Making the Facts Not Matter

June 10, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

People get a clearer picture if you tell them what someone or something is rather than telling them what it isn’t. I’ve said that a few times in this blog (here, for example) in connection with writing. But it’s something that Donald Trump seems to know instinctively.  Here are two True/False items.

True or False: Donald Trump is president of the United States.
True or False: Donald Trump is not president of the United States.

Regardless of what you wanted the answer to be, the second statement took you a fraction of a second longer to get. Positive statements are clearer and more quickly understood .

The same principle applies in political combat as well. When the news or opponents point out that Trump is lying or that he’s done something worse, Trump doesn’t spend much time denying. He prefers to go on the attack, making counter accusations. Or he makes positive claims about himself. It doesn’t matter that these accusations and claims are without a basis in reality.*

The front pages of New York’s tabloids the day after James Comey appeared before a Senate committee illustrate the strategy of Trump and his supporters both in the Senate and at the New York Post.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

The Daily News lists the Trump lies suggested by Comey’s testimony. (For some reason, the News omitted Trump’s statements about Comey and the FBI, statements that Comey said were “lies plain and simple.”)

The Post puts “liar” in quotes, highlights Republican criticisms of Comey, Loretta Lynch, the Clintons, and the New York Times, and quotes the Trump camp’s curiously sunny view of the testimony.

Trump did not respond to the Daily News headline. He did not say, “I am not a liar.”** As we’ve learned from Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” that kind of denial turns the spotlight on precisely the question the speaker wants the public to ignore. That denial would link “Trump” with “liar” just as surely as Nixon’s denial linked his own name with “crook.”
                                                                           
If you can get people to make that association – person and trait – even though they may not be fully convinced that it’s true, you’ve gained a lot of ground. Trump senses this. It’s the basis of his name-calling strategy: Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco repeated endlessly. We can already see where Trump is going in the Comey matter. If he hasn’t been tweeting it out yet, it’s probably because he can’t decide between “Leakin’ Comey” or “Leaker Comey.” If Trump can get people to think that Comey is a bad guy – a leaker – they will more easily ignore whatever factual information Comey provides.

The larger point is that, at least in the short run and maybe longer, the facts are less important than overall image. Once we have a mental image of someone or something, we will filter the facts in a way that keeps that picture intact. If Trump can convince his followers (and perhaps others) that the mainstream media is “fake news,” they can more easily discount or ignore any facts reported by CNN, NBC, USA Today.

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* Last week, Trump said “Our tax bill is moving along in Congress, and I believe it’s doing very well.” In fact, there was no tax bill. His administration had not sent a bill to Congress. He also issued a tweet blaming Democrats for the large number of unfilled positions in his administration. But as Politico pointed out, “The Trump administration has formally nominated just 63 candidates – 39 of which have been approved – for 559 key positions that require Senate confirmation.”

*The next day, Trump did deny that he had said some of the things that Comey reported, but more important he said that he would testify under oath. (Don’t hold your breath. Trump has also said that he’d release his taxes, remember?  Anyway, the Congressional committees where Trump would testify are controlled by Republicans. Would they call Trump in to testify under oath when Democrats as well can ask questions?)

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