trump's protection of the iron and steel industry. Trump then called on Mike Tichy, an iron miner. Tichy commented: "Mr. President, it’s an honor, and it’s great to — you’re a man of your word. Through the campaign, you promised to put the American worker first, and I just want to thank you for that. All of my fellow miners."
Well, several other people spoke, All on the same general theme. Mr. Trump concluded with a gracious closing statement summarizing the discussion.
William McKinley made the protective tariff his main campaign theme, which I talk about in my book about the 1896 presidential campaign. Abraham Lincoln was pro-tariff just as fervently as he was anti-slavery. Andrew Jackson was pro-tariff. Tariffs have long seemed like the little guy's issue. Free trade sounds like an issue for the big and powerful people. Trump's use of the tariff as a political issue has plenty of appeal, and people who underestimate that appeal are making a mistake. Politicians who support the tariff might wreck the economy or start wars, but they win elections. Lots of elections.
4. Trump Was Very Persuasive
People who underestimate Mr. Trump's persuasive skill are setting themselves up to be disappointed. To no one's great surprise, Mr. Trump's speech in the big political rally later in the day was packed with factual errors, which the mainstream media carefully pointed out. And rightly so.
So, from a communication standpoint, let's look at what Mr. Trump did very well. He interacted effectively in conversation with a variety of people. He was relaxed, friendly, and confident. He introduced a bit of humor. He complimented people and was, in general, quite charming. He hit his usual campaign themes. He maintained eye contact around the room. For the most part, he spoke extemporaneously and effectively. He was nothing like the ranting lunatic depicted in the mainstream media (and which he often acts like during his political rallies). In fact, the ranting political rally later that day got much more attention from the national press. But I suspect that many people in Minnesota will remember the Roundtable.
A few days ago, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a lifelong Methodist, cited Romans 13 in the Bible to justify the imprisonment of undocumented immigrants and the separation of immigrant children from their parents. Since this is still in the news, let's talk about what's going on with Romans 13.
Sessions' Bible interpretation seemed to shock many Christians across the world, while, at the same time, Sessions seems to have been blindsided by the reaction to what he probably thought was an innocent, straightforward, fundamentalist, Bible-based opinion. My question is, why was anyone surprised? Because no one should have been surprised. Why are two sides so polarized about a simple question?
Here is what Sessions said in his June 14, 2018 speech in Fort Wayne, Indiana:
"First—illegal entry into the United States is a crime—as it should be. Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order." Here is the relevant section for Romans 13:1-4 (NRSV):
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer." Sessions' use of this Bible passage surprised and shocked many Christian leaders. Leaders of his own church, the United Methodist Church, condemned his statement as a gross misrepresentation. It does seem excessive to think that refugees and immigrants have committed such great wrong as to invite "wrath upon him that doeth evil." But none of this should have surprised anyone. Anti-immigration advocates have long cited Romans 13 to support their opinion, and anyone who pays attention to conservative rhetoric would have recognized this as a standard conservative talking point. For example, Ralph and Danielle Drollinger's Capitol Ministries, a nationwide ministry dedicated to "creating 50 biblically based ministries of evangelism and discipleship in the 50 state capitols of the United States of America," says on their website that Romans 13 positively obligates governments to suppress illegal immigration.:
"In terms of immigration, for a government to be pleasing to God and receive His blessing, it has no option but to protect its citizenry from illegal immigration per Romans 13:4 and 1 Peter 2:13-14. It must always protect its borders and punish those who enter illegally."
Simillarly, Charisma News, a popular Christian Right websiteuses Romans to justify harsh treatment of immigrants:
"The Romans passage gives freedom to countries to punish anyone who breaks those laws. Selective partisan theology would have people believe that good goals or motivations justify the breaking of laws to achieve a good end."
For months, my social media feed has been filled with tweets and Internet memes that cite Romans 13 to justify strict anti-immigrant policies. (In the wake of this controversy, Romans 13 seems to have strangely vanished from my social media feed. It will, no doubt, return.)
I am not at all surprised that Sessions and Huckabee Sanders misused the Bible to support a distinctly anti-biblical viewpoint. But the entire incident shows that conservatives and liberals are living in different rhetorical universes: liberals seem utterly unaware that anti-immigrant Christian groups are using Romans 13 to justify practices that appall liberals. At the same time, Sessions seemed to have been quite astonished that anyone would object. We hear a lot about conservatives living in a media bubble. But liberals also live in their own media bubble, and seem to be absolutely unaware of what conservatives are thinking – until it is too late and the damage is done.
If conservatives and liberals are going to have any reconciliation, they need to be familiar with each other's rhetoric. They clearly are not. And this failure to recognize, or even be aware of, one another's viewpoints is not only the effect of polarization, but one of its causes.
At the same time, it is quite a stretch to apply Romans 13 to immigration. In Romans, Paul actually says nothing specific about immigration whatsoever. That the Christian Right finds it necessary to stretch a marginally relevant, out-of-context passage to support their viewpoint strongly suggests not only that their view lacks biblical support, but also that, somewhere deep inside, they know that their view lacks biblical support.. Does it not?
The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U. S. A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved.
As I commented a couple days ago, I have never been able to convince my fellow communication colleagues that proof-texting is an important rhetorical device. Biblical scholars, in contrast, know that proof-texting is important in conservative religious talk. But religious and political talk often overlap, not only in content, but also in methods. The ways that conservatives think don't necessarily change when they switch between politics and religion. Thus, we have the interesting dust-up between Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who established his point by proof-texting, and his own church, which disagrees. Proof-texting is not so much a fallacy as it is a different way of thinking: for proof-texting attributes almost magical power to words.
In his June 14, 2018 speech responding to Christian leaders who objected to his zero-tolerance policy toward undocumented immigrants, Sessions said this:
"First—illegal entry into the United States is a crime—as it should be. Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order."
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer."
1. What is proof-texting? Proof-texting is a method of biblical preaching and analysis that uses little itty-bitty tiny snippets of the Bible to prove big points. Conservative preachers have used this method for centuries. For example, many of us studied Jonathan Edwards famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," in high school. In this firebreathing speech, warned his congregation warned his congregation that God was angry at them and ready to cast them into hell. The text on which he based his sermon was this: "Their foot shall slide in due time." Edwards began his sermon like this [italics added]: "In this verse is threatened the vengeance of God on the wicked unbelieving Israelites." This verse comes from a lengthy song that Moses sang for the Israelite exiles as he turned his leadership over to Joshua; Moses praises God's power and mercy while threatening harm against those who violate God's laws. But, for Edwards, Moses' complex theological exposition comes down to one simple phrase. That is how proof-texting works.
2. Why does proof-texting ignore context? Writing in the Minneapolist Star-Tribune, Lutheran pastor Richard Jorgensen objects to Sessions' use of proof-texting: "If patriotism is the “last refuge of a scoundrel,” the biblical proof-text is one of his favorite diversionary tactics." He explains that proof-texting ignores context, leading us to view the Bible one verse at a time, which is a misleading way to read.
But there is another factor. Suppose that you believe, as many people do, that the Bible is divinely inspired, that God is responsible for every word, and that its truth is both literal and infallible (which are not the same things). In that case, every phrase, every word can be relied on to give truth. Thus, Edwards could say "Their foot shall slide in due time" and pay little attention to what comes before and after. And Sessions could cite Romans 13, ignoring everything that comes before and after, for, as a conservative Christian, he might believe that every inspired word and phrase is utterly reliable.
With proof-texting, the words gain have a supernatural power of their own. Cultural and literary context don't matter as much. Literalism is a way of thinking, a heuristic to understand texts, and Bible literalists take it very seriously. A liberal Christian will be interested in higher criticism; that is, a liberal Christian will want to understand the Bible's historical, literary, and cultural context. To a literalist, those factors aren't irrelevant, but they become much less important, as Roger E. Olson argues in his essay, "The Absurdity of Higher Criticism of the Gospels..."
So, does context matter? To some people it does; to some people it does not. Sessions ran into a firestorm because he assumed that context didn't matter; to many believers, it did.
First Amendment Issues: Sessions' criticsstarted the dispute by saying that the Bible supported tolerant, loving policies toward immigrants. Sessions accepted their premise - that the Bible applies to public policy - but tried to proof-text his way out of it. I'm sure that many people would prefer to keep the Bible and the government separate.
P.S.: The NRSV translation of Jonathan Edwards' verse (Deut: 32:35) doesn't support his view very well, giving us another reason to be careful with proof-texting:
Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; because the day of their calamity is at hand, their doom comes swiftly.
The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U. S. A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved.