Friday, November 18, 2016

Understanding Trump: Categories of Language

When two minds independently come to similar conclusions, or to the same conclusion, it’s worth noting. Analyzing President Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, a theme emerged amidst the seemingly infinite volume of reporting.

In September 2016, The Atlantic magazine included an article by Salena Zito titled “Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally.” Moving through various examples of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, Zito notes how the news media carefully parsed the candidate’s words and subjected them to “fact checking.”

The media’s scrutiny didn’t sync with the popular enthusiasm which met Trump’s speeches. As Zito writes,

It’s a familiar split. When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.

Whether Trump spoke of the border with Mexico or dealing with “Islamic State” terrorists in the Middle East, the voters responded to his sentiment and attitude, not to the specifics of any alleged “plan.”

Voters were not content with the rather spineless image which the Obama administration projected to other nations. The voters wanted a general feeling of a representative who would act in the interests of the average American, not an Obama-like figure who worked to cultivate a charm among foreign leaders.

Trump seemed to be someone who would work on behalf of ordinary Americans. Crowds cheered that feeling, rather than the details of particular policies.

When Trump talked about a “wall” on the border to Mexico, the news media went to work making calculations about physically building a wall; Trump’s listeners heard a metaphor - they didn’t know or care whether or not Trump would build a literal physical wall. They knew that he understood the concepts of national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Separately, another journalist, Margaret Sullivan, writing in The Washington Post in November 2016, described an interview she had with Peter Thiel:

It’s a familiar split. When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.

Just as Obama’s supporters had reacted to slogans like “Yes We Can” and “Hope and Change,” Trump’s supporters embraced the concept of a president who would act on behalf of the ordinary citizen.

Voters perceived that the Obama administration had prioritized diplomatic relationships and climate concerns over safety and prosperity. Domestic violence and international Islamic terrorism left U.S. citizens feeling unsafe. The ongoing economic doldrums of the Obama era had left Americans with lower wages and a smaller net personal worth. Margaret Sullivan writes:

And although many journalists and many news organizations did stories about the frustration and disenfranchisement of these Americans, we did not take them seriously enough.

The voters wanted a change of leadership. They didn’t really care whether or not a wall was built along the Rio Grande. But they wanted someone who spoke, and who would act, with directness:

Again speaking of the news media, Sullivan writes:

Although we touched down in the big red states for a few days, or interviewed some coal miners or unemployed autoworkers in the Rust Belt, we didn’t take them seriously. Or not seriously enough.

Voters really don’t care about the nuts-and-bolts of some policy decision. Analysts for newspapers and television networks tend to wrestle with statistics, definitions, and technicalities. The average citizens simply want to know that someone is looking out for them.

That’s why the endless hand-wringing on the editorial pages and opinions shows didn’t bother the voters. Many who voted for Trump didn’t take seriously many of his statements:

A lot of voters think the opposite way: They take Trump seriously but not literally.

What voters embraced in Trump was a simple premise: that a government should act on behalf of its citizens. The ordinary citizens want government which will protect their lives, their liberties, and their property.

Obama had failed to create the impression that he was doing that. Hillary failed to create the impression that she would do that.

Trump signalled that he would watch out for American lives, liberties, and economic opportunities. The details might be fuzzy, exaggerated, inexact, or nonexistent. But the voters didn’t care about the details.