How are Republicans getting away with supporting the most openly corrupt, openly incompetent, openly racist, openly undemocratic POTUS in U.S. history? Because they are allowed to bob and weave around this horrific reality with a kind of dance that an increasing number of them have mastered. My diary today is intended to name and characterize a few of their most common moves, so that we and the media can all recognize these feints in real time, stop them in their tracks and ensure that the complicit Republicans are held accountable for what that they they are doing to our country.
For a radical movement to take over a civilized country requires two classes of supporters: what I call the Nazis and the Not-Sees. While the former are utterly unambiguous about their race war aspirations, the latter will often appear (and consider themselves) to be decent, mainstream folks – your Republican neighbors, coworkers and family members who can always find a way to rationalize what’s going on, not matter how awful it gets.
To stop America’s descent into madness requires that we force the Not-Sees to see and accept their complicity in the ascending horrors. And this means that we must recognize, unravel and challenge all the rhetorical tricks that they, their leaders and media employ to obfuscate, confuse and rationalize what Donald’s racist kleptocratic authoritarianism is all about.
It is worth noting that some of these diversionary tactics no doubt have been employed by politicians, press secretaries and surrogates since time immemorial. As with many aspects of Donald’s reign, though, they have taken this shamelessness to such an outrageous level that you really can’t compare it to anything that came before – as in continuing to lie even when everyone in the world willing and able to read the news already knows that they’re lying.
So I’ve begun here the work of naming and giving examples of these dance-around-the-truth moves below. I believe I’m only scratching the surface here and welcome others to add to the list and tell me what I’m missing:
- Only Joking Jitterbug: One of Republicans’ favorite defenses against some of Donald’s most indefensible statements is to claim that he was “only joking!” This was their fall back when he said that Democrats who don’t applaud his State of the Union address should be tried for treason, when he told a police audience that they should be more violent with crime suspects, when he said Americans should ‘sit up at attention’ for him as North Koreans do for Kim Jong Un ‘sit up at attention’ for him as North Koreans do for Kim Jong Un, etc.
- As Behavioral Scientist Carolyn O. (@RVAwonk) put it on Twitter: “The use of “humor” has a strategic purpose. It allows a person to deny any real commitment to extreme ideas while still espousing them” and “Trump is following a playbook. Extremists use… irony & ‘humor’ to spread their ideology while maintaining distance from the backlash it provokes. Espousing extremist (or despotic) views under the guise of humor lets people test the boundaries, then back away when met w/ outcry.”
- Or as Trevor Noah put it even more succinctly: ““If you don’t like what Trump said, it’s a joke; if you do like it, it’s policy.”
- Proposed Counter-move: Note how many times Republicans have tried to dismiss Donald’s outrageous statements as “jokes”, ask if there’s anything actually funny about the statement in question, note that when a president reveals what’s on his mind, we need to take him seriously. Note any ways in which the statement fits particular patterns (e.g., authoritarian fantasies) and challenge the speaker about those patterns.
- Dummy Defense Disco: This is the move of trying to defend Donald for meaning well but just not realizing what he’s doing because “he’s not a politician”, maybe not even quite smart enough to know what’s going on. This has actually become a popular defense against the massive evidence of the Trump Russia Conspiracy – as an Atlantic article paraphrased Congressional Republicans they interviewed: “the president and his team were simply too incompetent to pull off a high-level House of Cards-style conspiracy. At worst, they seemed to believe Team Trump’s collusion amounted to a ‘conspiracy of dunces.’” Obstruction of justice? Nah, says Paul Ryan: “He probably wasn’t steeped in the longrunning protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI, and White Houses. He’s just new to this.”
- Proposed Counter-Move: Note the blatant contradiction between this stance and that of Donald’s supporters that he is a “political genius” – you can’t claim incompetence as an excuse after making the case so doggedly that a reality TV star is actually the most qualified candidate for the hardest job in the country. Nor do much of the actions of which Donald and his administration are guilty take a whole lot of genius. Incompetence is no excuse.
Plain Talk Tango: One way that Republicans try to downplay the awful things that come out of Donald’s mouth is by protesting that the elite media snobs just don’t understand his plain, salty way of speaking the way the rabble do. As Steve Bannon put it recently, he doesn’t think that Donald ever lies but “I think he speaks in a particular vernacular that connects to people in this country.” Frequently, Republicans try to recast some crazy or dishonest thing he said by claiming that he really meant something utterly different from what he said. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is a master at this, as in the following example:
REPORTER: “The president repeated this claim in the Oval Office today, saying we’re the highest-taxed nation in the world. Why does the president keep saying this? It’s not true, overall.”
SANDERS: “We are the highest-taxed—corporate tax in the developed economy. That’s a fact.
REPORTER: “But that’s not what the president said.”
SANDERS: “That’s what he’s talking about.”
- Proposed Counter-Move: I mean, c’mon! This is one of those situations where you have to throw the lie back in their face. All these games of pretending that he didn’t say what everyone heard or saw him say are just a bunch of absurd gaslighting. He said X, it’s not vernacular, it’s not what he didn’t say – admit the truth and defend it or not.
- Finger Point Pivot: This is by far the favorite technique of Twitter trolls: responding to Donald’s latest scandal with “Hillary/Obama/Clinton did worse!” [Insert favorite conspiracy theory here.] There are way two many ridiculous examples to cite, but Kellyanne Conway lands the equivalent of a double Lutz here by trying to divert from Donald Jr.’s lies about the Trump Tower meeting with Russian agents by pivoting to both Obama’s promises about health care coverage and Benghazi.
- Proposed Counter-Move: My favorite response to this diversion is: So Donald’s guilt is so obvious, you’re not even going to try to defend him? There’s not much point in going down the rabbit hole of trying to argue over whatever Clinton/Obama conspiracy theory they’re trying to promote, other than dismissing it as such. You can even say, okay, let’s pretend that what you’re saying about those people is true. Obama left office a year and a half ago, whereas Hillary left public office in 2013 – and of course Bill Clinton hasn’t been in office for 18+ years. Isn’t it more important to focus on the scandals, actions, and character of the man in the White House right now?
- I Don’t Know Hustle: This video montage consists of endless instances of Sarah Huckabee Sanders responding to reporters’ questions with slightly different versions of “I don’t know, I’ll get back to you.” As with so much of what today’s Republicans do, what might occasionally be a reasonable answer is being so thoroughly abused as not be acceptable anymore. Yes, Kellyanne Conway and Sanders would love to talk about the Russia investigation but can’t because it’s a legal matter, or the details are confidential or I wasn’t at the secret briefing or… Yes, Paul Ryan would love to talk about what Donald tweeted today, but sadly he hasn’t had time to read all those 280 characters. And no, by the way, he hasn’t read a word about the dozen or so Scott Pruitt scandals either.
- Proposed Counter-Move: What exactly is the point of having a White House Press Secretary or a Speaker of the House who don’t know anything? Isn’t it their job to know the basics about news stories that everyone else in the country is talking about? Point out how many times this is the answer, and how frankly, this is just a lawyer’s trick to avoid answering the question. It may be worth the time to parse out which part of the question is not about legal issues or confidential information or something you need to have been at a specific briefing to know. Tell them to stop playing dumb and answer the question.
- The Personal Attack Pirouette: One way to try to stop reporters from asking tough, fair questions is to attack them in such a nasty way as to confuse viewers into thinking this is just a catfight rather than a process for holding public officials accountable. Kellyanne Conway, for example, trying to make CNN the issue when it first reported on the revelations in the now-famous dossier, saying: “I know CNN is feeling the heat today…” Or Stephen Miller doing the same in characterizing CNN in its coverage of Fire and Fury as getting “a lot of joy from having to stick the knife in.” Or Sarah Sanders, when asked about Donald’s contradictory tweets on FISA Reauthorization, telling a reporter “I think that the premise of your question is completely ridiculous and shows the lack of knowledge that you have on this process.”
- Proposed Counter-Move: Best approach is to have a thick skin and bring the question right back to the subject at hand. Being drawn into a petty argument just takes attention away from the important issue being discussed. Don’t let the diversion succeed in carrying you down a fruitless path – persist.
- The Policy Pivot: This is a tricky one, aimed at trying to pull away from the topic of what Donald said or did, or other controversies, by saying: Gosh, can’t we just discuss policy issues? Sarah Sanders, for example, trying to get off the topic of the Trump-Russia Conspiracy by bringing up legislation on veterans or Paul Ryan trying to divert from criticism of Donald by saying “I’m not going to comment on this stuff,” Ryan said. “Let’s talk about policy.”
- Proposed Counter-Move: Of course, it is reasonable to want to “talk about policy” in most contexts. But when you have a POTUS doing and saying utterly crazy and dangerous things, this is just one more diversion. And it’s worth pointing out that many of the president’s words and actions in question do constitute policy statements, even where they’re framed as stupid tweets. But another technique once this line of argument is exhausted is to have questions & comments about current GOP policies in your back pocket – e.g., okay, let’s talk about the policies of a tax cut from which the president’s family stands to make millions while health insurance premiums skyrocket due to his admitted sabotage of our health care system.
- The Generality Jive/Conflation Conga: One of their most insidious techniques is to divert from the specifics of a crazy POTUS controversy by obfuscating the issue into generalities that make it sound reasonable. Take for example Paul Ryan’s response when asked if Donald had done enough in response to the Nazi atrocities in Charlottesville: “I don’t think any of us have done enough” – allowing Ryan to make what sounds like a deep philosophical point but is actually a feint to avoid answering the question. Or conversely, blur the facts to put pesky rivals or critics in the same category as something or someone highly unpopular – like Kellyanne Conway conflating CNN (for reporting on the Trump Russia Conspiracy) with Buzzfeed (for the then-widely criticized publication of the infamous dossier in its entirety). Of course, the conflation of innocent undocumented immigrants – parents forcibly separated from their children by our government – with MS13 is the most devious such use of this technique we’ve seen yet.
- Proposed Counter-Move: As with other diversionary techniques, you need to deflect the diversion and bring the speaker back to the point –e.g., putting aside the side issue you just raised, let’s get back to the topic at hand. Seth Meyers did a masterly job at this in a January 2017 convo with Kellyanne Conway. After Meyers noted Donald’s lack of curiosity about the Russian subversion of the 2017 election, she said “He has enormous curiosity…He was curious enough to figure out America,” to which he responded “That’s a pivot right there, Kellyanne…And by the way, no one does it better.” The more figures in the media and elsewhere call a pivot a pivot, the greater the awareness of these diversionary techniques and the harder it will be for Republicans to wriggle out of them.
Bottom line: be aware of these rhetorical techniques, pick them out when they’re being used for sneaky political ends, and learn how to counter them. Don’t let them get away with diverting from the horrors of what is happening in our country. Throw it back in their faces until they just can’t avoid the ugly reality. Force even the Not-Sees to see what they’re trying so hard to distract from.
Democracy depends upon the open and honest discussion of relevant facts and issues. Shut down these dishonest diversionary tactics so democracy can start to flow in America again.
(Cross-posted at Daily Kos)