From spygate to fake news, Trump has turned words into weapons. The press must do more to dull their power
Donald Trump has been a salesman for nearly half a century. He is now selling himself, his worldview and his self-serving views of the law and the truth. His principal tools are language and the media. By faithfully transmitting Trumps words and ideas, the press helps him to attack, and thereby control, the press itself.
Trump knows the press has a strong instinct to repeat his most outrageous claims, and this allows him put the press to work as a marketing agency for his ideas. His lies reach millions of people through constant repetition in the press and social media. This poses an existential threat to democracy.
Language works by activating brain structures called frame-circuits used to understand experience. They get stronger when we hear the activating language. Enough repetition can make them permanent, changing how we view the world.
Even negating a frame-circuit activates and strengthens it, as when Nixon said I am not a crook and people thought of him as a crook.
Scientists, marketers, advertisers and salespeople understand these principles. So do Russian and Islamic State hackers. But most reporters and editors clearly dont. So the press is at a disadvantage when dealing with a super salesman with an instinctive ability to manipulate thought by 1) framing first 2) repeating often, and 3) leading others to repeat his words by getting people to attack him within his own frame.
Language can shape the way we think. Trump knows this. Here are some of his favorite manipulation techniques.
First, he weaponizes words. The modifier crooked convicted Hillary Clinton without a trial. The medias constant repetition sealed the verdict. Fake news proclaims that the news is fake. The use of fake is designed to delegitimize the press itself. Trump also uses strategic name-calling to undermine the Russia investigation, tagging it as a witch-hunt by the deep state in an attempt to shift blame. Its false, but when the press repeats it, his narrative wins.
The media perpetuated a Trump lie by repeating spygate, which falsely characterized the FBI informant as a spy. Once made, such a mistake by the press is hard to correct.
A possible immediate correction might have been to use RussianSpyGate, repeatedly focusing on the Russian contacts of Trumps campaign aides Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, with the FBI informant checking on Russian spying in the Trump campaign. This would have had to be done over and over, with reporters bring it up whenever spygate was used. Not an easy fix.
Then there are what cognitive scientists call salient exemplars well-publicized individual cases, where wide publicity leads the public to take them as having a high probability and typifying a whole class. Trump turns them into weaponized stereotypes. He is a master at defaming entire groups of people as liars, rapists, terrorists or in the case of US law enforcement and intelligence agencies agents of corruption.
He knows how to avoid taking responsibility for a claim. Maybe. I dont know. Well see. Yet the claim has been made and stands, with no responsibility for it.
In The Art of the Deal, Trump discusses using truthful hyperbole exaggerated claims suggesting a significant truth. His hyperbole can be either positive (great, terrific, the best) for what he likes or negative (a disaster, the worst ever) for what he dislikes. The worst trade deal ever frames trade agreements as deals, where deals are seen as zero-sum games that you either win or lose and winning is the only good outcome. Doesnt it feel good to win! Youll win so much, youll feel tired of winning!
Deal and winning are not just words. They are central to his worldview. Those who win deserve to win; those who lose deserve to lose. Those who dont win are losers. This is a version of individual responsibility, a cornerstone of conservative thought. There is a moral hierarchy. Those who win are better than those who lose.
America first means that America is better than other countries, as shown by its wealth and power. And that wealth and power should be used to win to acquire more wealth and power in all its deals even with our allies. Power includes the power to bully or punish for example, to impose tariffs or pull out of treaty or at least threaten if others dont go along with him.
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