Or, how liberals helped make America more racist by negating Trump
If you’re a liberal like me, your urge is to say, “Trump promised you something terrific! It’s a terrific kick all the way up your ass.” Or you’ll retweet one of Trump’s bromides about Obamacare killing kitties along with a stinging rebuke about how “terrific” leaving people with cancer at the mercy of insurance CEOs is.
This would be a classic messaging error that the left makes over and over again, according to cognitive scientist George Lakoff.
Every time you repeat your opponent’s frame, you strengthen it in voters’ minds — even if you negate it.
Did Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” or John McCain’s “I am not George W. Bush” persuade anyone?
Probably not even the speechwriter who penned those classic clunkers.
Still, over and over you’ll hear liberals make arguments like, “Paul Ryan says the ACA is in a death spiral. Not true!” These words not only reinforce the right’s frame, they do it before you even get to the argument you really want to make, “The ACA is healthy and more Americans than ever have reliable insurance they can count on.”
Our rebuttals are doing the right’s dirty work.
I’ve always wondered by the left loves to repeat the right’s arguments and it was the first question I asked George Lakoff when I had the chance to speak to him. And the answer comes down to how liberals see the world — as a logic problem that just needs to be neatly solved.
In a logic problem, you lay out the argument to either prove or disprove it. Think of an Algebra proof. Not stating the premise is just sloppy.
Lakoff says this thinking is nurtured by what liberals tend to study in college — social sciences, economics, law.
“What you’ll learn in those courses is what is called Enlightenment reason, from 1650, from Descartes,” Lakoff told Salon‘s Paul Rosenberg. “And here’s what that reasoning says: What makes us human beings is that we are rational animals and rationality is defined in terms of logic.”
It’s that belief that human beings are inherently rational that likely caused liberals to underestimate Trump or at least miss how broad his appeal was to those with a “Strict Father” worldview. You probably think I mean to write “racist” worldviews, if you’re a liberal, but Lakoff told me he thinks race is just 1/20th of Trump’s appeal to “conservative values,” which include “winning” and also comprise hierarchical assumptions about gender, religion and sexuality.
The right has been strengthening their frames of “smaller government” and the “free market” in the minds of Americans for generations so that simple right-wing notions like “tax relief” evoke powerful assumptions that play on notions of race and class.
For decades, Conservatives have employed a much stronger sense of how advertising works and have applied the most effective tool of the art to their never-ending campaign — repetition.
Marketing guru Seth Godin points out that it was sheer power of repetition that made advertising so effective in the first five decades of television. And no one seems to understand that better than super salesman Donald Trump. (I know liberals hate to assign any sort of competency to this corrupt fool, but how else to did a minority of America end up buying this crap?)
Last summer, Lakoff warned the left about the power of Trump’s comic book approach to blasting out conservative tropes.
New research from Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel finds that “ onald Trump successfully leveraged existing resentment towards African Americans in combination with emerging fears of increased racial diversity in America to reshape the presidential electorate, strongly attracting nativists towards Trump.”
But what if Trump not only leveraged that resentment by stimulated it by repeating his messages over and over and convincing liberals to do the same?
How many times did fact checkers or liberals repeat Trump’s claim about Mexico sending us drug dealers and rapists? By logically negating it, we helped spread and activate the notion in voters’ brains.
How many variations on the implicitly racist/misogynistic/homophobic “Make America Great Again” did you hear the left make, subtly reinforcing the fetishizing of nostalgia that made Trump possible?
And why don’t liberals ever seem able to come up with their own frames that they repeat with the diligence with which the right once screamed “Where are the jobs?”
If everything is a logic problem, once you’ve solved it, you’ve solved it, Lakoff told me. Move on to the next proof.
The belief that voters are completely rational and we just need to list policies that poll well helped bring us Trump. Let’s not repeat those same mistakes.
If you want to understand how framing works, start with this article by George Lakoff and then read everything with his name on it.