Lies, Misdirection, and Pacing: Media Manipulation from Trump and the GOP

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“No, Donald, I don’t think the American people have any idea just how bad we’re trying to f**k them.” (Photo Credit: Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Months ago, before the election, I saw that Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, was trending on social media. As I’m sure you can speak to this phenomenon, the first thing I thought when reading his name was this: “Oh, shit—he didn’t die, did he?” As it turns out, no, it was not his death being reported, nor even false rumors of his death, but news of him switching his allegiance from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump. At first glance, this seemed like an immediate and egregious betrayal of principles. How could someone switch from one extreme to the other like that? Et tu, Scott? As a supporter of neither Clinton nor Trump, however, and as someone who doesn’t read Dilbert religiously but has enjoyed it on occasion, I figured I would give Adams the benefit of the doubt. Adams explained his reversal of support in an open letter on his blog back in September. He had a number of different reasons for flipping his endorsement, which I would argue varied in their merit. At any rate, here they are, in summation:

1. “Things I Don’t Know”: Scott Adams begins by saying he doesn’t know much about politics, including how to defeat ISIS, how to negotiate trade policies, and what tax policy would be most effective, and on the subject of abortion, he feels men should “follow the lead of women on that topic.” In this respect, he doesn’t know enough to make a decision—and argues that neither do you. To this end, he can’t claim either would make the better president, and thus, based solely on matters of domestic and foreign policy, Adams is effectively neutral on who is, was, or will be the better choice for President of the United States.

2. “Confiscation of Property”: Given his neutrality on large-scale issues, where Adams does seem to possess a particular ax to grind is the estate tax. Scott Adams hates the estate tax, and he particularly disagreed with Clinton’s stance on it as well as her representation of the issue, which he characterized as worse than Trump’s because, rather than offering no details, as he claims, it intentionally tried to mislead people based on outmoded or manipulated data. Essentially, Adams argues, the estate tax is a “confiscation” tax because it taxes payers on income that already has been taxed. He explains further:

You can argue whether an estate tax is fair or unfair, but fairness is an argument for idiots and children. Fairness isn’t an objective quality of the universe. I oppose the estate tax because I was born to modest means and worked 7-days a week for most of my life to be in my current position. (I’m working today, Sunday, as per usual.) And I don’t want to give 75% of my earnings to the government. (Would you?)

3. “Party or Wake”: #3 and #4 in Scott Adams’ list, if you ask me, are his weakest reasons, as they seem highly capricious. With Number Three, he opines that he’d rather ride the Trump Train and plan for a party; in other words; he wants to be “invited to the event that doesn’t involve crying and moving to Canada.” Adams admits straight-up this is not his biggest reason, but regardless, even in jest, it assumes a pre-determined outcome, when prior to the election, the final result seemed like a toss-up at best.

4. “Clinton’s Health”: I’ll let Adams explain himself here:

To my untrained eyes and ears, Hillary Clinton doesn’t look sufficiently healthy – mentally or otherwise – to be leading the country. If you disagree, take a look at the now-famous “Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?” video clip. Likewise, Bill Clinton seems to be in bad shape too, and Hillary wouldn’t be much use to the country if she is taking care of a dying husband on the side.

OK, I’m just going to call it out here—this is a stupid argument. If Hillary Clinton, like any number of establishment Democrats, is deluded and out of touch with voters on important issues, this is not a sign of mental illness, and it’s vaguely insulting to the millions of Americans who do suffer from mental illness, at that. It’s like with amateur psychoanalysis of Donald Trump in the early days of his presidency. Forget his being emotionally or mentally ill-equipped to handle the job of President. Forget any diagnosis of “narcissistic personality disorder” or referring to him as “unhinged.” The major issues with Trump is that he is deficient in policy knowledge, he is severely ethically compromised, and he is—and these are technical terms—an idiot and a jerk. He shouldn’t have been a legitimate presidential candidate, but he was elected, and here we are. But yes, he has the capacity to lead, even if we don’t like his executive orders, and what’s more, he has the likes of Stephen Bannon the Skeleton King to advise him. Unfortunately.

5. “Pacing and Leading”: Back to the better arguments for switching sides, IMHO. Scott Adams explains in great detail why he thinks Donald Trump isn’t nearly as dangerous as so many of his critics, including myself, feel he is:

Trump always takes the extreme position on matters of safety and security for the country, even if those positions are unconstitutional, impractical, evil, or something that the military would refuse to do. Normal people see this as a dangerous situation. Trained persuaders like me see this as something called pacing and leading. Trump “paces” the public – meaning he matches them in their emotional state, and then some. He does that with his extreme responses on immigration, fighting ISIS, stop-and-frisk, etc. Once Trump has established himself as the biggest bad-ass on the topic, he is free to “lead,” which we see him do by softening his deportation stand, limiting his stop-and-frisk comment to Chicago, reversing his first answer on penalties for abortion, and so on. If you are not trained in persuasion, Trump looks scary. If you understand pacing and leading, you might see him as the safest candidate who has ever gotten this close to the presidency. That’s how I see him.

Adams’ notion is buoyed by the notion that Trump’s stance on Vladimir Putin is one of intended closeness, while Clinton’s approach to Putin was/is one of “insult[ing] Putin into doing what we want.” The latter, in his view, is patently more dangerous. Ol’ Vladdy aside, Scott Adams’ point is that Trump doesn’t really believe all the crazy things he says, but says them to set a tone and to make the actual policies he intends to effect seem more palatable by comparison. Let’s just assume Adams is correct in this respect, because his final bit of reasoning is highly related to this one which precedes it.

6. “Persuasion”: Even if his logic seems flawed, especially noting his earlier admission that he doesn’t know much about politics, Adams has a logic regarding the power of persuasion, and why Donald Trump’s identity as a “trained persuader” makes him superior to Clinton on this dimension. From the man himself:

Economies are driven by psychology. If you expect things to go well tomorrow, you invest today, which causes things to go well tomorrow, as long as others are doing the same. The best kind of president for managing the psychology of citizens – and therefore the economy – is a trained persuader. You can call that persuader a con man, a snake oil salesman, a carnival barker, or full of shit. It’s all persuasion. And Trump simply does it better than I have ever seen anyone do it.

The battle with ISIS is also a persuasion problem. The entire purpose of military action against ISIS is to persuade them to stop, not to kill every single one of them. We need military-grade persuasion to get at the root of the problem. Trump understands persuasion, so he is likely to put more emphasis in that area.

Most of the job of president is persuasion. Presidents don’t need to understand policy minutia. They need to listen to experts and then help sell the best expert solutions to the public. Trump sells better than anyone you have ever seen, even if you haven’t personally bought into him yet. You can’t deny his persuasion talents that have gotten him this far.

Again, I say his logic may be flawed. Economics based purely on confidence, I would submit, risks producing a bubble that will collapse when the realization comes that the economy doesn’t rest on sound fundamentals. As for ISIS, you can try persuading them to stop all you want, but for an organization that views its conflict as a prophesied war between good and evil, the time and avenue for persuasion may be all but closed, if it were ever open in the first place. All this notwithstanding, confidence and persuasion can have a positive effect on upward mobility, economic or otherwise, and as Adams would stress, Trump is not really as extreme or fascistic as he comes across. Clearly, if nothing else, Donald Trump convinced enough voters that he was the better choice, or that Hillary Clinton was a poorer one. Accordingly, if Scott Adams seems to be making these comments from his position way out in left field, nearly 63 million other Trump voters suggests his views were, to a large extent, shared by those casting their ballot in November.


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“Hey, April, you’re black…do you know Frederick Douglass?” (Image Source: MSNBC)

Why do I bring up an almost-five-month-old blog post by the creator of Dilbert about his endorsement of Donald Trump? Because I can—that’s why! OK—you’re looking for something more substantial than that. Scott Adams’ observations, especially the discussion of pacing and leading, are relevant to the larger discussion of President Trump’s leadership style and the evolution of his administration’s policymaking. One apparent strategy used by Trump and American politicians in general is leading with an extreme proposal to facilitate the acceptance of a slightly-less-extreme version of that proposal. It’s along the lines of what car dealerships and their sales representatives do, as detailed by Ben DeMeter in this post about common sales techniques on Investopedia. Referring to this method as the “discounted markup” technique, DeMeter explains it with the following:

Many times, a store will dramatically mark up the price of its merchandise just so it can offer a convincing discount when it comes time to make a sale. This occurs most commonly at car dealerships, where the sticker price on some vehicles can be more than $2,000 above the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP). This way, the dealership can allow customers to talk down the price of the car to the MSRP so that they think they’re getting a good deal when really they’re just paying exactly what the dealership had hoped for all along.

Let’s extend this metaphor to Donald Trump, viewed through the lens of the media’s attempts to reckon with the three-ring circus that is his White House. Jason Linkins, editor of Huffington Post’s “Eat the Press,” a feature section devoted to commentary and criticism about politics, the media, and culture, and co-host of HuffPost Politics’ podcast “So, That Happened,” recently penned an essay on the virtues of discretion, patience and refraining from overreacting for members of the media in the Trump era. The specific genesis for this article comes after a recent Associated Press report that it had obtained a memo suggesting the Department of Homeland Security was considering using the National Guard to round up undocumented immigrants across several states in deportation raids. The White House, of course, denied it, which you’d imagine they’d do even if it were true, but in this instance, as with other cited rush-to-judgment breaking news stories, Linkins points to a skittishness of the mainstream media, or as he terms it, a “primed for freakout” condition. By failing to recognize this phenomenon, members of the press not only give the White House ammunition and undermine their own credibility, but they risk the overall inability of their audience and of themselves to recognize bad policy when they see it. Here’s Linkins’ description of the situation:

The AP reported it attempted to get clarification from the White House several times before it went to press, affording the administration the opportunity to disown the policy entirely. That means the White House could have nipped this story in the bud, but opted not to. What does the White House gain from that? Well, additional ammunition to make the case that the media is being unfair, for a start. But even if this is what’s happening — and the White House says it’s definitely not — this game is not new. It’s basic as hell, and used in American politics all the time. Why does anyone propose a six-week abortion ban? To make it more palatable to pass a 20-week abortion ban.

Considering an extreme policy to make political room for a slightly less-extreme policy isn’t some crazy-new innovation that Trump and his cabal of super-geniuses came up with, nor is it something they’ve imported from the Kremlin. As much as it might feel right to believe that, the assumption that you are forever tunneling through a Twilight Zone is going to lead you to paint everything with a paranoid brush and make you more likely to equate the truly extreme ideas of Trump’s White House with every other trivial action the administration undertakes. All things cannot be equally momentous or pernicious. If you can’t make that differentiation, you’ll harm your readership ― training them to either panic at the drop of a hat, or to disregard the dire import of bad policy.

Politics as usual. Pacing and leading. “Discounted markup.” Whatever you call it, the idea is familiar: start incredibly high, move down to a more agreeable position, make the consumers think they got away with something, laugh to yourself when they leave because you really came out ahead in that you wanted to propose that less-extreme position in the first place. It’s sales and persuasion at its most elemental, and yet, it’s effective across contexts. The media may view itself as morally superior or highly informed and intelligent, but with tactics like these that play on our human emotions of dread and outrage, any of us are susceptible to the their trickery.

When not baiting and switching, if you will, President Trump and a largely sympathetic Republican Congress (“sympathetic” as in “sympathetic nervous system”; many Republican lawmakers seem devoid of sympathy and other genuine feelings) evidently like to engage in a bit of sleight-of-hand in terms of putting forth policy. Even if this is an unconscious force, though, the effect is very real. Donald Trump recently had a press conference announcing his pick of lawyer, dean of Florida International University School of Law, and former member of the National Labor Relations Board Alexander Acosta to replace Andrew Puzder as nominee for Secretary for Labor after the fast-food company CEO withdrew his name from consideration. You, um, may have heard about it. The press conference, in short, was baffling to those in attendance, as it was for much of the international community. Tessa Stuart details the shock value of the event with a recap entitled “18 WTF Moments from Trump’s Unhinged Press Conference.” (Here we go again with calling Donald Trump “unhinged.”) As Stuart explains, the press conference, at least in name, was meant to announce Acosta as the replacement risk, but quickly went off topic and off the rails as Pres. Trump went off-script, largely to attack the media, ever-embattled since the beginning of Trump’s tenure. Some of the moments of the press conference which produced a pronounced sense of wonderment from the onlookers:

  • Trump saying that the leaks leading to Michael Flynn’s resignation were real, but that “the news is fake because so much of the news is fake.” These two concepts should be mutually exclusive, and yet, this is Donald Trump.
  • Trump insisting the travel ban had a “smooth rollout,” despite it being very un-smooth and struck down by multiple courts of law.
  • Trump making it clear he’s a nice person, and that he gets good ratings—as if the latter proves the former.
  • Trump offering up this gem: “We’re becoming a drug-infested nation. Drugs are becoming cheaper than candy cars.” Clearly, I’ve been spending my money in the wrong places.
  • Trump trying to state that his electoral victory was the biggest since Ronald Reagan, though it wasn’t. Wait, he meant for Republicans. Um, nope—still not the biggest.
  • Trump bashing Hillary Clinton. You know, despite already winning the election over her more than three months ago. I guess it never gets old, huh?
  • Trump extolling the virtues of the First Lady, in that Melania feels “very, very strongly about women’s issues.” Like, um, lighter hair?
  • Trump berating Jewish reporter Jake Turx after a question about how to handle the rise in anti-Semitism in this country, and explaining that he is the least anti-Semitic and least racist person you will ever see in your life. On a related note, I have the power to fly and can move small objects with my mind. I mean, while we’re making outrageous claims and all.
  • Trump asking April Ryan, an African-American White House reporter, to set up a meeting between him and the Congressional Black Caucus. Because all black people are “tight” like that. And they all look alike. Because Trump.

The sum of this garbage is troubling for those of us with developed consciences, and besides, acting as if President Trump’s behavior is normal is a self-defeating principle. It becomes yet worse when we consider Trump’s Tweets the day after, particularly the one that reads as follows:

The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!

Needless to say, this is a dangerous position to take, and I’m not even necessarily talking about for Trump himself. To label certain news organizations as fake because they represent him in a critical light, and to paint the press as an adversary of the average American, is disturbing because it invites an escalation of the concept of the state of affairs in U.S. politics and culture beyond a mere “divide,” and into the realm of all-out “war.” For those who agree with Donald Trump’s sentiments, the very future of the country depends on their resistance to what they see as bastions of liberal fascism. “We” must resist. “They” must falter. This is an ideological conflict with huge implications for the United States of America, one with the makings of a civil war, not fought with bayonets, bullets and cannon fire, but with hashtags, live streams, and memes. Furthermore, like the American Civil War of our history books, the aftershocks of this seismic event stand to be felt for generations after. The resentment. The hate.


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Hey, remember Trump University? Remember how it has defrauded and swindled scores of people who invested in it based on Trump’s name and image? How come we’ve stopped talking about what a complete scam it is? (Image Credit: Trump University)

Pretty bad, huh? Wait—we’re still not done. Really. While we may poke fun at Trump’s outlandish statements and while labeling the press the enemy of the American people is a serious charge with potentially destructive consequences, to add another layer to this shit sandwich we’re being forced to digest, let’s also consider that the President’s wackiness may act as a smokescreen for other likely deleterious moves by members of his adopted party. While the lot of us were consumed with his antics at the Acosta announcement press conference, Trump’s GOP mates were at work unveiling a broad blueprint for a possible replacement to the Affordable Care Act, and it’s pretty terrible, if you ask me and other critics. Robert Pear and Thomas Kaplan, reporting for The New York Times, provide a synopsis of what this schematic entails—and what it does not. As Pear and Kaplan put forth, the yet-nameless theoretical successor to the ACA does not account for how many people may lose coverage that now have it under ObamaCare, nor does it explain how it all would be paid for. Details, shmetails, amirite?

As for what we know, for starters, Medicaid payments to the states as a function of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion would stand to be greatly reduced, in all likelihood putting a strain on state budgets and putting Americans at risk of losing coverage. Subsidies under the current law designed to help those with needs based on income would be supplanted by a fixed tax credit scheme which negates benefits based on income, instead increasing them with age. The new plan would eliminate tax penalties on those who fail to secure health coverage, and would also get rid of taxes and fees on the health insurance, pharmaceutical, and medical equipment industries, benefitting big corporations and reducing the funding pool for entitlement program benefits. Plus, there’s still nothing about preventing insurers from dropping people based on pre-existing conditions, an important and popular aspect of the Affordable Care Act. Figuratively and literally speaking, this all is, in a word, sketchy, such that average Americans—both Republican and Democrat, Trump supporters and not—stand to be hurt by a repeal. No wonder they went about this reveal relatively quietly.

There’s a word for this technique: misdirection. It’s commonly used in football, especially on trick plays. The defense keys in on the man with the ball—except he just tossed it to the wide receiver running in the backfield the opposite way! In case my analogy is unclear, Trump is the man with the ball, Republican lawmakers are the receiver who actually has the ball, and the ball is not actually a ball, but rather a deeply and intentionally flawed replacement for the ACA. Keeping with this theme, a “touchdown” is the Republican Party paying huge dividends to Big Pharma and other related industries who don’t need them, and shafting the little guy in the process. Um, yay, GO TEAM?

Conceiving of this tactic in a slightly different way, Donald Trump’s role is that of the distraction. He is free to tell obvious lies, boast about himself and his brand, and look tough as Commander-in-Chief—all while Paul Ryan and Republicans in Congress threaten to pull the proverbial rug out from under us. In a piece for ELLE Magazine, Rachel Sklar muses on this very subject, invoking the time Mike Pence went to see Hamilton on Broadway, the cast addressed him after the show, and Trump had a hissy-fit on Twitter saying those performers were being so gosh-darn mean to him. Amid this political kerfuffle which Pres. Trump himself to a considerable extent engineered, meanwhile, major shit was going on which suddenly became less visible and none the less important. Jeff “Black People Don’t Really Like to Vote, Do They?” Sessions was nominated as Attorney General. Michael “Islam Is the Devil” Flynn was appointed to be Trump’s National Security Advisor. And last but not least, the Trump Organization settled a fraud case against Trump University to the tune of $25 million. These were no small potatoes, and particular with respect to the settlement, raised serious concerns about Trump’s credibility and ethics. What a lot of people heard, however, was just the blather about Hamilton being overrated (it isn’t) and the cast being nasty to Mike Pence (they weren’t). Flash forward to today, and Sessions, despite serious concerns from Democrats about his judicial record, has been confirmed, Flynn, in light of serious concerns with his and the administration’s ties to Russia, has resigned, and talk of Trump University has been all but shelved. Are you upset yet? If not, you should be.

Lies. Misdirection. Pacing. All of this makes for a morass of manipulation on the part of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, a reality made ten times more troubling by the White House’s attempts to demonize and delegitimize the press. If it seems like one big game, the real and potentially devastating fallout from what is decided but ultimately obscured by these sales techniques should convey the sense the sum of these things should not be taken as fun and light-hearted. So, what’s the takeaway from these thoughts, other than perhaps the newfound notion that the creator of Dilbert seems like kind of a dick?

Well, let me tell you what I take away from them. First, much as the media should do their part not to rush to judgment or rush to print in the interest of journalistic integrity, we should likewise do our part to examine what we see and hear is credible, and to correct the record when we know it to be demonstrably false. You know, lest we end up like Trump claiming to be the best thing since sliced Ronald Reagan, electorally speaking. Second, we should give Trump’s antics the attention they merit as a warning of his dictatorial aspirations, but not get lost in the GOP’s shell game of disastrous policymaking. Republican lawmakers should be held accountable, and as reports are growing of Republicans ducking their constituents at scheduled town halls and other forums, the demand that they not be let of the hook becomes that more serious accordingly. Lastly, and perhaps I am in the minority in thinking this way, but stop giving Trump and the Republicans so much g-d credit. As Jason Linkins and others suggest, their parlor tricks are nothing new, and are more evocative of snake oil salesmen than masters of the media. Anyone can lie, cheat, and steal their way through life—apparently right into the Oval Office, at that. They should be admonished for this, not commended.

From what I’ve seen, confidence in Donald Trump’s brand of leadership and his ability to elevate the position of working-class America is yet quite high. But don’t be deceived or distracted. Trump and the Republican lawmakers who aid and abet his hijinks are out to f**k you over at the behest and to the benefit of the industries and wealthy individuals who help fill their coffers, and if you still don’t believe it, then I’ve got some lovely beachfront property in Nebraska with your name on it.

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