Countering Trump’s Twitter Distractions

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Editor’s Note: In President Barack Obama’s final two press conferences and his farewell address from Chicago, he advised Democrats to learn how to talk to average, working people like the ones who voted for Donald Trump. Now there is an academic who has solid advice for how to do just that, George Lakoff.

Watch this video of a recent interview with Travis Smiley on PBS.

Professor of Cognitive Science, George Lakoff

He also publishes a blog on his website with sage advice on media framing and other topics. Here is the most recent entry.

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Trump seemed particularly incensed by reports and parodies about chief strategist Steve Bannon being the actual decision-maker in the White House.

By George Lakoff –

The net has been drawing closer around Trump’s Russian connections. His unwavering support for America’s major enemy has raised a question: Is Treason the Reason?

The Tax Return issue has become a treason issue. The tax returns could show if Trump is deeply in debt to Russians or if he is involved in illegal financial activity. He might clear suspicions by releasing the returns.

The longer he refuses to do so, the greater the suspicion gets. Jeff Sessions’ recusal made Trump furious because it meant that Sessions could no longer protect him from an independent Justice Department investigation, if there were to be one. If Sessions is forced to resign, the net gets that much tighter. Of course, in addition to releasing the tax returns, Trump should support a full and independent investigation to clear up all questions about his Russia contacts.

In the midst of this, Trump created a distraction: accusing Obama of wiretapping the Trump Tower, with no evidence. Faced with the biggest scandal in American history – presidential treason – Trump, with a tweet, accuses Obama of a scandal bigger than Watergate.

Trump’s tweets are strategic. I analyzed the tweets on NPR’s On the Media, and a diagram has been shared widely on social media and also appeared in the Washington Post.

Trump’s tweet is a doozy. It is an example of all four of Trump’s strategies.

Pre-emptive Framing: He frames first. He creates a new presidential scandal – Obama’s wiretapping — an accusation without evidence, and with all evidence against it.

Deflection: He puts the onus on his squeaky-clean predecessor.

Diversion: The press bit and the diversion worked. It generated headlines questioning whether Obama, rather than Trump, had committed wrongdoing.
The diversion worked, at least temporarily.

Trial Balloon: Will the public accept it, or listen to a discussion of it long enough to distract the press and the public from the treason issue?

The media is still focused on the false accusation, not on the investigation of Trump’s Russian connections and the treason issue. (Of course, the growing nature of the scandal is making it harder and harder for Trump to pivot away from his Russia problem)

Pretty effective tweet. But it gets more effective.

It put the press and those from the Obama administration in the position of denying the accusation — of repeating the accusation by questioning it and negating it — like saying Obama is not a crook. The more the press discusses it, the more Obama is associated with the idea of wiretapping Trump, thus strengthening Trump’s claim in the minds of the public by denying the claim, or asking for evidence of the claim. Meanwhile, Trump’s minions are associating Obama with Watergate by repeating “What did he know and when did he know it?” This question is what brought Nixon down. They can keep this up for a long time.

And worse: This is not just a diversion from the treason issue. It’s also a diversion from what Trump’s cabinet, with the help of Paul Ryan, is doing under the cover of the diversion: denying healthcare to millions, taking away public protections we have all depended on by defunding the EPA, allowing drugs to go on the market without being tested for safety and efficacy, taking away protections from investors, and on and on.

The wiretap tweet was not crazy or manic – it was strategic. And when the press treats tweets as “breaking news” it just plays out the Trump strategy.


George Lakoff is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1972. First published here: Trump’s Twitter Distraction.

© 2017, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.