Modesty covering comes up in the darnedest of places. Even political speeches. Who would have thought it? It certainly took me a while to notice.
It is all part of the mechanics of political manipulation. Let’s face it. Manipulation is a big part of what politicians do. Being aware of the mechanics gives you better tools to assess what a politician is really saying. Maybe you will still buy what is being sold, but at least it will be with eyes wide open. (It’s sort of like dealing with used car salespeople. And I bet you’ve heard that one before.)
With that in mind, I thought I would introduce you to reframing and figleaves, along with a micro-analysis of their application. No. You did not just make a wrong turn into an art blog. And you will not need a magnifying glass and tweezers. You’ll see.
Reframing Isn’t Just for Pictures
Ever have one of those conversations? You know. The kind where a bunch of your different observations coalesce conveniently at one point? You didn’t mean it to, but there it is? And you go, “Oh wow, I have to remember this”? This post springs out of one of those.
Last summer, my friend, Ed Chusid, and I wound up discussing framing techniques used by politicians, particularly then Presidential candidate Donald Trump. The context: Trump’s July 2016 speech at the Republican convention.
My friend is a pretty perceptive person and an amateur historian. (He also has his own blog called Fist of History (http://fistofhistory.blogspot.com/). Please check it out.)
Our discussion centered on a very useful tool from the politician’s toolbox. It is easy to miss. It is stealthy. The public is not even supposed to notice its deployment.
Call it reframing. Call it re-characterization. Call it manipulation. Any of those will do. It is a powerful tool.
When used properly, it re-clothes political ideologies. It changes the nature of the conversation. It shifts the political battleground to a field of the politician’s choosing. All without requiring the politician to really change anything but a few words.
The short version is that it is about exchanging this:
For one of these . . .
. . .While the picture within stays the same.
My micro-analysis centers on a key part of the reframing technique. So, I am going talk first about reframing to frame my analysis. As it were. Ahem. (Yeah, I know. Puns normally fall flat.)
It All Started with a Song
First, let me lay the ground work of what kicked off the discussion. Because it amuses me.
My friend had just watched a music video. He noted that one could A) start with a “peppy pop song” (his words); B) add different instrumentation, voices, and/or tempo; and C) mix with the right song underneath (think Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”, John Schmidt’s “Pachelbel Meets U2”, or the Tubes’ “Theme from a Wooly Place”). The recipe results in a completely different tone, while remaining essentially the same song.
To be specific, my friend had recently encountered the Piano Guys’ “This is Your Fight Song (Rachel Platten Scottish Cover)”. It can be found on YouTube. Check it out, if you want (link below).
Public service warning! There are bagpipes. I like bagpipes myself. I also like the Piano Guys. So, unsurprisingly, I like the cover. However, if you are not into either, or Platten’s “Fight Song”, this is probably not a video for you. End public service warning!
My friend found the song transformed from peppy pop song to patriotic war anthem.
Dressing Up the Political Platform
Anyway, my friend observed the Republicans and, particularly, then-candidate Trump, applying similar recipes. They were using choice words and rephrasing to re-characterize a message.
Something was deemed publicly unpalatable and, not inconsequentially, susceptible to effective criticism by the Democrats. With a few magic words, presto chango! It was turned into something more palatable and harder for the Democrats to successfully attack. I’m sure you have run into it before. You are probably nodding your head right now. If not though, concrete examples will follow. Never fear.
Upon study, my friend assessed that some aspects of Trump’s “America First” rhetoric were reframed white nationalism. Xenophobia. Fear of outsider influences. The projection of white Conservative Christian morality as the only legal or moral code to be emulated. Fostering fears that immigrants and minorities threaten white jobs and safety. All were being reframed as being positive, patriotic values. It’s not bigotry, it’s protecting American citizens. It’s not violating people’s rights, it’s doing what’s right, or fair. It’s not suppression, it’s cleaning up crime and ushering in law and order.
My friend noted that such re-characterization made it much harder for Democrats to successfully attack the underlying message. To do so was to fight “patriotism”. In attacking the message, Democrats would open themselves up to being called “unpatriotic”. (It’s kind of a political version of “I’m rubber; you’re glue.” The key is to get there first.)
As an example, my friend noted the changing rhetoric around Mexican immigration. The early campaign dialogue (“they’re rapists”) shifted to something a bit more acceptable to moderate or undecided voters. From Mr. Trump’s acceptance speech at the RNC convention in July 2016, “Decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens, especially for African-American and Latino workers.” From a speech in Phoenix from August 2016, “[Immigration reform] should mean improvements to our laws and policies to make life better for American citizens.”
The earlier phrase was less palatable to voters who may have been a bit on the fence. (Yes, I know that Trump did add a little qualifier to that particular statement. Remember that for later. Regardless, that qualifier did not entirely remove controversy from the statement, did it? How do you know? Because, you still remember it, don’t you?)
In contrast, the later two phrases provide more appealing visuals for the same policies. It’s still anti-immigration. But it now has a pretty new frame of reasons. It’s to protect American jobs or the safety of American citizens. Further, the re-characterization pre-framed any Democratic rebuttal. Critics could be labelled unpatriotic and anti-job (a killer accusation for the Democrats’ supposed pro-labor stance). Thus, the shift also made the policies more difficult for Democrats to counter in the court of public opinion.
(Also, the line on American jobs adds another one of those special little qualifiers to make it also seem to be about minorities, further upping the respectability level. That’s two qualifiers that have come up. Tiny little things, aren’t they? Just enough for a modesty covering. Keep track of those. They will be back, with reinforcements.)
Dressing up the same policies in new clothes can clearly be a powerful tool to sell unfashionable ideas to the public. The problem is that you think the outfit is from a fashion house. But it really could be from Walmart’s bargain basement reject basket.
An Introduction to Figleaves and Re-Shaping the Narrative
Speaking of clothing, or lack thereof – I used my friend’s political analyses as an excuse to describe figleaves to him. Lucky you. I am now using that discussion as an excuse to describe figleaves to you too.
More specifically, I pointed out to my friend that I too had been seeing Republicans use reframing or re-characterizing techniques a lot over the last several years. That’s when I brought up figleaves. I mean political ones, of course. They can be integral parts to reframing.
I take no credit for the concept. I had noticed a vague something I could never quite fully define. Then I was introduced to an article using the term and explaining the concept. The credit, crystallization and deeper analysis of the concept belong entirely to the article’s author, Prof. Jennifer Saul (whose spelling of the term I am using). She has discussed it and its implications in several articles, linked below (and my understanding is that it will also be the subject of her upcoming article to be published in Philosophical Topics).
As a caveat, my application of the term below may be a bit off from how it is strictly meant by Prof. Saul. Apologies to her for mischaracterizing her work in any way. Nevertheless, forging ahead . . .
When we are talking statues, fig leaves are used to cover up private parts. The statue thus becomes G-rated. It goes from “lewd” to “respectable”. (You see where this is going, right?)
Similarly, political figleaves have been used to provide the barest of coverings. Just enough to make a political statement “technically” noncontroversial. A sentence is deemed not really racist or bigoted because of the addition of a tiny qualifier to it. (Remember those qualifiers I talked about previously?) By adding a few words, the speaker, and his or her audience, can deny any bigotry, while still using bigoted terms.
The America public appears to be falling for this practice in a big way. I have noted it not just being used to cover up projected bigotry. It is also used to reframe something to make it seem like something else.
A Figleaf Sampler
There are many examples of word-choice reframing in the political arena. I already mentioned some previously. Here are a few more.
In response to legislation designed to allow denial of service to homosexuals, it wasn’t “anti-gay”; it was “pro-religious freedom”. Thus, something discriminatory now sounds like something constitutional. Abortion is a sensitive and emotionally charged subject. So, it is not “anti-abortion”; it is “pro-life”. It is not “pro-abortion”; it is “pro-choice”. The word abortion has been taken out of both labels in an effort to remove some controversy from either stance. It also makes each stance harder to attack on its face. Life and choice. You don’t want to be against either of those, do you? That would be unamerican, wouldn’t it?
Getting back to that first little qualifier I mentioned. An excellent example of a figleaf comes from then-candidate Trump’s infamous statement, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … 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.” Wait for it. Here comes the little qualifier, right at the end. “And some, I assume, are good people.”
That little tag at the end is the figleaf. It provided enough of a modesty covering to allow the statement to be called “not really racist”. Because of that little addition, Trump did not say ALL were bad. Since it was not technically a statement on all Mexican immigrants, it was not technically racist.
In reality, what he said was racist. The entire statement used clearly racist pronouncements. It was a blanket assessment of a single group of people based on nothing more than nationality and immigrant status. The addon was clearly nothing more than insincere window dressing. The tag even had its own qualifier with “I assume”. Trump did not even say that some were actually good people. He could only guess that some were. Even the figleaf had its own figleaf.
Remember that other little qualifier I mentioned? “. . .[E]specially for African-American and Latino workers.” That little qualifier was used to add another layer of protection. The changed frame for the immigration platform became not just about protecting American jobs. It was about protecting minority jobs too. It turned “anti-immigration” to not only “pro-jobs” but also “pro-minority”. Further, it added a figleaf allowing Trump to say, “See. My platform protects minorities too” even if it did not. His supporters could assure themselves they were not racist or bigoted in their support of Trump because, “See, he is pro-minority. He’s not a bigot, and neither are we.” Further it serves as a shield against future anti-minority statements, or actions, Trump might take. He, or his supporters, can simply refer back to the statement as proof, “Nope. I really am pro-minority. See.”
Small Leaves – Big Punch
They are simple. They are small. Yet these figleaves can accomplish a whole lot. There are many types of figleaf application. However, they all serve the same goal. By adding these tiny smidgens of respectability to problematical statements, politicians avoid consequence.
Politicians can say something racist, bigoted, or discriminatory without being held accountable. Some of that stems from the “technicality” issue. Nothing bad was said, technically. Some of that stems from the ability to change the nature of the dialogue. For example, forcing the discussion to be about preserving freedom of religion, not about suppressing a group’s rights.
Some of it also stems from giving the politician’s supporters reassurance. A figleaf gives supporters little hooks to hang their justifications to themselves upon. They can ignore the true import of what a politician said. He did not really say that. Their consciences can stay clean. They can stick with that guy. He was not being a racist. They are not racists for supporting him. The reassurance is not solely about the content of the politician’s words, but also the morality of the supporters’ continued loyalty.
That’s entirely understandable. When humans fundamentally want something to be so (or not so), we sometimes unwittingly grasp at straws (or leaves, in this case) to satisfy our conscience. It is like fact-checking some piece of information we really want to be true. Speaking for myself, I may find 20 articles, all from different perspectives, which say it just is not true. But, if I can find just one that says it is, it is awfully tempting to just go with that one article. It’s hard to resist the urge to rely on it and say, “See; the article says so.”
Similarly, we frequently get to a point in a campaign where we really want to follow a particular politician. We sometimes even really need him or her, for whatever reason, to be “right”. It is hard to resist taking figleaf sized excuses to satisfy ourselves that both our own moral character and our continued devotion are correct. Particularly when talking about political figleaves.
We aren’t meant to notice that qualifier, those few words here or there. They are just supposed to flow on by beneath our notice, like so many leaves in the stream of political speech. We can end up relying on figleaves for reassurance without being aware they were ever there. (Don’t be creeped out. No one is compulsively grabbing onto statue private parts. It’s not like any of us are perverts over this.) Or if we do notice, we are meant to be reassured by their presence that the statement is not controversial.
Figleaves serve a big part of reframing by stealthily adding all those little qualifiers that can turn a statement from a negative to a positive.
Just a Wafer-Thin Slice of the Bigger Cake
With that primer out of the way, let’s go quite a bit further down this rabbit hole, shall we?
Figleaves are so effective at covering up previously unacceptable language, that their use has expanded. They are everywhere in political speech. To demonstrate that, I am going to breakdown one single part of Trump’s RNC acceptance speech. I am going to peel back for you the layers of thought manipulation and reframing at play.
And this is just a minute portion of the entire speech, mind you. Figleaf application was not limited to this one part, by any means.
First, let me set the stage a bit.
A little over a month before the 2016 RNC convention was the horrific shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub, in Orlando, Florida. The shooter killed 49 people and wounded 58 others. The shooter was an American-born Muslim man. He pledged allegiance to ISIL during a 9-1-1 call and told a negotiator he wanted U.S. bombing to stop. The shooter appeared to have no actual ties to ISIL. Many call the shooting a terrorist attack. Some view it as a hate crime looking for an excuse. Some instead see the shooting as a result of mental illness. The matter is not entirely settled in that regard.
Trump’s tweet response in the wake of the shooting was about Trump being right on radical Islamic terrorism.
The Republican party usually has an anti-gay agenda. 2016 was no exception. Further, Trump had selected Mike Pence as his Vice-Presidential running mate. Pence had a history of anti-gay stances of his own, many of which were more conservative that even Republican standards. He was against marriage equality (gay marriage). He opposed the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask/don’t tell”. As Indiana’s governor, he supported the state’s “religious freedom” bill (gay discrimination). The list goes on.
Unsurprisingly, no one expected Trump’s RNC speech to say anything really positive to the gay community.
However, in his speech, Trump acknowledged the shooting. He seemed to actually demonstrate some sympathy for and acceptance of the LGBTQ community.
Trump started with, “Only weeks ago, in Orlando, Florida, 49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered. . .” He then continued on, “by an Islamic terrorist. This time, the terrorist targeted LGBTQ community. No good, and we’re going to stop it.”
Trump’s very next sentence defined what he proposed to do:
“As your President, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology. Believe me.”
I am going to examine that first sentence. (Yes, I have looked at the sentence in the larger context of his entire speech as well. The larger context, in no way, invalidates my analysis below.) While Jon Stewart did a sketch humorously calling out the use of “Believe me” as a sign you should do the opposite, I am going to be setting that part of the speech aside.
Here’s a video link to this part of Trump’s speech. Note the response this particular sentence received. It served its purpose. There were rousing cheers. The public loved it.
That sentence sounds great though, right? No wonder the crowd went wild. Trump not only acknowledged the LGBTQ community but vowed to protect their rights and their persons. That is pretty strong stuff. It’s counter to the Republican line. But Trump’s his own man, right? He’s a maverick, right? He stands up for all Americans, right?
Except when you examine further, you realize that’s not what he really said, at all.
He did not say, “I will make sure you enjoy equal rights and the same protections under the law as other citizens.” He promised nothing of the kind. Trump’s did not say he would protect LGBTQ rights from those in the U.S. who seek to deny those rights. Remember the aforementioned anti-gay/”pro-religious freedom” laws? Nada. Trump only pledged to protect the LBGTQ community from a “hateful foreign ideology”. Trump promised nothing about hateful ideologies that were not foreign. The LGBTQ community continues to face already existing hateful American ideologies every day. For example, those evinced by several Conservative Christian groups and many in the Republican party. Remember the aforementioned Mike Pence? There was no promise of protection from his policies either.
In fact, Trump did not promise the LGBTQ community any additional protections or attention at all. He promised them the same protections he was already promising in general to all American citizens. Trump had repeatedly previously stated that he wanted to go after Muslims and terrorists. To do as he promised in that sentence, Trump had to do nothing more than what he had already committed to do at large. The LGBTQ community did not even enter into that equation. The statement was not about protections for LGBTQ citizens. Instead the statement reiterated Trump’s anti-Muslim, specifically anti-Muslim terrorist, stances. Under color of offering sympathy and support, Trump brought the topic back to his anti-Muslim crusade. What he really said was, “As your President, I promise to go after Muslim terrorists.”
And that’s just the overview of that sentence. Next up, the details. (Here is a hint. It’s all about the figleaves. I bet you already guessed that.)
On the Application of Figleaves
“As your President, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”
There were so many figleaves in that single sentence of Trump’s speech alone.
The first figleaf on prominent display is the sentence’s apparent welcome and promise to protect the LGBTQ community. Trump went so far as to actually utter that specific combination of letters out loud in front of a Republican audience. (Gasp!) That figleaf gave a fingerhold to hang onto and say, “See. He’s not anti-gay.” It gave the appearance that he was a pro-gay rights candidate. But, as I just pointed out, Trump actually did not promise the LGBTQ community anything.
This figleaf also allowed Trump, and those who support him, to deny he is bigoted against the LGBTQ community in the future. He (or they) can simply refer back to this statement as evidence of Trump’s pro-gay stance. “He promised to protect them. Clearly not anti-gay.”
A follow up figleaf is that the last part of the sentence makes it not about the LGBTQ community after all. Most of us were not supposed to notice this. Just the right ones. Like some of those in Trump’s base. Those for whom support of the LGBTQ community would have been problematical. They could look at the sentence and reassure themselves in a completely different way. It was about going after hateful foreign ideologies. So, with the use of a few choice words, it did not matter what ideological side of things the listener was on. The figleaves were designed to allow everyone to take a positive away from this single sentence. In terms of winning or keeping supporters, Trump gets to have his beautiful chocolate cake and eat it too.
Trump’s statements about Muslims during the campaign were controversial. Posing the sentence in terms of protecting individuals from “violence and oppression” served as another figleaf. It allowed Trump to reframe his older statements in a positive light. It became about protecting Americans, not discrimination. It was further reframed by being put in the context of the Pulse nightclub shooting. The Americans he specifically cited had just been victimized in a brutal way. The conversation was thus shifted. The terms of engagement changed. Due to the sentence, any challenge to those controversial stances could then be rebuffed. Opponents could face a counter-challenge of being against the safety of Americans. In particular, a specifically vulnerable and recently victimized segment of America. What kind of monster do you have to be to want to do that?
Trump (or his speech writers, actually) further enjoyed the benefit of figleaves from the sentence construction and placement. Immediately before the sentence in question, Trump started talking sympathetically about LGBTQ Americans. However, he then segued into statements more focused on stopping Islamic terrorists. Following that with “As your President, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression . . .” immediately diverted attention away from Trump’s proceeding anti-Muslim terrorism rhetoric. It turned the audience focus on a promise of rights and protection, not the pursuit of some crusade against terror or the singling out of a specific religion.
Furthermore, the sentence was front loaded with a positive message that served to distract from the true business end of the message in the back part. To put it bluntly, that sentence had double-Ds. Out of 25 words, that first part makes up 20. The audience attention was commanded by “As your President”. That was a signal Trump was about to say something significant. Ears perked up. The rest of those 20 words made a strong commitment. What a positive statement. “Everything in my power.” “To protect.” “From violence and oppression.” That was some great stuff. So what if the last five words slipped by? They weren’t bad, right? Couldn’t be with a front end like that! Did you see it? Youza!
The listener was meant to be distracted by so much positive on the front part of the sentence. He or she was not supposed to notice that the back part might have made the whole thing take on an entirely different meaning. That no real special attention was promised to LGBTQ citizen’s concerns. The listener was just supposed to gloss over the true meaning those 5 words imparted to the whole. That this was all about going after an ideology Trump found hateful and foreign, which, he already signaled to those paying attention, was Islam.
Further, while Trump clearly meant Islam (to those paying attention), the “foreign ideology” figleaf protected the sentence. Thus, there was no mention of “Muslim” or “Islam” specifically, or even “religion” in the sentence itself. The statement became technically not bigoted against Muslims. It technically was not against any religion. Neither were specifically referenced. This further re-characterized the narrative, shifted the dialogue and made it harder to challenge certain positions, by making it hard to allege bigotry.
Then there was a figleaf in that the whole premise was fictional, thus it was promise that Trump did not have to worry about keeping. Almost no one living in this country, particularly the LGBT community, had a real basis to fear “the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology”.
Wait a moment. Hear me out.
First, LGBTQ Americans has every reason to fear violence and oppression, but largely by hateful homegrown ideologies. Second, acts of terror in the U.S. attributed to Muslim extremism have largely been A) homegrown, i.e., by people who became radicalized in this country; and B) enacted as “defensive” (“You came after our brothers in the Middle East; this is what you get”) rather than proselytizing (“I will do this act, and you will all join us now”). While the Pulse shooter pledged allegiance to ISIL, he also was born in the U.S. and reportedly demanded the bombing stop. He was not proclaiming glory to Allah. He was acting out at U.S. foreign actions. So, if U.S. citizens should have been in fear at all, it would have been, for the most part, a fear of their fellow citizens sympathizing with a particular foreign group in response to perceived Western foreign policies. Which is not quite the same thing.
Part of the problem is with the term “foreign”, which I will get back to in a bit. Part of it is that the “ideology” in question does seem to exist as an ideology. It seems to be more of a concern over perceived aggressive U.S. actions targeting Muslims or Islamic states internationally. That concern would be heightened by a fear that those policies may be adapted to turn inward against Muslims domestically. In other words, the source of any such feared “violence” was not from foreigners. It more likely stemmed from negative perceptions of U.S. and Western policies than the acceptance of a specific outside ideology.
The phrase “oppression of a hateful foreign ideology” served as another figleaf. This one also was a dog-whistle.
Politically speaking, dog-whistles are coded messages that make a political statement sound like one thing to the general populace, but mean another to a specific group “in on” the code. In this instance, the phrasing was coded to incite in certain Trump’s listeners a fear that Muslim Sharia law was being imposed in parts of the U.S. Without any of that explicitly being said. That’s the oppression form a foreign ideology we need to be protected from, right?
It is a constantly asserted talking point from the Right. Often coupled with arguments that Obama was a Muslim, was secretly helping Sharia law be imposed, and, through that, was trying to bring down American institutions. I personally experienced it being parroted by various Trump and Republican supporters throughout the campaign. It is also an utter falsehood that has been repeatedly debunked. Put simply, the laws of the U.S. do not allow for it to happen, even if people wanted it to. And there is precious little actual evidence that people want it to.
But raising the phony specter of Sharia law in America has fired up certain of the base before. It did with this speech too, and added another veneer of “patriotism”, with a sprinkling of “preserving our institutions”. All without technically crossing any lines or even mentioning the fallacious argument by name. To the select group, Trump promised to prevent the spread of Sharia law and reverse the advance of “Muslimism” they believed to exist.
Back to the word “foreign” again. The whole phrase “foreign ideology” was deliberately vague. Protecting citizens from a foreign ideology (as in, those that would try to take over our hearts and minds and convert us), sounds like a really good thing. Again, very patriotic, very hard to rebut. But what the heck qualifies as a “foreign ideology” in a nation made up of immigrants and diverse cultures? Does anything short of the extraterrestrial? Because any human culture on the planet already qualifies as not being foreign to the melting pot nation. Further, given that most acts of Muslim extremist terror in this country have been committed by those who were radicalized in the U.S., can you truly call it a foreign ideology at that point?
Which leads to a final figleaf of deniability, the “hateful” qualifier. Its served to further provide respectability to any bigotry. Trump did not say all foreign ideologies, i.e., all of Islam. Just the “hateful” kind. Like “foreign ideology”, “hateful” was deliberately undefined. That was problematical coming from a candidate who openly employed rhetoric promoting intolerance and violence and who hesitated significantly before disavowing support from white supremacists. One may well ask– For a candidate like that, how bad did it have to be to qualify as “hateful”? As a result, it was a term with no meaning, or any meaning Trump or his supporters wanted to give it at any given time.
Pulling Back the Modesty Curtain
What Trump said:
“As your President, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.”
What Trump really said:
“As your President, I will do everything in my power to go after those I chose to define as Muslim terrorists.”
We know from the words proceeding the sentence (“ . . .by an Islamic terrorist . . . [T]he terrorist targeted . . . [W]e’re going to stop it.”), that Trump was really talking about going after Muslims, particularly those perceived to be “terrorists.” But we also know how Trump intended the figleaves to work.
We know Trump meant the sentence itself to be taken a different way. How do we know? Look at the crowd’s reaction to the sentence in the video clip, followed by Trump’s words immediately afterwards. “And I have to say as a Republican it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said. Thank you.”
Trump had no cause to say that unless he meant the Republican audience to take his words as “controversial” for Republicans. Pledging to go after Muslim terrorists would not qualify. But pledging to protect the rights and safety of LGBTQ citizens would. That is how Trump meant the sentence to be taken.
And so it was. After the speech, there were many reports and articles lauding this moment. A landmark inclusion of LGBTQ Americans. A reaching out to the LGBTQ community. How wonderful that a Republican candidate would pledge protection of LGBTQ citizens. The one sentence all of those reports referred back to was the one I have just analyzed. It was supposed to stand out. To be the line people took away from that section of Trump’s speech. It was the quote everyone used. The one everyone remembered.
And, as has just been demonstrated, it promised nothing in particular to the LGBTQ community. Its true intent successfully protected by the liberal application of modesty inducing figleaves.
Looking a little deeper at what a politician says can reveal the level to which their words are used to reframe ideologies, re-characterize narratives, shift the dialogue, and, thus, thoroughly manipulate the listener. Even within just one sentence, you can see figleaf after figleaf. I don’t know about you, but it makes my head spin. They were used not only to cover up controversial ideas and create layer upon layer of deniability. They also actually reframe those ideas to be more flavorful to the public palate. Trump’s sentence did not promise what it appeared to promise, or truly say what it appeared to say. It appeared attractive, but was empty underneath. It could never count as an unfulfilled campaign promise, because it promised nothing really. And can be interpreted to mean almost anything.
Further, if there were constituents to whom the apparent concessions of the sentence were distasteful, it was utterly deniable. (For example, “Shouldn’t you be trying to roll back gay rights in this country?” “I never promised I wouldn’t.”).
Through the careful construction, just one sentence of Trump’s speech manipulated a variety of listeners in a variety of ways. Ultimately it allowed the listeners to take from those words almost any meaning they wanted. As long as it was favorable to Trump.
This kind of reframing and manipulation was not new at the time of the 2016 Presidential election. Although not limited to any single party, Republicans seem to have mastered this technique. In so doing they (or any politician using the technique) can shift the conversation. Negatives become positives, and positives become negatives. The narrative and the story changes. Instead of talking about helping the poor, it becomes about not keeping them in servitude. The meaning of words can even change. To refuse is to resist; to resist is to be threatening. Through all these manipulations, politicians win over voters. They make it much harder for opponents to challenge their positions. They even shift the norms of society and political dialogue. Saying something bigoted or false is fine now, as long as a small qualifier is added. Thus, the norms of what is bigoted, or what is false shift further out. The politician can accomplish all of this without actually changing their position at all.
Given these techniques’ intrinsically stealthy nature, the listener only detects the level of manipulation with extreme difficulty. And then usually only if he or she can take a far enough step back to truly examine what was said. Not something I would be likely to do, if I were already inclined to go to a rally. Those that do notice may not even be bothered by it, as long as they can convince themselves it doesn’t matter. Since the candidate is still saying what they want to hear.
It’s effective. Its use will continue. And there is no guard against it. Except awareness, vigilance, and a refusal to be manipulated to that degree.
So, before accepting what a politician says, challenge yourself. Forget modesty. Pull aside the curtain. Tear off the figleaves. And take a good look at the naked statements underneath.
(Credit for Cover Photo: Image from Wikipedia. Original Photo by Sputnikcccp, 2006.)