Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Donald Trump and the Art of Saying Ridiculous Things

Donald Trump, WH portrait
Donald Trump is on record as saying that he intended to play down the coronavirus epidemic, except now he is on the record saying that he didn’t play it down. Will this obvious contradiction affect his public support? Of course not. He didn’t just play down the coronavirus; he played down the contradiction. His technique was to commit the well-known fallacy of equivocation. This is the fallacy of using words that mean different things in different contexts.

Yes, Trump Said He Played the Virus Down…


First, here’s what he told reporter Bob Woodward a few months ago, in a sound recording:


“I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”


That’s clear as a bell, isn’t it?  So we thought….


Unfortunately, people need accurate information during an international crisis, and Trump admitted – on the record – that he was speaking falsely.



… But Now He Says He Played the Virus Up


But now let’s look at what he said in yesterday’s ABC Town Hall in Pennsylvania, where he faced questions from undecided voters. I’ll quote his entire exchange with voter Joni Powell: 


STEPHANOPOULOS: Let’s get one final question on COVID.

We’ve got Joni Powell right here. She’s from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And you actually haven’t voted before.

TRUMP: How are you?

POWELL: Hello, hi. My question is, if you believe it’s the president’s responsibility to protect America, why would you downplay a pandemic that is known to disproportionately harm low-income families and minority communities?

TRUMP: Yeah. Well, I didn’t downplay it. I actually -- in many ways I up-played it in terms of action. My action was very strong.

POWELL: Did you not admit to it yourself?

TRUMP: Yes, because what I did was, with China – I put a ban on with Europe, I put a ban on. And we would have lost thousands of more people, had I not put the ban on.

So that was called action, not with the mouth, but an actual fact. We did a very, very good job when we put that ban on. Whether you call it talent or luck, it was very important. So we saved a lot of lives when we did that.


And, a bit later, responding to a question by moderator George Stephanopoulos, Trump said:


“I'm not looking to be dishonest. I don't want people to panic. And we are going to be OK. We're going to be OK, and it is going away. And it's probably going to go away now a lot faster because of the vaccines.

That exchange gave the press great mirth. He said he played the virus down, but now he says he played it up. Both statements can’t be true, can they? 

But Trump actually played a clever magic trick. A stage magician can convince you that the rabbit is inside the hat when it’s really under the table. A magician can pull an ordinary object from a place in which it could not possibly be. A seemingly sadistic magician can apparently saw a young woman in half without harming her at all.

In this case, Trump played a trick with words.

Trump's Word Games

Coronavirus, CDC

First move:
In his interview with Bob Woodward, Trump was talking about playing the virus down rhetorically. He said his goal was to avoid panic by not saying anything that would spook people. Telling people that there was a bad virus would spook them, maybe hurting the stock market or causing disruptive public behavior. By playing it down, Trump gave people hope that the whole thing would go away shortly. Unfortunately, the virus did not go away; it has gotten much worse and there are now almost 200,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths in the United States alone. 

Here are some of the things he said to play it down:

February 28, 2020:

“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus.… This is their new hoax.”

February 28, 2020:

“It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

 March 4, 2020: 

“Now, this is just my hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this, because a lot of people have this and it is very mild.” 

Second move:
Responding to Powell’s question, Trump did not talk about what he said.  He talked about what he did, not what he told people. The Trump administration has obviously failed to provide adequate personal protective equipment for medical professionals, much less the public. Trump  implemented a national testing policy slowly, and repeatedly pushed schools and businesses to reopen when it was obviously unsafe. He did one useful thing of which he was very proud. That is, he instituted a partial ban against travel from China. Since the virus originated in China, it’s reasonable to think that the partial ban slowed the virus’ spread into the United States for a time. He emphasized and perhaps overstated that one positive point. 

Third move: Finally, Trump pretended that his position had not changed at all. In yesterday’s Town Hall, Trump actually stuck to his rhetorical point: he reiterated that “I don’t want people to panic.” That is, he repeated and reinforced the original point that he made to Bob Woodward. Rhetorically speaking, he was still saying a version of the same thing.

At the same time, Trump can no longer reasonably repeat his absurd denials about the virus.  During the Town Hall, he reinforced that “I don’t want people to panic” while not repeating the absurd claims, which only a fool would believe today, that the virus was “their new hoax” or that it would go away “like a miracle.” Nevertheless, he still insisted that the virus would go away, but he shifted a little bit about what that meant: “it is going away” now meant that it would go away when the vaccine became available. That is not what he said the first time. 

Trump could, however, claim that he was playing the virus up, not down, because of his travel ban. If he had done something else positive to slow down the virus, I’m sure he would have said it. Alas…

Worse, Trump told people what the fallacy was even as he committed it: “So that was called action, not with the mouth, but an actual fact.” It’s as if a robber says, “I’m going to rob you,” and thinks it’s okay because he told the victim what he was doing. This, however, was not a robbery; Trump's rhetorical move was trickier than a Las Vegas magic act.

Earlier Post: Trump Commits Straw Person Fallacies 

How Not to Be Fooled

If you’re watching a magic show, and the magician tells you to look at her hands, you need to look somewhere else because the hands are misdirecting you. If you’re watching a magic act, and you hear a loud noise, and you want to understand the trick, look anywhere except at the noise. The noise is a distraction. 

Similarly, when figuring out Donald Trump, do not just listen to what he says. Listen to what he doesn’t say. In the Town Hall, Trump didn’t deny that he told Bob Woodward that he wanted to “play it down.” Nor did he deny that he had misinformed the public. He obviously had; it was on tape. 

Once you notice what Trump did not say, your next step is to look for word games. In his Bob Woodward interview, “play it down” referred to his efforts to say things to keep the public from worrying. In yesterday’s Town Hall, “play it down” referred to his policy actions, not his words.

Words are tricky, for an argument to be logical, we must use words with the same meaning from the beginning of the argument to the end. In this case, Trump played word games. 

Yes, Trump contradicted himself completely. He had talked himself into an inconsistent position. He was desperate for a way to wiggle out of it. No one who listened carefully would be fooled. However, his trick was not as simple as just contradicting himself, and his word games gave his supporters an excuse to justify his actions. This, by the way, is why everyone needs to study critical thinking and learn the basic principles of logic. Trump played the virus down in one way, while playing it up in another way, and then pretended that they were the same things. His technique was illogical and disreputable, but cunning.


Technical note: The trick that Trump played represents what philosophers call the fallacy of equivocation.  Sometimes equivocation is funny. Do you remember when the Queen refused to give Alice any jam in Through the Looking Glass?  ”It's jam every other day: to-day isn't any other day, you know.” To Alice, “every other day” meant alternate days, but “any other day” means that it is a different day, not an alternate day. Confused, poor Alice decided that the whole thing was “complicated.” When tricky people commit fallacies, they want to make simple things seem more complicated than they really are. Fallacies persuade people because they confuse people. When Trump commits equivocation in public policy, however, lives are at stake. It is not funny at all. People are dying. 

We can short-circuit tricksters if we define our terms at the start of a discussion. Dr. Alan Fuchs, one of my favorite William and Mary professors, said that you should begin every discourse by defining your terms. Oh, was he ever right! 

I've occasionally published technical articles about fallacies. If you're interested, click on "William D. Harpine's Publications" above and browse around. 

Lady Gaga Spoke and Sang for National Unity in 2017

Hurricane Harvey Flooding, Texas
Let’s go back to look at an excellent
musical speech by Lady Gaga. The best speeches remind us to live by our ideals. We need to remember those ideals today. 

On October 21, 2017, Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) performed at the Hurricane Relief Concert at Texas A&M University. All five former presidents attended, while President Donald Trump gave a video message. Lady Gaga used two impressive public speaking techniques: she called the audience to action by appealing to common values, and she accompanied herself with music.

Speaking for hurricane relief, a cause to which she gave a one-million dollar donation, Lady Gaga appealed to the all-American values of equality, national unity, and group effort. She expressed these values, ideals that we seem already to have forgotten, clearly and precisely:

“The most special thing of all is how pain is such an equalizer. And in a time of catastrophe we all put our differences aside and we come together, because we need each other or we can’t survive.”

Truer words were never spoken. All of us, rich and poor alike, suffer pain, fear, and anxiety. Storms can strike anyone; the Bible says that it rains on the just and unjust alike. However, a modern pundit commented that, “The sun shines on the rich and the poor alike. But when it comes to rain, the rich have better umbrellas.”

Lady Gaga’s thesis, however, called for us all to join together to meet the catastrophe: “We need each other or we can’t survive.”

She also pointed out that mental health during a catastrophe was as important as physical health:

“The One America appeal is one of a kind. This is a historical moment that we are truly one nation [she paused dramatically] under God. But what I’m here to remind you of is that, as the cofounder of the Born This Way Foundation, we must also recover mentally as well as physically.”

Note how she again emphasized unity: “truly one nation,” “one nation under God,” “One America.”

Earlier Post: Prince Harry Talked about Values at the Invictus Games

Second, Lady Gaga worked music into her presentation. As she said her remarks slowly, softly and clearly, with an occasional smile on her face, in a remarkably rich speaking voice, she accompanied herself by playing quietly on a gleaming white concert grand piano that was color-coordinated with her dress. She paused often, letting her words sink in, using the piano music to fill in the silences. Music and speech both communicate with sound, and singing during a speech has a long tradition.

Earlier Post: Stevie Wonder’s Hurricane Harvey Speech: Music and Speech Together

Lady Gaga finished by singing several of her songs that she felt expressed appropriate values. An announcer then thanked her for the performance and encouraged viewers to give further donations.

We often hear music in the background during political advertisements and polemical political TV shows. President Donald Trump, for example, controversially used John Fogerty’s song “Fortunate Son” during recent campaign appearances. (Fogerty’s song criticizes people like President Trump and Fogerty has asked Trump to stop using it.) Professional persuaders who use television and the Internet know that music helps them to send their message. If canned music on television adds to the message, live music carries even more power. Lady Gaga created her own musical accompaniment by playing and singing during her presentation. Her quite lovely piano music created a mood while she spoke, and, no doubt, helped to place the audience in a favorable frame of mind.

A nation needs to work together if it is to flourish. Our nation cannot long endure in its current divided condition, while persons of common goals ridicule one another for political gain.

Epideictic, or ceremonial, speech exists to remind us of what we share in common. Epideictic speech does, in fact, often lead to policy, just as Lady Gaga used a presentation to encourage donations to a worthy cause. Music exists to express how we feel. Speech and music belong together.

P.S.: A while back, I published an article called “‘We Want Yer, McKinley’: Epideictic Rhetoric in Songs from the 1896 Presidential Campaign.” Click on "William D. Harpine's Publications" above and scroll halfway down to find the link. 

Image: Hurricane Harvey flooding at Aransas Pass, Texas, not far from my own home, NOAA

Friday, September 11, 2020

President George W. Bush’s “9/11 Address to the Nation:” An Appeal for Unity

Nineteen years ago today, terrorists hijacked four American airplanes and killed thousands of people. I was working in my office in Akron, Ohio, watching on my computer as the World Trade Center towers fell, and my family underwent quite a bit of confusion (only one of us owned a cell phone in those primitive days) before we got organized and safely home. No, it is not an easy day to forget. 

On the evening of September 11, 2001, several hours after the terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush appealed for national and international unity in a simple speech from the Oval Office. Somehow, his ordinary, predictable speech, looks much different when examined 19 years later. For Bush did not use the speech to attack his political rivals, vent personal grievances, or stoke ethnic prejudices. Instead, he pledged the nation to unite in common values. 

In his second sentence, Bush reminded the nation that the terrorists’ victims were ordinary people going about ordinary business: 

The victims were in airplanes or in their offices: secretaries, business men and women, military and federal workers, moms and dads, friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror.” 

Warning that the terrorists intended to drive the United States into disunity, Bush said that “These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation to chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong.” 

Bush then reminded the American people, rather idealistically, of our founding values: 

“These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. 

Look at the unifying, value-laden words he used: “brightest beacon,” “freedom and opportunity,” and a shining light. He didn’t just talk about freedom and opportunity for our own people – no America First rhetoric – but “freedom and opportunity in the world.” Unity. Bush then said that the correct response to evil was to turn to goodness. He presented a picture of Americans working together regardless of differences to help one another. 

Earlier Post: Barack Obama’s Farewell Speech: Can’t We Listen to One Another?

Bush called us to the best of America:

Today, our nation saw evil - the very worst of human nature - and we responded with the best of America. With the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could. 

After promising a massive military and diplomatic response to the terrorists, Bush thanked the politicians, allies and world leaders who united to fight terrorism: 

I appreciate so very much the members of Congress who have joined me in strongly condemning these attacks. And on behalf of the American people, I thank the many world leaders who have called to offer their condolences and assistance. America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism.

 Again, Bush spoke in language of identification and unity: “joined,” “many world leaders,” “friends and allies join with all.” Bush ended by pleading for unity and justice: 

This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace.

 Again, “all Americans,” and “every walk of life unite.” He promised that the United States would defeat this enemy and would never forget the attacks, “yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”  

Of course, no one ever fully lives up to their ideals, but that isn’t the point. The point is that Bush took a remarkably positive outlook. He did not attack the Democratic Party. He said nothing against Muslims, even though, by that point, his advisers had identified the terrorists and told him about Al Qaeda’s involvement. Instead, Bush praised the nation for coming together. He promised that the nation and the world would continue to unite against evil, again, “to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.” 

I never supported President George W. Bushs policies.  Richard A. Clark, one of the United States’ leading terrorism experts, pointed out in his important book, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, that Bush had ignored repeated warnings that Al Qaeda posed a major threat. After 9/11, as Bob Woodward showed in his book Plan of Attack, Bush worried more about Iraq than Al Qaeda. Nor can I agree with Bush’s haphazard, scattershot response to Middle Eastern problems, a response that led to violence and chaos that continues to kill American military personnel even today. Bush quickly squandered the international goodwill that his 9/11 speech produced so warmly. Still, let’s note that his 9/11 speech made a serious effort to pull people together. That, as far as it goes, is commendable.   

Public speeches can unite or divide us. Today, in 2020, our nation’s biggest enemy is an act of nature, a viral pandemic whose harvest of death is killing far more people than who died on 9/11. Yet, our government and population alike stubbornly refuse to unite against the common enemy. Although 9/11 led to many conspiracy theories, the bizarre belief that 9/11 was a planned demolition never gained political traction. No one went so far as to claim that the attacks were a hoax. So, what has gone wrong with us today? 

Earlier Post: Speeches About Conspiracies: How Can We Tell if a Conspiracy is Real? 

Theoretical notes: 

  • In this case, President George W. Bush rose to the occasion, at least temporarily. He responded to what communication professor Lloyd Bitzer calls an exigence. That is, he responded to an occasion that called for speech. The public needed to know what the President had to say, and Bush came through. Last year, I wrote about a speech in which Pope Francis, who I admire in many ways, failed to respond to the exigence of church child abuse. 
  • Also, my book about the 1896 presidential campaign, From the Front Porch to the Front Page, points out how effectively President William McKinley worked to identify with and unite the nation. Click on "William D. Harpine's Publications" above for more information about the book.

PS: Once again, thanks to Martin J. Medhurst and the good people at for preparing a verbatim transcript of Bush’s speech as delivered. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Image: Official Dept. of Defense Photo

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

In a Press Briefing, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Seeks Common Ground in the Fight against the Coronavirus

CDC Covid guidance

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus spoke to the press once again, at a press conference in Geneva on August 31, 2020. Making a more direct statement than a few days ago, Ghebreyesus talked about the conflict between people who think that it is more important to contain the novel coronavirus and those who instead wish to open up their nation’s economy. Ghebreyesus’ simple thesis was that we need to do both. In a remarkably persuasive presentation, he expressed sympathy for people who want to open up the economy, saying that he shared their goals, but he explained that economies can only recover if the pandemic is controlled. Like all first-rate persuasive speakers, he sought common ground with his critics.

Earlier Post: Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ Positive Approach to Fighting the Coronavirus

First, he expressed sympathy for the people who criticize public health measures. “Eight months into the pandemic,” he explained, “we understand that people are tired and yearn to get on with their lives. We understand that countries want to get their societies and economies going again.” He assured the press that “that’s what WHO wants too.” He acknowledged that restrictions “have taken a heavy toll on livelihoods, economies and mental health.” He supported “efforts to re-open economies and societies” and “to see children returning to school and people returning to the workplace.”

Of course, there’s always a catch: Ghebreyesus warned that “we want to see it done safely.” He warned that “no country can just pretend the pandemic is over.”

Obviously aware that many people, including in the United States, have downplayed the novel coronavirus’ severity, he pointed out that “The reality is that this coronavirus spreads easily, it can be fatal to people of all ages, and most people remain susceptible.”

Then came his punch line, where he gave a solution that combined the economic and public health goals: “The more control countries have over the virus, the more they can open up.”

“The more control countries have over the virus, the more they can open up.”

Second, Ghebreyesus offered a four-part solution:

(a) He said that nations must “prevent amplifying events.” He explained that the coronavirus “spreads very efficiently among clusters of people.” He noted the terrible outbreaks that occurred when people gathered at sporting events, bars, and religious assemblies. Such events, he warned, might need to be temporarily delayed.

(b) He also warned that especially vulnerable people such as the elderly, people with pre-existing risk factors, and “essential workers” need special protection.

(c) Third, he advised that every individual person must help, by staying a few feet apart from one another, washing hands, wearing a mask, and practicing “respiratory etiquette.” I have never heard such a nice way to ask people not to cough into one another’s faces.

(d) Finally, he discussed the importance of government action “to find, isolate, test and care for cases, and trace and quarantine contacts.”

In the United States, conservatives often protest against wholesale closings. Since we hear so much opposition to basic public health measures, Ghebreyesus wisely remarked that nations can avoid wholesale closings “if countries take temporary and geographically-targeted interventions.”

Ghebreyesus then cited Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, who had said that worldwide cooperation was the only way to overcome the international pandemic.

During times of stress, like a pandemic, people often want to hide from the rest of the world. In contrast, Director-General of the World Health Organization emphasized how important it is for all of us to cooperate to achieve goals. Those goals, he wanted us to see, are often perceived to be incompatible when they are, in fact, the same.

I could never have asked for one of my public speaking students to give a better-organized persuasive speech. Ghebreyesus identified and sympathized with the WHO’s critics, stated the problem concisely and sharply, and then offered solutions that would achieve everyone’s goals.

Ghebreyesus’ speech, like the briefing he gave a few days ago, was persuasive, thoughtful, and conciliatory. He gave well-informed opinions that deserve all our attention. Once again, however, the United States’ press gave him remarkably little publicity. Instead, we are hearing reports in which the President of the United States, of all people, discusses shadow people, soup bag-throwing, and mysterious black-suited people on airplanes. The press exalts in this nonsense even as it ignores valuable information like what the World Health Organizations provides.

It is time for the world to listen to people who know what they are talking about. I hope people listen Ghebreyesus’ speech. I hope we pay attention this time.

Theoretical note: a theory of communication called agenda-setting says that the press’ number one effect is not to tell us what to think, but what to think about. We in the United States are mostly thinking, favorably or unfavorably, about President Donald’s bizarre statements and odd behavior. Conservatives are also thinking about political vandalism presumably committed by left-wing extremists. That’s because these are the things that the press reports the most. But we are not thinking about basic public health measures, about which the press tells us little. Yet which is more important right now?

Sunday, August 30, 2020

WHO's Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Spoke for Public Health in a Positive Way During His Coronavirus Briefing

Coronavirus, CDC image
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization briefed the press on August 27, 2020 about the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) crisis. In his opening remarks, Ghebreyesus tried to reframe the touchy issue into a pure public health problem. 

We all know that the COVID-19 response has become highly politicized, to the extent that public health officials who offer basic scientific information have received death threats. Ghebreyesus reset the debate by placing the COVID-19 pandemic into the context of public health successes. Although the briefing’s topic was COVID-19, Ghebreyesus did not mention the pandemic until the latter portion of the speech.

Instead, he began by talking about polio! Here are his first three paragraphs:

“Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.

“Tuesday was a great day in global health – the certification of the eradication of wild poliovirus in Africa.

“This remarkable effort was started by Rotary International in the 1980s, and advanced by Nelson Mandela in 1996, with the launch of a campaign to 'Kick Polio Out of Africa'. At the time, polio paralyzed 75,000 children every year.”  

“Good morning, good afternoon and good evening” reminded everyone that the World Health Organization protects everyone in every time zone. That is, his first briefing item included (1) “Tuesday was a great day in global health,” and, (2) “the certification of the eradication of wild poliovirus in Africa.” That accomplished two purposes: he (1) announced a public health success, while he (2) showed that global public health efforts can, indeed, eradicate disease. But he had said nothing so far about the coronavirus.

Ghebreyesus talked for several minutes about the international cooperation that helped the world to knock polio out of Africa. This led him to the theme of solidarity:

“The end of wild poliovirus in Africa is a momentous achievement that demonstrates what’s possible when we come together in a spirit of solidarity.”

After reminding his audience that polio continued to afflict Afghanistan and Pakistan, did Ghebreyesus then move directly to talk about the coronavirus? No, he did not. Instead, he talked about victories over sleeping sickness, a terrible disease that afflicts large part of equatorial Africa:

“Polio is not the only disease against which we are making progress.

“Yesterday we also celebrated the end of sleeping sickness in Togo as a public health problem.

“I would like to use this opportunity to congratulate the people and government of Togo and their partners on this achievement.”

He continued to note that several other countries are planning to document that they have also eliminated sleeping sickness. Once again, the speaker showed that public health efforts can bring tremendous benefits to the public and the cooperation and partnership are necessary to achieve those benefits:

“This is incredible progress against the disease which was considered impossible to eliminate just 20 years ago.”

So, he started his COVID-19 briefing by talking about two unrelated public health issues. Then, and only then, Ghebreyesus turned to the coronavirus. He called for the world to adopt the same sense of partnership that had helped to bring polio and sleeping sickness under control:

“Globally, we need the same spirit of solidarity and partnership that are helping to end polio and sleeping sickness to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As societies open up, many are starting to see a resurgence of transmission.”  

After noting that certain kinds of gatherings often spread the coronavirus, he mentioned, on an encouraging note, that the Hajj pilgrimage had continued with social distancing, and that people were organizing sporting events and festivals. He said that this could be done safely under certain conditions:

“There are ways these events can be held safely, with a risk-based approach that takes the measures necessary to keep people safe.

“These measures should be communicated clearly and regularly.

“We humans are social beings. It’s natural and normal that we want to come together for all sorts of reasons.

“There are many ways we can be physically apart, but remain socially connected.”

The speaker pointed out that social separation during the pandemic caused emotional stress, which led him to discuss the mental health as a public health issue. Concluding, he announced that he was forming a group to evaluate the world-wide response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without saying so outright, Ghebreyesus addressed the scattered, uncooperative response of many countries – including, we all know, the United States of America – as a result of which COVID-19 is causing problems far beyond what was originally forecast. His tone, however, was relentlessly positive. Instead of criticizing uncooperative nations, he praised nations that had pursued public health. He pointed out that cooperative nations working together had made great public health strides. He assured the audience that nations could reopen essential activities safely if they followed public health guidelines. He preempted the criticism of people who think the public health experts prevent them from worshiping or attending sporting events.

Uncooperative nations, especially those that have so-called populist governments, have not responded to being criticized. If anything, they and their supporters dig in their heels and become more stubborn. Instead of scolding those nations and their leaders, the Director-General emphasized the positive, hoping to inspire rather than attack. I don’t know if he will succeed – his speech was not well-publicized in the United States – but he took an interesting persuasive approach.

Let’s wish him good fortune. Our lives may depend on it.

Theoretical note: I, and several much more prominent researchers, have written that epideictic speech – speech that praises and blames – can be persuasive. Click on “William D. Harpine’s Publications” above to see my academic publications on the topic.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Donald Trump's 2020 RNC Acceptance Speech: American Carnage, Revisited?

In last night’s Republican National Convention Acceptance Speech, President Donald Trump described a political vision that he thinks will propel him to reelection. That vision had nothing to do with facts, but was something else entirely.

My two previous posts pointed out that speakers at the recently-concluded Republican National Convention said untrue things one after the other. Fact-checkers mainly complain when politicians speak falsely, and yet fact-checkers never seem to nudge public opinion. The Pulitzer-Prize winning website has so far examined 834 of Donald Trump’s statements, rating only 4% to be True, while 9% were Mostly True, 13% Half True, 20% Mostly False, 35% False (the largest category), and 15% Pants on Fire. That’s appalling.

Earlier Post: Do Republican National Convention Speakers Care About Fact Checkers?

Nevertheless, to the amazement of political pundits, Democratic voters, and many of my colleagues who study political communication, Donald Trump remains popular, and stands a reasonable chance of winning the upcoming presidential election. To understand that, we need to look at the vision that Trump presents, a vision that persuades many voters. Trump’s vision is not about facts or policy analysis. No, indeed, Trump’s vision, dark as it is, gives the United States a stark choice. He laid that vision out early in the lengthy speech:
“And this election will decide whether we will defend the American way of life or whether we will allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it. That won’t happen. At the Democrat National Convention, Joe Biden and his party repeatedly assailed America as a land of racial, economic and social injustice. So tonight, I ask you a simple question, how can the Democratic Party ask to lead our country when it spent so much time tearing down our country?”
What is going on here? 

First, the Threat of Destruction

That was a hostile paragraph. Trump said, “the Democrat National Convention,” when “Democratic National Convention” would be correct. Republicans, both on social media and in speeches, often say “Democrat Party” instead of “Democratic Party.” They presumably want to stress the “rat” sound at the end. Social media people often spell it “DemocRAT” just to make sure you get the point. Trump’s supporters would not overlook the dog whistle “Democrat National Convention.” 

But why would Trump think the Democrats are dangerous? By definition, conservatives want to keep things the same. Trump warned that, not only do Democrats want to change the nation, but they want to “dismantle and destroy it.” 

Earlier Post: Donald Trump Said That MAGA Loves Black People, But Did He Mean It? 

Trump’s vision went beyond race, however. He warned apocalyptically that Democrats intended to take people’s guns, abolish the police, and spread violence through our cities. None of that passes fact-checking, but that is not Trump’s point.

Second, the Fear of Criticism

It’s not that conservatives fear being criticized; instead conservative philosophy requires people to think about criticism in a different way than liberals. By definition, liberals find parts of society that can be improved and urge changes. Conservatives don’t want to change. If they wanted to change, they would be liberals.

Still, in the wake of several police shootings of African-Americans, Democrats are calling for increased racial justice. When they say this, however, they either say or imply that we don’t have racial justice now. That is a criticism, and if the criticism is true, all decent people should want to change. Conservatives think of themselves as decent, so what’s the problem?

That leads us to the second half of Trump’s paragraph: “At the Democrat National Convention, Joe Biden and his party repeatedly assailed America as a land of racial, economic and social injustice.” Faced with evidence of problems, the Democrats have called for the nation to do better. Trump, however, takes a different view. Democrats have – inexcusably, he thinks – criticized the United States.

In Trump’s vision, Democrats are unqualified to lead for the simple reason that they criticize the United States. So, that is why Trump’s paragraph ended this way: “how can the Democratic Party ask to lead our country when it spent so much time tearing down our country?” In Trump’s vision, no one who criticizes the United States is qualified to lead the United States. Loyalty, commitment, and devotion must be absolute and unquestioning. This creates a perfect conservative circle: liberals cannot fix our problems – cannot be allowed to fix our problems – because they say we have problems.

Trump, however, criticized the United States when he talked about “American carnage” in his 2016 Inaugural Address. Is that different? 

Earlier Post: Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address: American Carnage


Millions of Americans fear change, value stability, and mistrust minorities. Change is never easy and we can never predict its results. Better, Trump implied, is never to admit that injustices exist.

If my roof leaks, I have two choices: I can spend thousands of dollars to fix it, or I can rage against anyone who criticizes my roof. How dare they condemn my house! Spending thousands of dollars is unpleasant, and, if I ignore the leak, maybe it will go away by itself. Or not.

Many years ago, my wife took a job at a small, isolated Virginia town. As we walked around together after work, a child rode up to us on a bicycle and asked, “Are you all moving in new?” We said no. He said “good” and bicycled away. Change disturbs some people.

Seriously, there are several questions. Have the nation’s problems become so bad that we need to change? Do protesters of the right and left wings offer rightful complaints? What compromises should we make, and where should we stand firm?

By the way, I have long believed that tradition has much to offer us. Click on “William D. Harpine’s Publications” above and you can read some of my pro-tradition research. It is, however, a terrible risk when we cling to traditions that no longer work, or that have unjust effects. It would, I think, be better if President Trump did not offer such a stark choice. We do not really face a choice between “American carnage” on the one hand, and the unchanged status quo on the other. Surely there is middle ground where everyone would be better off. Are President Trump and his supporters willing to seek that middle ground? Time will tell, but it does not look promising.

At the same time, however, no one should underestimate the powerful vision that President Trump gave us in his Acceptance Speech. The press has decried Trump’s dark vision, but they overlook how important it is that he has a vision. They ignore how compelling his vision is to many Americans. 

As before, thanks to for preparing a verbatim transcript of Trump’s speech as he delivered it.

Image: Donald Trump, White House photo

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Do Republican National Convention Speakers Care About Fact Checkers?

truth image
The Guardian, a British newspaper, headlined on this morning’s website that “Republican Convention Delivers Whirlwind of Lies Great and Small.” Okay, let’s acknowledge that all politicians get sneaky with the truth. Let us not, however, pretend that what happened the last few days was normal. Let us not pretend that it was ethical public speaking. 

For example, The Guardian points out: 

Vice-President Mike Pence falsely gave President Donald from credit for a complete travel ban against China to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. In fact, as The Guardian points out, tens of thousands of people took advantage of exceptions to the travel ban to reach the United States from China. 

Kayla McEnany said that “I can tell you that this president stands by Americans with pre-existing conditions,” at the same time that his administration was suing in federal court to abolish such protections. 

Madison Cawthorn, a Republican candidate for the United States Congress, said that “James Madison was just 25 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence.” But any high school student should be able to tell you that James Madison did not sign the Declaration of Independence. 

Cawthorn later said that his line was “add-libbed.” That may be just the problem. When important people are speaking in a national forum, should they not pay attention to the facts? That one especially irks me, since Republicans routinely claim that they are protecting our Founders’ legacy. Cawthorn, at least, knew that there was such a thing as a Declaration of Independence. I guess I should be grateful for that. 

Lara Trump, the President’s daughter-in-law, misquoted Abraham Lincoln: “Abraham Lincoln once famously said: 'America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.’” Lincoln, however, never said that, as The Independent pointed out. 

PolitiFact had a field day fact-checking theRepublican convention, finding such tarnished gems as these:

Eric Trump, the president’s son and Lara’s husband, repeated his father’s false claim that “Biden has pledged to defund the police and take away your cherished Second Amendment.” That was especially inexcusable, since only a few weeks earlier, Fox News’ Chris Wallace humiliated Donald Trump for falsely accusing Biden of wanting to defund police.  

Pence pulled not, exactly a falsehood, but certainly a sneaky deception, when he called out the memory of a recently murdered officer who died during a Black Lives Matters protest: 

“Dave Patrick Underwood was an officer of the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service, who was shot and killed during the riots in Oakland, California.”

That was particularly slippery because Republican politicians and the right-wing media have been pounding on a law and order theme, and Pence’s statement falsely implied that Black Lives Matters protesters had killed officer Underwood. In fact, however, as Vox points out, a right-wing protester was arrested for the murder. Now, since Pence surely knew that, why didn’t he point it out? For that simple bit of information changes his point completely.  

The Democrats are far from perfect. Nevertheless, although PolitiFact found that the Democrats made some statements at their convention that were a bit out of context, they didn’t find the same long line of falsehoods as in the Republicans’ convention. They did find that, although Postal Service reforms caused some harms, the Democrats overstated them.

This brings up two questions: (1) Why do politicians lie so much, and (2) why did the Republicans this week utter such a stream of outrageous falsehoods, many of which have been repeatedly discredited? 

I don’t really know, but here are some questions that might lead to answers: 

First, is it possible that Republican core voters simply don’t care about truth? That would be harsh, but I’m still waiting to hear other Republicans or the conservative media condemn the falsehoods. 

Second, could the Republicans be aiming at what they consider to be a “larger truth?” Maybe they think that the Democrats’ social and economic reforms threaten the United States’ social order. What they think is a larger truth may matter more to them than picking over facts and details. 

Third, could it just be carelessness? Cawthorn admitted that he ad-libbed his false statement about James Madison. Still, if the Democrats can be more careful about their facts, the Republicans can match them. No one stops them. 

Or, maybe, fourth, anyone who follows the conservative media, such as Fox News, Breitbart, The Gateway Pundit, or WorldNetDaily, has probably heard most of these false statements, not just once, but many times. If people have sealed themselves inside what Kathleen Hall Jamieson calls the “conservative media bubble,” they may not even be aware of what the truth is. They may think that their truth is the real truth. American politics may be living in two parallel universes, one of which is largely fictional. Tens of millions of Americans belong to each. Can we bridge the gap? 

How can Democrats counter this? Obviously, they must challenge the falsehoods at every turn. Equally, however, if they want to claim the high moral ground, they must get their facts exactly right. Yes, the Democrats at their convention were far more accurate than the Republicans were at their own. But the Democrats were not perfect. The right number of lies to tell is zero.

What do you think? Do you have answers to these questions? Feel free to post a comment below, email me, or post a note on my Twitter link above. 

Kimberly Guilfoyle, an Old-Time Political Speaker at the 2020 Republican National Convention: Bombastic, Irrational, and Maybe, Effective