Lessons in Trump’s Americanese
Trump is not like other politicians in America. Things he says that would normally destroy candidates and elected officials flow from his mouth without pause. Recently, one of his surrogates tried to explain that Trump was not lying per se, but rather was speaking an “Americanese” that certain people understood to be true, regardless of the facts of the matter. As of the latest polls, 37% of Americans still approve of Trump’s actions. This, in spite of provably false lies he spews, roving contradictions, and a never-ending sequence of embarrassing policy mistakes. How is he does this? Let’s look at his techniques to keep 37% of the people still in his corner, and how we might bring them back to sensibility.
Before we dive in to how he does it, let’s talk about how other politicians do what they do in communications. For politicians, there’s a default position taken of narrowing the field of issues to be for or against in a paradigm I like to call the “Deep Sea Fishing Rights Problem”. The term is coined from a quote from the musical 1776 wherein the debate is raging over the contents of the newly written Declaration of Independence in the Continental Congress. Representative Joseph Hewes of North Carolina raises his voice to be heard and addresses the words of the Declaration in opposition, saying “Mr. Jefferson, nowhere do you mention deep sea fishing rights!”
Politicians intentionally and expressly narrow the field of issues they claim to champion for strategic reasons of persuasion, just as Jefferson did in the narrow appeal of the Declaration of Independence. As a hypothetical, let us consider the issues of two candidates for your local city council.
- Bring jobs to our town
- Re-pave Main Street
- Better schools
- Bring jobs to our town
- Re-pave Main Street
- Better schools
- Improve code enforcement
- Re-zone Downtown to mixed use
- Increase public transportation
- Privatize library system
Who will you be voting for? Overwhelmingly, voters pick Bob Generic. The reason for this is due to the net gain in negative bias as a result of sharing issues which the politicians believes in but potential voters might find as counter to their interests. These example candidates represented believe the exact same things about bringing jobs to the town, re-paving Main street, and having better schools. But Sam Specific adds the additional consideration for voters to consider his views on issues beyond these three, opening the door to intense dislike due to his stance on re-zoning, the library system, public transportation, and code enforcement. Bob Generic may well hold all these same issues and personally consider puppies to be “the other white meat,” but he’s certainly not going to let you know. Rather, he shares with you the issues you are statistically most likely to view him positively for, and keeps the remainder tucked safely away until he has to cast a vote on the matter.
This game of net sum issues positions for politicians is played out in campaign literature and electioneering advertisements. Overwhelmingly, candidates who list dozens of issue positions across the spectrum will lose, as voters go down the line item by item and internally say “Like, like, like, like, good on that one, yep, decent, good, good, nice, good, like, OH GOD NO I will protest against this inhuman monster who does not share my views on deep sea fishing rights.” Issue positions during campaigns are sculpted by and for politicians looking to score the maximum positive perception of the voters they are hoping to sway with their handful of primary issues. It’s why everyone laughed when Democratic Presidential primary candidate Lincoln Chaffee said he was running on a position of instituting the metric system in the United States. Yes, that’s a great idea. No, that wins you points with literally no one. The narrowing of issue positions is how normal politicians conduct communications, and it is effective.
Trump is, again, not a normal politician. He uses three primary tactics to accomplish his communications, and deliver his message in the “Americanese” his surrogates have cited as an easy explanation for squaring the circle of his falsehoods. He employs a three-punch strategy of a benevolent deception expectation, the sculpting of optional realities, and constant evocations of powers unseen.
Benevolent Deception Expectation
Firstly, he speaks by virtue of an established personality of expected deception. As an example, he might say “I love the color blue. Blue is great, I’ve always said blue is wonderful – in fact blue is the best color in the world. No better color than blue, am I right? These people get it, you great people, blue people, people who really, I mean really, really get it. I gotta tell ya, blue forever.” The blue people applaud. He really gets us! He’s one of us, this great guy.
The red people listening to Trump deliver this message to blue people turn to each other and say “Heh, look at those stupid blue people, believing him. We know he secretly likes red.” A week later, he explains that he has always liked red, red is the color he’s loved since he was very young, and he cites fake news as carrying out a fake blue narrative. In rallies with the red people, he tells them “Look, you know I’m with you, I’m red, seriously folks, look, you know this is true. I guarantee you, I’m a red kinda guy. Just look at my tie.” The reds give him a standing ovation, and the blue people shake their heads and laugh – “Idiots. Don’t they know he’s just playing them? He’s true blue.”
By offering praise, evoking nostalgia, and taking every opportunity to aggrandize his audience and himself, he foments suspension of disbelief. They know he is two-faced. The problem is, they think he’s just being two-faced to those people they don’t like, and instead of being the victims, they are the only ones “in” on the con. His supporters fail to grasp that they are not in on the con – they are subject to it. He is not with them – neither blue nor red, but the color he loves is rather, gold.
The second prong of Trump Americanese is the extreme spectrum shift on reality. One thing that has not escaped attention in his speech pattern is that if he makes an assertion on something while adding an adjective or supplemental sentence to try and enhance the veracity, and then repeats it, that thing is not only a provable lie, but typically a gargantuan lie so large as to defy rationality. Watch this video clip of his remarks at CPAC starting at 13:24 until 13:52 .
His line at CPAC was “By the way, you folks that are in here, place is packed. There are lines that go back six blocks. And I tell you that because you won’t read about it, okay. But there are lines that go back six blocks.” There were no lines, and there are pictures of there being no lines because people with human eyes and cameras were present.
At issue with the spectrum shift on reality when presented to his supporters is not that he was caught in a lie, or that he shared something that was provably false. What occurs is that the emotional bookends he presents the lies in-between serve as the delivery mechanism for the extreme nature of the lie, and the delivery mechanism when it is emotion does not permit the armor of rational thought or reason to halt the acceptance of the lie. What did he say before the lie about the lines at CPAC? “By the way, we love our flag.” and right after? “There is such love in this country for everything we stand for. You saw that on election day, and you’re gonna see it more and more.” The immune system of the brain, particularly the authoritarian brain, is not adequately equipped to shift gears as rapidly as is required to halt the entry of the fact that yes, there were clearly lines wrapped around the building, six blocks long, of course. If there weren’t, it was still true, in our hearts. Because we love our flag, and there is such love in this country for what we’re doing.
The third prong is conspiracy and the power of the vague and unseen. He hears things, he reads things, he has people doing things and saying things and working with things. “Think about it” is his go-to phrase when he has nothing. He invites his supporters to fill in the gaps, and they most assuredly do. In his references to these vague, unseen forces, he is appealing to the invisible world around his devotees who already experience frequent pangs of nationalist-tinged paranoia. “Them,” “They,” “The Others,” and “You know who…” are running the planet and making decisions to the detriment of the average hard-working American citizen in this continuous narrative. Trump’s “guys” and “people” from whom he “hears things” and are “looking into things” are fighting the good fight against “them.” And they are doing it for YOU. So clearly, you owe him quite a bit. In fact, you owe him your life. Especially considering all the awful things he has stopped from happening already, and all the great, tremendous things he’s done already. So much so, you don’t even know. Think about it.
How to Inoculate Someone Against Americanese
Information, critical thinking, and awareness are the only safeguards for friends and family against falling prey to Trump’s appeals to emotion and the linguistic powers of Americanese. If you know someone who is already lost to this thinking, there are methods back – but require very careful handling of the situation. Not surprisingly, you can use the basic guide described by the Cult Education Institute for family and friends in dealing with cult members. Read the guide in its entirety here. Many of the same psychological conditioning techniques are being employed by Trump and his administration. The assertion that only he is the one telling you the truth. The desire to close ourselves off from international allies, the friends and family of our nation-state. An appeal that nirvana and true happiness is just around that last corner, making America great again is so very close, just within reach. And of course, a telltale insistence that you give up your money and experience some personal financial hardship while the cult leader golfs at his mansion and keeps his wife in a golden tower on your dime, all the while telling you that your sacrifice (and loss of health insurance) is worth it.
Sooner or later, Trump is going to do something that causes direct harm to that person, or the contradictions and doubts will begin to add up for them. The critical thing is not to judge, to be there for them, to keep lines of communication open and consistent.