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Of division and wolf-whistles

I was in an e-mail discussion thread with a bunch of people at work who have taken meditation and mindfulness classes together. Somebody on the list posted a link to a "Why I support Trump" spreadsheet where Trump-supporting employees (many of whom felt oppressed by the overwhelming anti-Trump feeling at the office) had anonymously written their feelings about the campaign and the election. It led me to the following thoughts.

Two famous political quotations from this campaign:


“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

– Donald Trump, June 16, 2015



"You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic -- you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people -- now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks -- they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.

"But the other basket -- and I know this because I see friends from all over America here -- I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas -- as well as, you know, New York and California -- but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from. They don't buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they're in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well."

– Hillary Clinton, Sept 9, 2016


Obviously, Hillary's statement has a lot more nuance and balance than Donald's, because she's all about nuance and balance and he's all about punch, but both statements had similar political effects, and to some extent similar political intentions.

The Trump statement has been widely summarized on the left as "Donald Trump thinks all Mexicans are rapists and drug-dealers," and offended millions of Mexicans and other Hispanics who don't think of themselves as rapists or drug-dealers. Technically, Trump didn't actually say all Mexicans are rapists or drug-dealers; he explicitly allowed (seldom quoted) that "some ... are good people," although the "I assume" suggests he didn't actually know any "good Mexicans" personally.

The second statement has been widely summarized on the right as "Hillary Clinton thinks all Trump supporters are racists, sexists, and xenophobes," and offended millions of Trump supporters who don't think of themselves as racists, sexists, or xenophobes. (Indeed, many of the comments in the "Why I Support Trump" spreadsheet referred to Hillary's snotty dismissal of their legitimate concerns as motivated by racism.) Of course, Clinton didn't actually say all Trump supporters are racists, sexists, and xenophobes; she prefaced the widely-quoted remark by saying it was "grossly generalistic," then spent almost twice as many words (seldom quoted) talking about the other "half" of Trump supporters who are not any of these things.

The Trump statement was intended as a not-very-subtle rallying cry for people who congratulate themselves for being Anglo/Celtic/Germanic U.S. citizens, and who consider themselves superior to Hispanics and non-citizens, while the Clinton statement (at least the first half) was intended as a not-very-subtle rallying cry for people who congratulate themselves for being fair-minded and non-racist, and who consider themselves superior to bigots. The second half was intended to reach out to the "non-deplorable" Trump supporters and show her sympathy with them; obviously, that didn't work.

What lessons can we take from this?

1) Short and punchy sells. Few TV news programs will run a quote of 200 words when they could extract a dozen. Bloggers and columnists are less restricted by time and space, so they could run the full quote, but they're also less restricted by expectations of fairness and accuracy, so they may choose not to.

2) Divisive and confrontational sells. If you say something divisive together with something sympathetic, the divisive part is more likely to be quoted. (Ooh, snap!)

For 2500 years, rhetoricians have been taught to acknowledge the apparent merits of an opposing view, or a more-extreme version of their own view, then explain point-by-point why that view is incorrect after all. They've been taught to mix arguments from pathos, ethos, and logos, varying their tone from personal to objective, from emotionally evocative to sober and reasoned. You can see that rhetorical training in the structure of every Obama and Clinton speech.

But all of this depends on the assumption that people will actually hear your entire carefully-constructed oration. None of this works if 95% of the people you want to convince will only hear 5% of your argument (and it's not the 5% you would have chosen). There's not much point in even writing the other 95% of the argument; just cut to the sound bites. Don't pronounce any string of words that you don't want snipped out of context and described as your position. Don't describe an opposing position favorably, even for a moment, or you're an inconsistent waffler. Don't describe a more extreme position favorably, even for a moment, or you're an extremist nut-case. Don't use a colorful image unless you want that image to be the only thing people remember from your speech.

At this point, I should close with something pithy, punchy, and profound, but it's not coming to me. Sorry!
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