Friday, May 25, 2018

"Framing" Trump's tweets

Medium just reposted (05/25/2018) an essay by linguist George Lakoff from December 2016 with advice for Democrats in particular on how to respond to Trump. It was posted at his blog as How to Help Trump 12/15/2016.

Lakoff is famous for his work on political "framing," how political actors define issues and narratives. Usually whenever I mention him, I say that while I have some reservations about parts of his argument, he's basically right about the Democratic Party's problems in framing political issues in ways that are most likely to win support for them. So I've now made that ritual qualification for this post.

His 12/15/2016 piece falls more in my "reservations" category. Because he seems to be arguing there that Democrats should try to ignore what Trump says:

Without knowing it, many Democrats, progressives and members of the news media help Donald Trump every day. The way they help him is simple: they spread his message.
Think about it: every time Trump issues a mean tweet or utters a shocking statement, millions of people begin to obsess over his words. Reporters make it the top headline. Cable TV panels talk about it for hours. Horrified Democrats and progressives share the stories online, making sure to repeat the nastiest statements in order to refute them. While this response is understandable, it works in favor of Trump.

When you repeat Trump, you help Trump. You do this by spreading his message wide and far.

Nobody knows this better than Trump. Trump, as a media master, knows how to frame a debate. When he picks a fight, he does so deliberately. He tweets or says outrageous things, knowing they will be repeated millions and millions of times. When the news media and Democrats repeat Trump’s frames, they are strengthening those frames by ensuring that tens of millions of Americans hear them repeated over and over again.
Phrased like that, it sounds suspiciously like a concern-troll argument trying to get Democrats to shut up. That's not what he's trying to do. But this is one of his weaker pitches.

This clip from Sam Seder's Majority Report features Sam and Henry Farrell talking about the posturing of conservative intellectuals on political ideology, What The 'Intellectual Dark Web' Fears The Most 05/24/2018. They also discuss the argument that criticizing rightwingers' ideas and policies just makes them even more rightwing, a variation on the undying "things will be worse if you protest" argument.

Lakoff is on much firmer ground in other posts on his blog, like The President Is The Nation: The Central Metaphor Trump Lives By 08/01/2017, where he analyzes some of Trump's own self-framing. "From all of these considerations, it seems clear that the President is living by the metaphor, with enormous repercussions for our nation and the world. We see this in his speeches, his tweets, and his official actions."

And he elaborates his idea about how Democrats can do positive framing on the issues of press freedom in A Modest Proposal: #ProtectTheTruth 01/03/2018.
So when the president attacks the press ..., don’t take the bait. Instead, focus on truth and its moral context. Truth is under attack. Let’s protect it, and express our appreciation for those brave journalists whose job is to spotlight it.
Some ground rules:
  • Don’t use any of his terms, images, or hashtags.
  • Ignore his antics — if you retweet it you can’t defeat it, and when you embed it you spread it. Deny him the virality he craves. Ignore his antics.
  • Shift the frame to focus on powerful, truthful reporting.
And he cites three examples that he considers good instances of framing by the left/center-left while staying true to factual reporting: Mother Jones' reporting on The Russian Connection; "Rachel Maddow’s steely-eyed focus on the Republican Party’s culpability in this mess and the need to hold them accountable" (although good framing in her case doesn't necessarily equate to the best reporting, given her frequent perkiness in reporting very serious material; and, Mark Hertsgaard's reporting on the climate crisis, e.g., Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch Have Set Our Future on Fire The Nation 12/11/2017.

But I don't think it's realistic to ask people to ignore Trump's tweets. He is the President of the United States, and his tweets can have major effects on how domestic and international issues are understood. I'm reminded of someone years ago writing to Miss Manners (Judith Martin) relating an instance of being at a party and the hostess tripped and fell onto the food table and the punch bowl. The question was whether guests should comment on it, or just pretend to ignore it. Her response was that if you consider it normal for a hostess to fall face-first into the punch bowl, in that case it would be appropriate to ignore it. Trump's tweets are pretty much face-down-in-the-punch-bowl every day.

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