Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Did Donald Trump Change the Subject and Set the Agenda at the RNC Fundraiser?

Donald Trump, WH photo
Much commentary about President Donald Trump's speech at the Republican National Committee fundraiser the other day. CNN headlined a story by Chris Cillizza featuring "The 35 Most Startling Lines from Donald Trump's Speech at a Big Republican Fundraiser." That kind of negative coverage, in a story that emphasized unreasonable or exaggerated statements that Mr. Trump made during the speech, might well stimulate Mr. Trump to talk again about the mainstream media as "fake news."

You win a debate by picking your strongest points and harping on them. You lose a debate by getting excessively defensive. Mr. Trump used this speech to set the agenda.

On the one hand, Cillizza's headline is right. Mr. Trump did make some startling statements, and he surely overstated a number of points. He promised that he would never apologize: "We don't apologize." Why not? If you're wrong, admit it like an adult! He said that he hated his own catch phrase "Drain the Swamp," but said that he used it because "Every time I said it, I'd get the biggest applause." He said something he did not like because people cheered? How bizarre! It is entirely proper for journalists to point that kind of thing out to their readers and listeners.

But does Cillizza's criticism not miss the point?  He overlooks how Mr. Trump set the agenda. It wasn't how Mr. Trump talked about things, it was what he talked about. Let us imagine that politics in the United States takes the form of a gigantic debate, with thousands of debaters nationwide arguing in many different places, and that people think of this debate as having only two sides: liberal and conservative. Who is winning the debate? We will not know for sure until the next election cycle, will we? Did Mr. Trump use a good debate strategy? That depends!

OK, sure, in an ideal world, debaters would stick to the facts, prove their points, and give reasons against their opponents' points. In any case, that is what I was taught when I was in high school and college (thank you, Barbara Sue Carter, Patrick Micken, Donald McConkey, and my other debate teachers!). Would that not be nice?

The other point about winning a debate, however, is that the winner of the debate is the side that sets the agenda. The side that decides which issues will be discussed and which ones will not becomes the side that decides which points are important. That is usually the side that wins the debate. If you are always on the defensive – if you are always refuting your opponents' points – you are losing the debate. Set the ground, win the battle!

In this speech, Donald Trump was setting the agenda. That was the real point, and critics like Cillizza missed it.

What is on his opponents' agenda? No secret there: Russia, the Mueller investigation, and an impending government shutdown. Awful stuff. That is what his opponents want to talk about. If the agenda stays on those issues, Mr. Trump will be in trouble.

But Mr. Trump had a different agenda: he focused on successes. Consider this introductory point:

"Our Republican majority is one of the most successful in the history of the United States Congress.  Now, we must work to keep our majority so we can keep up the fight for American workers, American security, and the American values enshrined in our glorious Constitution and in our great American flag.  (Applause.)"

Overstated? Of course. Congress has not passed legislation anywhere near as comprehensive as, for example, the New Deal or the Great Society. Still, Mr. Trump's statement covered just about everything except Mom and chocolate chip cookies. People love a winner, and here are some specific examples of winning that Mr. Trump talked about: 
  • Job creation 
"We’ve created more than 3 million new jobs since the election.  And if we would have said that number prior to the election, nobody would have believed it possible.  Jobless claims are at — think of it — jobless claims are at a nearly 50-year low.  Fifty years.  (Applause.)  That’s an amazing statistic."

Did that claim overstate the economy a bit? Well, yes. But the economy is in pretty good shape right now, and people usually credit the president for that, so he shifted the agenda away from, for example, Russia, and toward job creation. He avoided the criticisms, and focused on the positive: not defending himself, but instead asserting a positive agenda.
  • Wage growth
"Wages are rising at the fastest pace in more than a decade, and I’ve been talking on the campaign trail for so long that wages have been stagnant for 18, 20, and even 21 years."

Again, that overstates things, since wage growth is still very weak, but it was a positive message and there is some truth to it.
  • And on the attack about taxes!
IRS 1040
Also, Mr. Trump went on the attack against his Democratic opponents:

"Every single Democrat in Congress opposed our middle class tax cuts.  And if Democrats were to gain control of the House, the first thing they would do is raise your taxes.  They would raise your taxes.  They would take away what we’ve done and raise your taxes.  And actually, I’ve seen some of the numbers — very substantially raise your taxes."

That, again, is a little questionable, since most of the tax cuts are going to the very wealthy, but it is still a positive message, and he showed the Democrats to be against it. Since it is hard to put tax increases in a positive light, Mr. Trump's strategy here is clever. 
  • Attacking some more!
According to Mr. Trump's speech, Democrats did other bad things: 

"A vote for House Democrats is truly a vote for open borders — people pouring into our country, pouring in.  We have no idea who they are.  They’re coming in — open borders.  You look at sanctuary cities, where criminals are protected."

In general, Mr. Trump's opponents consistently underestimate him. but this was a very persuasive speech, and it touched on points that greatly interest his voters and core supporters. He did not waste time defending himself against criticisms of foreign involvement, personal corruption, or inefficient administration. Even if he made good arguments on those points, those are his opponents' points, and it could do him little good to focus on them.

Instead, Mr. Trump focused on accomplishments, attacking against his opponents and raising the key issues of taxes and immigration. The speech was an attempt to reset the agenda. Although the mainstream press, such as CNN, largely missed the point, I am sure that his supporters did not.

This speech did commit what we used to call a "straw man" fallacy. I'll talk more about that later.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

William McKinley versus Donald Trump: Does Mr. Trump Really Need to Be So Nasty?

Interesting CNN article by John Kirby about William McKinley and tariffs. With President Donald Trump taking an anti-free trade stance, conservatives are now beginning to think that free trade is bad after all. They're probably wrong, but that's a story for another time.

For most of his career, President McKinley favored protection, which was a code name for high tariffs imposed on imported goods. McKinley attributed the Depression of 1893 to low tariffs. Modern economists would attribute the Depression of 1893 to a bank panic combined with excessively tight monetary policy.

Kirby interviewed conservative author Robert Merry. Merry took the attitude that protection is not always harmful and that free trade isn't always good. Merry isn't actually an economist, but, then, neither am I.
I wrote about William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan's public speaking during their 1896 presidential campaign. (See link at left.) Both men were far more powerful orators than Trump because they appealed to the voters' better natures, just as Trump appeals to people's fears and ignorance. 

So, instead of hassling about the tariff, let's compare and contrast McKinley's rhetorical approach with Trump's. McKinley was unifying; Trump is divisive. To be blunt, McKinley was a far more positive politician than Trump.

Trump is divisive on purpose. It's his main appeal. Consider his recent (inaccurate) claim that the USA has a trade deficit with Canada:

That tweet implied, probably wrongly, that the EU is harming the United States and that the trade deals are grossly unfair.

These statements persuade by sowing division, by making the United States out to be a victim.

Consider McKinley's unifying approach to foreign trade. During his 1896 campaign, he called his candidacy: “this great fight of 1896 for a protective tariff, for a good currency, for peace and law and order, and the triumph of right and justice.” That didn't necessarily make any more sense than what Trump said, but it was a positive, not hostile message. 

In another campaign speech that year, he said, according to a report in the Canton Repository:

"Nothing is more vital to the standing and progress of a country than the preservation of its credit and financial honor. (Applause and cries of 'that’s right.') Nothing is more vital to the standing and progress of a country than that the currency of the country shall be so honest that it can cheat nobody. (Great cheering.) Nothing is of greater moment to the welfare of the country than the adoption of a policy which will give to labor and capital constant employment with fair returns. (Applause and cries of 'good.')."

See the difference? McKinley argued that everyone shared the same interests. He did not directly criticize his famous opponent, William Jennings Bryan. He put capital and labor on an equal footing, pledging to respect both, and putting neither at odds with the other. Unlike Trump, McKinley at least made an effort to bring people together.
And, guess what? With this unifying style, full of positive message, McKinley won the presidency.

Do candidates today need to be nasty to win? I think not. It's just that the nasty ones have won some elections in the past, and people now think it's the only way to go.

Here's the problem: to be an effective leader, Mr. Trump needs to inspire enough Americans to accomplish his goals. But his consistently nasty rhetoric offends at least as many people as it inspires, and, then, the people he has offended don't want to implement his policies. Divisive rhetoric is overrated.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Did the House Intelligence Committee Draft Report Find That There Was No Trump-Russia Collusion? A Lesson in Sneaky Wording

House Intelligence Committee Draft Report; click image for full report
Now, I am no expert in spy stuff, so I reserve judgment as to whether President Donald Trump conspired with Russia during his 2016 election campaign. Maybe somebody knows the truth for sure, but I don't.

Instead, as a scholar of rhetoric – that is, the art of persuasion – I want to focus on one sentence from the House intelligence committee's draft report about Russian interference in the campaign. My point is to show, on the one hand, how people often respond to a message by hearing what they expect to hear, not what was actually said, and, on the other hand, how skilled persuaders often phrase their points carefully to encourage people to hear something different from what was said.

Although the report draws several conclusions, the one that has drawn public attention is this: "We have found no evidence of collusion, coordination, or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians:" 

That was very, very careful phrasing. They didn't say there was no collusion; they didn't say that there was no evidence of collusion. What they said is that they didn't find any evidence of collusion. That was not just careful; it was tricky.

Yet, people heard, not what was really said, but what they expected to hear. Let's see how the press has responded so far:

A CNN story by Jeremy Herb and Manu Raju reported the Committee's statement correctly. But the headline on their story reads: "House Republicans Say No Evidence of Collusion as They End Russia Probe."

NBC's Mary Clare Jalonick's carefully written article faced a similar fate, as she gave an accurate report of what the Committee said, only to have this headline appear: "GOP House Intel Report Finds No Collusion with Russia."  The same thing happened to Maya Kosoff's story in Vanity Fair, which was headlined "Nothing to See Here: G.O.P. Abruptly Terminates Russia Probe, Claiming No Collusion." A similar fate befell Mary Clare Jalonick's AP article, which the Star Tribune headlined like this: "House GOP Report Says No Collusion Between Trump and Russia."  A quick Google search will find many similar headlines.

Note that Fox News gave a somewhat more accurate headline:  "Trump touts House Intel findings of 'no evidence of collusion' between campaign, Russia." That's still not right – the Committee didn't say that there was no evidence, just that they didn't find any – but it was better.

For the most part, people didn't hear that the committee found no evidence, which is what the Draft Report actually said; what they heard (what they thought they heard) is that collusion didn't occur, which is a much more dramatic claim.

Let's be clear that reporters don't write their own headlines. Headlines are written by editors. Headline editors read these stories and saw what they expected to see, not what the stories really said. I suspect that many readers reacted as the headline editors did, rather than looking at the actual facts and information.

Why didn't the Committee find evidence of collusion? There are two possible answers: (1) maybe they didn't find evidence because there isn't any evidence, or (2) maybe there is evidence, but they didn't find it because they didn't look for it.

Now, the Democrats complain that the House Intelligence Committee didn't actually look for evidence. Adam Schiff, the Committee's senior Democrat, said that the Republican majority, who controlled the Committee, "proved unwilling to subpoena documents like phone records, text messages, bank records and other key records so that we might determine the truth about the most significant attack on our democratic institutions in history." Schiff's position is that the Committee didn't find collusion because they didn't look very hard. Republicans disagree, of course, but:

Nothing in the Draft Report contradicts Schiff! The draft report's wording was clever indeed. People read that collusion didn't occur, but that isn't what the report said: but some people perceived that the report did say that. All that the Committee claimed is that they didn't find any evidence. This leaves open the question of whether the Committee looked hard enough to find it.

My late colleague, University of Akron Professor James Fee, used to wander the hallways and ask people, "where does persuasion take place?" If you didn't want him to lecture you, you responded quickly: "persuasion takes place in the reciever." Fee would say, "that's right! In the receiver! That's the only place persuasion can occur." The Intelligence Committee's draft report, and the public's response, seems to prove that Fee was right. People persuade themselves!

P.S.: There were some accurate headlines as well, for example, on The Hill. Refreshing!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Will the Real Donald Trump Please Stand Up? How Did the Press Cover the President's March 10, 2018 Pennsylvania Rally?

Donald Trump, WH photo
After several weeks of trying to sound "presidential," whatever that means, Donald Trump reverted to campaign-style rally speaking yesterday in Pennsylvania. He was campaigning for Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone, who faces an unexpectedly tough race against Democrat Conor Lamb.

I'll have more to say about this hour-plus long speech later. Right now, let's look at how the press covered it through an ideological lens.

Maxine Waters, official photo
Let's start with mainstream CNN. CNN's website lead about this speech focused on Mr. Trump's obviously racist dog-whistle against African American Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who suggested impeaching Mr. Trump. He denied that he had done anything wrong, and mocked her: "Did you ever see her? Did you ever see her? 'We will impeach him. We will impeach the president.'" He said that Waters had "a very low IQ." Since Waters is obviously a quite intelligent woman, there is no explanation for that comment except for its being a racist slur against her. (Many racists believe that people of African descent are less intelligent.) The idea of the dog whistle - communication professionals call this "multivocal communication" to make it seem more scholarly - is that Trump's audience understands the point, while other people can miss the racist undertone. Furthermore, Mr. Trump can, and probably will, deny that he said anything racist.

Fox, which is more conservative, has often been assertively pro-Trump, and likes to act as if they are not a mainstream source, published a web article about the speech that didn't mention Waters at all. They noted that Trump insulted CNN's Chuck Todd as "a sleeping son of a b----, I'll tell you." They also reported that he said that Lamb would vote the Democratic Party line and emphasized Mr. Trump's proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, which he said would help Pennsylvania's steel industry.

Few people, comparatively speaking, will hear or read the entire very long speech. Most people get their information about important speeches from news reports. But since all news reports are selective, the public only finds out what their favorite news source tells them. Fox viewers presumably were happy to hear bad things about CNN, but didn't want to hear anyone say that Mr. Trump is racist. Fox gave them what they wanted. CNN focused on Trump's racist comments.

What can the viewing public do? Simple. If you are happy to hide in a hole and believe only your own ideology, get your news from your favorite source. If you want the truth, follow your junior-high school teacher's advice and get your news from multiple sources. Only then can you be an informed voter.