Saturday, November 9, 2019

Reagan versus Trump: The Unifier and the Divider. Two Public Speaking Styles. Same Message, Different Songs

Two of the most important Republican presidents of my lifetime were Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. Powerful speakers, both of them. But what a difference in tone! Even when he expressed the most hard-nosed ideas, Reagan was always articulate and courteous, and he was often eloquent. Trump is more often incoherent, foul-mouthed, and divisive. They both had the same major policy accomplishment: tax cuts for the very rich. But they got to that policy by singing much different songs. Let’s compare their tones.

Reagan, the Unifier

Ronald Reagan, White House photo
My last post talked about Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech. Here’s a thoughtful passage from that carefully-crafted, speechwriting team-created speech:

“I have read, and I have been questioned since I've been here about certain demonstrations against my coming. And I would like to say just one thing, and to those who demonstrate so. I wonder if they have ever asked themselves that if they should have the kind of government they apparently seek, no one would ever be able to do what they're doing again.”

Did you notice his tone? Reagan criticized the demonstrators in the mildest terms. He reminded them that the democratic values that he supported gave them the freedom to protest against democratic values. He didn’t call them names; he just asked them to think.

In a wonderful speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Reagan acknowledged that the press often attacked him, but he praised them all the same: “I’m especially grateful for all your efforts to provide a vigorous, probing, and unbiased free press.” He also took time to commend the courage of war correspondents.

Trump, the Divider

Donald Trump, White House photo
Let’s compare that to Trump’s comments about the press. Speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2017, Trump said, in a wild, free-wheeling diatribe:

“And I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake, phony, fake. A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people. And they are. They are the enemy of the people.” In fact, while Reagan, like the Founders of our Republic, recognized that a free nation needs a free press, Trump bristles at any criticism, however accurate. He didn't attack any particular reporter; he attacked the entire institution as "fake news." That differs from Reagan’s praise of a “vigorous, probing, and unbiased free press.”

Or consider how Trump described his political opponents in a recent rally speech: “the more America achieves, the more hateful and enraged these crazy Democrats become. Crazy. They’re crazy. They’re crazy.” Hoping to adopt a new foreign trade agreement, Trump called his political opponents names: “We’re replacing the NAFTA disaster. And we have to get this crazy Nancy Pelosi to put this thing up for a vote.” “Crazy Nancy Pelosi?” How rude, how divisive.

Although Reagan criticized hostile demonstrators in thoughtful, courteous terms, Trump lashes out at anyone who crossed him.

But let's remember that, like Reagan, Trump won the presidency as a conservative Republican. My former professor Charles Urban Larson distinguished between the unifying style of persuasion and the more hostile pragmatic style. This raises issues. Can a politician win elections by speaking divisively? Of course. Can a politician govern with a divisive style? Of course. Hitler did it. For all his many faults, Trump isn’t that divisive. But is that the right way?

P.S.: Reagan smiled for his official photo (see above), but Trump scowled. Does that mean anything? Post a comment below.

"Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall!" How Ronald Reagan's One Sentence Changed Berlin

Ronald Reagan, White House photo
Today marks the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many things needed to happen before the wall came down, but Ronald Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate was one of the keys. Reagan delivered the speech on June 12, 1987. One of the most successful of all rhetorical presidents, Reagan knew how to use speech’s power to accomplish his purposes.

One short passage gave this speech its impact:

“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate.

“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.

“Mr. Gorbachev
Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Mikail Gorbachev was the last dictator of the Soviet Union before it disintegrated into its component states. At the time Reagan gave his speech, East and West Germany were separate nations. West Germany was a member of the Western alliance, while East Germany was a puppet state of the Soviet bloc. Although East Germany had its own government, everyone understood that the Soviet Union pulled its strings. Berlin, Germany’s traditional capital, was divided into East and West after World War II. East Berlin served as East Germany’s capital, while West Berlin, established by the Western Allies, was a symbolic island of freedom surrounded by communist East Germany. And the Wall symbolized tyranny.

The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to stop East Germans from fleeing to West Berlin. Nearly 200 people were killed by border guards when they tried to cross the wall, but thousands of people (including hundreds of border guards!) crossed successfully. The Brandenburg Gate, where Reagan stood when he gave the speech, was a major checkpoint for people crossing legally between East and West Berlin. The border was opened and the wall torn down on November 9, 1989. That was more than two years after Reagan’s speech, but one still feels that Reagan’s speech got the thing going, at least symbolically.

And one sentence made the difference: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

The rest of Reagan’s speech was quite good. Reagan uttered many eloquent phrases about freedom democracy, capitalism, and history. Here’s one example:

“But in the West today, we see a free world that has achieved a level of prosperity and well-being unprecedented in all human history. In the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind—too little food.”

Reagan also talked about arms control, international cooperation, progress, and unity. He proposed economic cooperation, as well as cooperation in international sports. He had quite a few ideas.

But it all came down to one sentence: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Sometimes it’s a speaker’s arguments that make the difference. Sometimes careful reasoning makes the difference. Sometimes it’s a carefully laid-out vision that makes the difference. Sometimes a speaker's storytelling makes the difference.

But, with the Brandenburg Gate speech, one simple sentence made the difference. And down the wall came.

P.S.: Most of Reagan’s presidential speeches were written by speechwriting committees. Reagan told the speechwriting team what he wanted. One speechwriter wrote a draft; the draft circulated around the West Wing, and relevant executive branch officers suggested changes. Reagan did the final editing himself. The Brandenburg Gate speech was one of his best. I recommend a wonderful book by Reagan’s speechwriter Peggy Noonan, What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era.

P.P.S.: I have often wondered why Noonan and others kept talking about a conservative revolution. Revolution strikes me as the opposite of being a conservative. What do you think? Feel free to leave a comment.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

"OK, Boomer:" Chlöe Swarbrick Teaches Us How to Put a Heckler Down Flat

Chlöe Swarbrick, who serves in the New Zealand Parliament as a member of the left-wing Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, made international headlines with her quick “okay, boomer” comeback to a heckle during a parliamentary debate about climate change. She was speaking for a zero-admissions policy when a conservative member of Parliament heckled her about her youth. (She is only 25 years old.)

I wrote a while back about the fine art of heckling. But every good heckle calls for an even better comeback. Ms. Swarbrick showed us how to deal with a heckler. At that point in her speech, she had just remarked that the average member parliament was 49 years of age, implying that they would all be long dead before climate change ruined the planet. She reminded the honorable members that young people like herself lacked that advantage.

Since they can't defend pro-carbon policies on their merits, conservatives who subscribe to climate change conspiracy theories often complain that young people lack experience and are not to be taken seriously. Swarbrick turned the heckle against the heckler. Here’s why it worked:

1. Her response was quick and witty. Two words: “okay, boomer,” with a quick wave of her hand. She continued without taking a breath. Good speakers don’t get involved in arguments with hecklers. That’s a waste of time. That puts the debate on the heckler’s ground. You don’t want to do that. Just as good heckles are quick and witty, a good comeback needs to be even quicker.

2. Swarbrick’s anti-heckle was exactly on point. Her argument was that young people have a vested interest in the planet’s future. The heckler implied that she was too young to be entitled to an opinion. She put the heckler down quickly and efficiently. The exchange centered on age and Swarbrick never varied from that central element.

3. Well, I wouldn't know, but apparently “okay, boomer” is common parlance on young people’s social media. Since boomers won’t recognize the phrase, she was able to set the heckler aside for a moment while he thought about what she had just said. “Okay, boomer” was a young person’s response to an old person’s complaint. It reinforced her point about the generational divide.

I am a boomer myself. I still worry about the planet’s future. After all, I have children and grandchildren who need a world to live in, and I care about the human species in general. I cannot understand people who look for excuses to deny obvious scientific facts and urgent ecological needs.

World-wide media have feasted on Swarbrick’s comeback. She is now an overnight international figure. She admits that response on social media has been mixed: some people thought her anti-heckle was terrific, while others were offended. That’s how heckling, works isn’t it? In any case, why was her ad hominem comeback any more tasteless than the insulting ad hominem heckle that started her off?

Swarbrick's later reflections on the event are even more amusing:

"Today I have learnt that responding succinctly and in perfect jest to somebody heckling you about *your age* as you speak about the impact of climate change on *your generation* with the literal title of their generation makes some people very mad.”

Well, there you go!

P. S. If you would like to read my other posts about heckling and public speaking, click here.

P. P. S.: By the way, the New Zealand Parliament passed a zero-admissions policy. So, Swarbrick's side won. 

P. P. P. S. I haven't forgotten Sen. Mike Lee's ridiculous "seahorse speech" against climate change. Conservatives need to get a grip on this issue. Reality awaits them.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Trump's Polarizing Rally in Kentucky. Dividing People Has Its Drawbacks.

Donald Trump, White House photo

Let’s talk some more about Donald Trump’s polarizing speech the other day in Lexington, Kentucky, which I discussed yesterday. Trump’s nominal purpose was to encourage the reelection of unpopular Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin. As of this morning, the Kentucky race is still too close to call. My point yesterday was that the purpose of polarizing rhetoric is to motivate one’s supporters. A polarizing speaker knows perfectly well that he or she will offend and motivate the other side as well, but in the opposite direction. Trump did seem to take credit for helping Bevin, since Bevin’s election performance (even if he loses) was better than the polls predicted. When we talk about elections, polarizing speeches can be useful if they help motivate your own voters to get to the polls. They can be harmful if they motivate the other side’s voters to vote.

President Trump, you’ll recall, said horrible things about the Democrats during his speech. He talked about “Crooked Hillary,” complained about the Democrats “far-left agenda,” and accused the Democrats of trying to destroy America’s democracy. That kind of rhetoric drives people to opposite poles. Thus, we have the word polarization.

Trump was trying to fire up the Republican voters. Several groups have historically low voter turnout. White evangelical voters – Trump’s base – traditionally have low voter turnout, as they have been more interested in the world to come than in the world we live in. Motivating them helps Trump. Older white males, also part of Trump’s base, have traditionally high voter turnout anyway. Some of them might enjoy hearing polarizing rhetoric, but it is not likely to affect how they vote.

So, voter turnout is the #1 goal. However, in his classic book The Political Persuaders, political scientist Dan Nimmo points out that there are other ways in which political campaigns can make a difference. Although very few voters change their minds because of an election campaign, there are always a few people who do switch. Since the Kentucky election was so close, President Trump’s speech and the candidates’ campaign speeches might sway enough voters to affect the election result one way or the other. The same kind of thing might have been true about the 2016 presidential election, when Trump won key states by razor-edge margins.

Also, partisan voters who listen to campaign speeches (whether live, on television, or on the Internet) can learn more about their favorite candidate’s issue positions. This helps them to rationalize and understand their own political participation. Sad but true, most people pick a political party first, and only then decide to agree with whatever issues that party happens to favor. That is why, for example, Republicans were terrified about the federal budget deficit when Barack Obama was in office but could not care less now that their own guy, Donald Trump, is running up huge deficits. That is why it was potentially useful for President Trump to tell his Kentucky audience about the Democrats’ supposed failings.

Hillary Clinton, DoS photo
The biggest lesson is that polarizing rhetoric – by definition – goes two ways. Politicians think it’s wonderful to get their own people motivated. But getting the other side angry can boomerang. One reason that Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election is that she put half of Trump’s supporters in a “basket of deplorables.” Click the link and listen to the video: her partisan crowd laughed and cheered. She soon hapologized, but she had done the damage and couldn’t fix it. Let’s be blunt: calling people deplorable enraged them. “Deplorable” became a noun, a proud name that Trump supporters adopted as they campaigned against her. You can now buy a Proud Deplorable T-shirt. (Not that I recommend it; I don’t. Good grief.)

Let’s also think about governing after you win the election. After the polarizing 2016 election, it’s unlikely that either Clinton or Trump could govern the nation effectively. To govern requires more than assembling a slim majority; it requires at least grudging acceptance by the entire nation. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton spent too much time calling each other’s supporters names. Hostility, not grudging cooperation, was the only possible result.

There is, I suppose, a time and place for any kind of rhetoric. Still, however, politicians in a constitutional republic need to think twice before they seek to divide the nation.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Trump's Polarizing Rally in Kentucky. It's All about Getting Republicans to Vote.

Donald Trump, WH photo

President Donald Trump spoke yesterday at a political rally in the lovely town of Lexington, Kentucky. Trump’s nominal purpose was to encourage the reelection of unpopular Republican Governor Matt Bevin. But, sigh, Trump mostly talked about himself, as usual, and protested what he called the “impeachment hoax.” His greatest strength was what his opponents think is his greatest weakness: his rhetoric was nasty, polarizing, and fact-free. Why does that work? I’ll explain in a minute. First, however, let’s look at how polarizing Trump was. He talked about himself as the savior of the nation, while attacking the Democrats as vicious enemies to be suppressed.

Trump’s entire speech was polarizing. Here’s one example:

“You know they destroy anyone who holds traditional American values. All you have to do is ask the boys from Covington Catholic High School, some of whom are here tonight. The far left wants to impose their authoritarian ideology of the nation, telling you what to believe and how you should live.”

Look at the negative words: “destroy,” “authoritarian ideology.” Contrast that with the positive (presumably pro-Republican) words: “traditional American values.” In Trump’s speech, one side is good and the other bad. Two opposite poles: polarization. 

For another example of polarizing speech, here’s what Trump said about Bevin’s opponent and the economy:

Trump also tossed in “crooked Hillary Clinton” and “open borders.” Hillary Clinton is not running any more, of course, but it still gives Republicans a thrill to call her names.


Pretty nasty, isn’t it?

To Trump, Democrats are not just opponents; they are enemies. Let us recall that the House of Representatives recently approved rules for an impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s alleged extortion of the Ukrainian government. Trump didn’t just say this was wrong; he considered it an attack on the American system. This is consistent with conservative rhetoric that the Democrats are trying to overturn the election:

“Yeah, I think, with last week’s quote, the far left has declared war on American democracy itself. These people are lunatics. In the face of these attacks, Republicans are the most unified that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been watching them, and been a big part of them for a long time.”

This is not language of political discourse. There is no talk of what the British call a “loyal opposition.” Democrats are enemies. We are at war. Polarizing.

While Trump’s awareness of the basic functioning of American government seems to be shrinking every week, his political instincts are sharper than ever. He pointed out that the impeachment process has caused Republicans to be “the most unified that I’ve ever seen.” That’s exactly the point. Here’s why. Polarizing rhetoric offends many people. The mainstream media have had a field day pointing out the many factual errors that Trump made during this speech. They are certainly right in that neither Trump nor his supporters have the facts right. But the problem with fact-checking is that polarized people don’t care about facts.

More generally, the mainstream media loves to attack Trump for saying outrageous things. So what? Of course polarizing rhetoric is outrageous. That’s the point. When mainstream authorities criticize Trump for being outrageous, they are playing directly into his hand.

Polarizing rhetoric can never convince a majority of the total public. Instead, the idea of polarizing rhetoric is to motivate your supporters, even if you offend lots of other people. Contrary to popular belief, American elections are generally not decided by people who change their minds and vote for a different candidate from their usual preference. That kind of thing happens, of course, but not as often as the public thinks. Voter turnout decides elections. You win the election by getting your supporters to the polls and discouraging your opponent’s voters.Trump's base, White Evangelical voters, has a traditionally low participation rate. If he gets them to the polls, he could tip the election.

Trump boasted that Republicans were unified. His rally’s purpose was to get people excited. Facts were not the point. Reasoned argument was not the point. Enthusiasm was the point. 

Still, we need to wonder whether Trump is getting Democrats so angry that they will vote in large numbers. That’s the downside of polarization.

The American voting public has a very low participation rate compared to other democracies, and getting people riled up so they will show up to vote makes far more difference than changing people’s minds. So, Trump could call people names, make up facts, rant and rave, and expect to do a lot of good for the Republican cause. Is this any way to run a nation? Of course not. Is this a way to win elections? Maybe. Let’s see what happens after the polls close tonight.

To understand the importance of voter turnout in election, there is still no better source than Dan Nimmo’s classic book The Political Persuaders. Radical organizer Saul Alinsky talks about polarization in his handbook Rules for Radicals, but readers can get a more academic understanding of polarization by reading The Rhetoric of Agitation and Control by John W. Bowers, Donovan J. Ochs, Richard J. Jensen, and David P. Shulz. And, yes, in case you’re interested, Trump relies almost entirely on well-tested methods of radical rhetoric. As White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said, “deal with it.”