Sunday, December 6, 2015

Trump talk: demagogue edition

The Times transcribed a week's worth of Trump talk (95,000 words!), asked experts to evaluate the language and they found this:
This pattern of elevating emotional appeals over rational ones is a rhetorical style that historians, psychologists and political scientists placed in the tradition of political figures like Goldwater, George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy, Huey Long and Pat Buchanan, who used fiery language to try to win favor with struggling or scared Americans. Several historians watched Mr. Trump’s speeches last week, at the request of The Times, and observed techniques — like vilifying groups of people and stoking the insecurities of his audiences — that they associate with Wallace and McCarthy.
Well, duh.
 His entire campaign is run like a demagogue’s — his language of division, his cult of personality, his manner of categorizing and maligning people with a broad brush,” said Jennifer Mercieca, an expert in American political discourse at Texas A&M University. “If you’re an illegal immigrant, you’re a loser. If you’re captured in war, like John McCain, you’re a loser. If you have a disability, you’re a loser. It’s rhetoric like Wallace’s — it’s not a kind or generous rhetoric.”
“And then there are the winners, most especially himself, with his repeated references to his wealth and success and intelligence,” said Ms. Mercieca, noting a particular remark of Mr. Trump’s on Monday in Macon, Ga. (“When you’re really smart, when you’re really, really smart like I am — it’s true, it’s true, it’s always been true, it’s always been true.”)
“Part of his argument is that if you believe in American exceptionalism, you should vote for me,” Ms. Mercieca said.
More ominously:

A significant difference between Mr. Trump and 20th-century American demagogues is that many of them, especially McCarthy and Wallace, were charmless public speakers. Mr. Trump, by contrast, is an energetic and charismatic speaker who can be entertaining and ingratiating with his audiences. There is a looseness to his language that sounds almost like water-cooler talk or neighborly banter, regardless of what it is about.
For some historians, this only makes him more effective, because demagogy is more palatable when it is leavened with a smile and joke. Highlighting that informality, one of his most frequently used words is “guy” — which he said 91 times last week and has used to describe President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, a stranger cheering him on at a rally and a celebrity friend.
“His relaxed, jokey tone makes statements about his resolve to solve every problem because he knows what’s right and has the energy to do it more persuasive,” said Mr. Kazin of Georgetown, who described Mr. Trump’s idea for a database of Muslims in the United States as insidious but also said he found Mr. Trump amusing at points.
(I suspect if these same experts analyzed a week's worth of Cruz talk or Rubio talk or Christie talk, they would find similar patterns, but perhaps less 'charm'. For some reason, contemporary Americans find the ranting of a bullshitting blowhard charming. Maybe it reminds them of their fathers. Certainly of Rush Limbaugh.)

It is the sort of trust-me-and-only-me rhetoric that, according to historians, demagogues have used to insist that they have unique qualities that can lead the country through turmoil. Mr. Trump often makes that point when he criticizes his Republican rivals, though he also pretends that he is not criticizing them.
“All of ’em are weak, they’re just weak,” Mr. Trump said in New Hampshire on Tuesday of his fellow candidates. “I think they’re weak, generally, you want to know the truth. But I won’t say that, because I don’t want to get myself, I don’t want to have any controversies. So I refuse to say that they’re weak generally, O.K.? Some of them are fine people. But they are weak.”
Trump has been a con-man throughout his career, sweet talking investors into giving him their money for glitzy projects which go bankrupt almost as fast as Trump cashes our his stake. This essay by Maria Konnikova, also in the NY Times, provides rich historical insight about con-artists in American life and more importantly, why people fall for them. For one thing, they deal in stories, not facts.
Stories are one of the most powerful forces of persuasion available to us, especially stories that fit in with our view of what the world should be like. Facts can be contested. Stories are far trickier. I can dismiss someone’s logic, but dismissing how I feel is harder.
And the stories the grifter tells aren’t real-world narratives — reality-as-is is dispiriting and boring. They are tales that seem true, but are actually a manipulation of reality. The best confidence artist makes us feel not as if we’re being taken for a ride but as if we are genuinely wonderful human beings who are acting the way wonderful human beings act and getting what we deserve. We like to feel that we are exceptional, and exceptional individuals are not chumps.
Sound familiar?

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