Solving the Trump-Talk Puzzle

In a recent Axios interview, journalist Jonathan Swan sat down with the President. Because of Mr. Trump’s preferred rhetorical devices, it is difficult to grab onto anything with which to craft an effective response. Here is an attempt to classify some of his rhetorical tools and to identify ways to successfully counter this type of talk:

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In the interview, Swan begins by asking Mr. Trump about his “adherence to a philosophy of positive thinking”. Mr. Trump agrees to this characterization, though stipulates that he also looks at the downsides of situations. But when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, Swan says, Trump has been overly optimistic about the scope and prognosis of the crisis, potentially to the detriment of his supporters’ health.

Trump states, “I think you have to have a positive outlook, otherwise you have nothing”.

Not only is blind optimism dangerous in the face of a real crisis, but Trump is not really positive in his comments about anything, except himself. In truth, Trump picks and chooses where to place positive thinking.

In an article from the New York Times, authors Jeremy Peters, Elaina Plott, and Maggie Haberman compare Trump’s self-congratulatory talk to his talk about others:

“By far the most recurring utterances from Mr. Trump in the briefings are self-congratulations, roughly 600 of them, which are often predicated on exaggerations and falsehoods. He does credit others (more than 360 times) for their work, but he also blames others (more than 110 times) for inadequacies in the state and federal response.”

But Trump’s behavior of never admitting defeat, always saying “it is getting better”, is another way for him to escape any talk of what he could be doing differently — it’s a way of avoiding the show of weakness, at a time when we need leaders who can deftly show vulnerabilities (it can be argued, the showing of weakness or vulnerability is actually a strength, especially when combined with a show of critical thinking, listening, and introspection; see Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability here).

This is more evidence then that Trump is only for himself: because to show weakness/vulnerability at this time, which could be helpful to the country — in the sense that the country may need to be more careful during this pandemic — is perceived to be a detriment to Trump himself, so he will never do it.

Trump belies one of his thinking tropes, or cognitive distortions, in minute 7:35, when he says about the coronavirus, “it’s under control as much as you can control it”. Here, he is conflating “the best that we can do” with “the best that can be done”. This may be one of his core beliefs/distortions: that no one could possibly do anything better than him, so if he is doing it, it is the best way possible.

Such a mindset would be nearly impossible to change, if genuinely believed. Any criticism would be more evidence that people are out to get you. It could not possibly be because you are not doing the best job possible — again, if I always do the best job possible, there is simply no other way that one could do better. Therefore, any criticism is fake news. There is no such thing as constructive criticism, unless — and this is a big unless — Trump is the one giving it.

Whataboutism is a rhetorical tool that we all tend to use at certain times, faced with embarrassment or attempting to hide something by drawing attention away from it. It is rhetorical sleight of hand. And it is certainly one of Trump’s favorite tools.

Whataboutism is calling someone’s attention to something else using the phrase, “what about…?”. For example, a boss tells you that your chronic tardiness is becoming a problem and you answer, “what about Carl’s bad attitude?” It takes the attention off of you and can really derail a conversation. It is really easy to get lost in these whatabout digressions in a conversation and forget to ever follow up on a point you were trying to make or an answer you were trying to get.

For another example, at minute 17:42, Trump uses whataboutism to draw attention away from intelligence reports that Russia, whom Trump touts as a friend, has been targeting American soldiers abroad. He claims that “in the real world” nuclear proliferation is a bigger threat to humanity than even global warming (neither nuclear proliferation or global warming were subjects of the question).

There is no doubt that nuclear proliferation is an imperative issue, as it could lead to destruction and loss of life on a mass scale. However, global warming may also lead us to destruction and loss of life on a mass scale, and the small-to-large scale regional conflicts that it could produce (due to lack of resources or climate refugees, among other reasons) could bring us closer to using those nuclear weapons. Trump’s use of the term, “in the real world” also functions as a signal to his followers that climate change is not real.

And now I have devoted two paragraphs to something that wasn’t even in the line of questioning because I have been thrown off base by this whataboutism.

Following whataboutism, and often used in conjunction with it, Trump uses blame to take the heat off of himself. His favorite targets of blame are former President Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton. At one point in the interview, Mr. Trump states that he had to start from scratch, “when I took over, we didn’t even have a test (for coronavirus)” (Note: Trump was inaugurated in 2016; covid-19 was not identified until December of 2019).

Trump often claims to have “inherited a broken system” — another instance of the “it’s not my fault, it’s someone else’s fault” claims that Trump favors.

At minute 18:35, Trump says that “the world is a very angry place”. There is a debate about whether the world has become less violent, more violent, or neither, but the facts don’t matter here. By saying that the world is an angry place, Trump taps into a human’s basic fear of violence and attack. By making his supporters afraid enough of anyone different from them (and Trump decides who is different), Trump precludes rational thinking. To use a hackneyed and admittedly problematic analogy, this is somewhat akin to how shouting fire in a crowded theater precludes ones’ ability to judge the merits of the play being shown. You no longer think about the plot or the actors or the costumes. You stop thinking and you act.

(I use the fire in a crowded theater here, not as an argument to limit free speech, but rather to illustrate how politicians can suspend the critical thinking of an electorate by claiming the existence of an imminent threat.)

In Trump’s way, he tells his supporters that the Democrats are burning down the theater that is the United States. There is no longer time to read and consider and think, or be a considerate citizen. A burning theater requires a quick reaction: get defensive, get protective, get angry, get even. But whatever you do, don’t think, or you’ll be burned.

In this sense, the Trump supporters who are angrily yelling at Democrats for allegedly destroying America believe themselves to be doing the right thing. And if some group were in fact trying to destroy the country, Trump supporters would be justified. However, fear-based reactions can be hijacked and used by politicians for their own ends. Rather than emotional thinking, we need slow, considerate, questioning.

Trump states that the entire Black Lives Matter movement put a bad taste in his mouth since he heard them chanting, “pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon”. There was indeed a local BLM group that chanted this, obviously terrible, slogan in 2015. It was never an official slogan or chant from the Black Lives Matter national organization. Nevertheless, Trump paints entire groups of people based on the actions of a few.

The “few bad apples” argument is used in every organization or collection of human beings. There are always a few bad actors, no matter the group. But we need to be able to discern when it really is just a few bad apples, or a pattern of misconduct that pervades an organization.

According to Trump, a few bad actors in BLM characterize the whole group as bad. But he does not use this same logic when considering police brutality, especially against people of color. He consistently says that a few bad police are just that, a few bad actors and not representative of the whole (even though there is considerable evidence that there is a systemic problem).

This is akin to the fundamental attribution error, also known as correspondence bias: when I do something bad, it is because I am reacting to the situation; when someone else does something bad, it is because they are bad people.

If Black Lives Matter is shown to have a systemic problem with chants such as the “fry ’em like bacon” chant, that ostensibly promotes violence against the police, then this would require a closer examination of BLM as an organization. However, there is no proof that this is a systemic BLM issue.

To be fair, the left is not entirely innocent here. We do the same thing when we paint all conservatives or Republicans with a broad brush. When we say or do something wrong, we attribute it to the situation (“I was just reacting to what they said”). But, when a conservative does something wrong we take it as proof of their inherent wrongness as a person or a group.

Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a champion of civil rights, passed away recently. Swan asks, “how do you think history will remember John Lewis?”

Trump can only come up with, “I don’t know” and then states that Congressman Lewis, “chose not to come to my inauguration”.

Swan then asks, “do you find him impressive?”

Trump responds, “I can’t say one way or another” and states that Congressman Lewis didn’t come to his State of the Union and then claims, “look, nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have.”

A reminder: Congressman Lewis, who made a career out of fighting for civil rights, was beaten so savagely while marching for those rights that he had scars on him until the day he died. And, while talking about that same Congressman Lewis, Trump claims that he himself has done more for Black Americans.

Congressman Lewis was a vocal critic of the President and Mr. Trump will never speak well of a critic. But he also goes beyond that: he will claim that he has actually done more good than that person, whomever that person happens to be.

Perhaps one of Trump’s favorite devices is to claim there are experts who agree with him, who say he is doing an incredible job, perhaps a better job than anyone has ever done before. Within this stance, there is an inherent insult to everyone who has ever done the job before, to everyone who has ever dedicated their lives to finding solutions

He claims that “the manuals and the books” say that a country can do too much testing during a pandemic. Jonathan Swan attempts to follow up on this, twice asking, “what manuals? what books?” but Trump keeps the conversations moving so he does not have to answer.

There may be no perfect solutions to this. It is easy to get caught up in a constant deluge of rhetorical devices, lies, and bending of facts. There is always someone else to blame, there is always someone else who did something that could be construed as worse.

Just from this 35 minute interview, we have Mr. Trump using the following devices:

Positive thinking (about his own actions only).

The belief: I do the best job possible in everything I do. Better than anyone else who has ever tried.

Never admit defeat or weakness.

Everyone else is to blame for any problems.

When you need support from experts, make them up. (No one will follow up.)

The world is an angry, and scary, place.

Stereotype anyone who opposes you as the reason for the angry, scary world.

Never speak well of a critic. Make everyone think you’ve done more than that person.

These statements seem to go deeper than rhetoric, they seem to be core beliefs. These are the beliefs that guide all of Trump’s thinking: if there is a problem, look for someone to blame; if someone criticizes you, criticize them back (only worse); scorn your detractors; believe you are the best.

How does one deal with this?

Call out the distorted thought when you see or hear it. Ask Trump bluntly about them. We get caught up in the words rather than the thoughts behind them. Have him answer for, and expand on, his thoughts.

Offer simple reflections: “so you think no one could possibly do better than you”; “so you think everyone else is to blame”. These simple reflections ,when offered as statements rather than questions, can help bring out more of Trump’s thinking for examination. Importantly, these are not to be said, or even meant, sarcastically. We are trying to get into Trump’s thinking process here, not simply make a joke out of him.

Always follow-up on claims. Even if it means waiting for the next interview or press conference. Bring it up. Keep pressing for answers to the unsupported claims. Where are these books and manuals that say you can do too much testing? Who are the coronavirus experts that claim Trump is doing an incredible job?

More than anything else probably: keep cool, calm, and collected. The more emotional we get, the more we get labeled as emotional. Puzzles are not easy when we are emotionally distracted, and putting this one together may be one of the more important puzzles of our lives.

A freelance writer based in the Northeast. MA in Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation w/specialization in Monitoring and Evaluation. BA in Social Science.

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