Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Sticking the Landing

Because any modern language is functionally an open-ended system–there are nearly infinite ways to mix words to convey meaning–it’s remarkable that we can (mostly) express what we mean.

We’ve all seen videos of planes landing on a windy runway:  Seemingly down. . . then not quite down. . . veering to the right and then the left. . . and finally down. The phrase “sticking the landing” is common to both pilots and gymnasts.  Both want to land in the right spot. Verbalizing thoughts on the fly is a cognitive version of the kind of precarious act.  Successfully explaining ourselves in the space of mere seconds is a marvel of mind-body coordination.  Every word reflects a choice.  Do we go for a literal description, or one that is metaphoric?  Should our words be a first person report, an act of truth telling? How much detail is enough?  And will a colorful word quickly plucked out of the air give the wrong impression?

Especially in front of others we are conscious that the laydown of language that is still to come needs a attention. We pre-verbalize. And most of us are remarkably good at what then follows most of the time.

To sense this fluency-on-the-fly watch a four or five year old explain themselves.  We can almost see their little brains putting it all together.  Eyes get wide and their focus becomes intense as they search for the right combinations of words, grammar and syntax.  It’s always a treat to see grandkids find pathways for their ideas.

Kids acquire this capacity at the speed of a SpaceX rocket. Language is a culture’s gift to it’s young.  But fluency itself is a life-long quest, mixing memory and experience with synergies that grow with larger vocabularies and refined understandings of how to use them.

Some of this prowess  begins to ebb in old age.  And some among us never fully master the task of linking impulses to coherent expressions. Consider, for example, the rhetoric of a few presidents.  George W. Bush was known for coming close to what he wanted to express, sometimes settling on phrasing or dependent clauses that trailed some loose ends.  As he knew, the results could be funny.  Here’s a few Bushisms from their official custodian, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg:

1. "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."—Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004

2. "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family."—Greater Nashua, N.H., Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 27, 2000

3. "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"—Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 20004. 

4."Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB/GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across the country."—Poplar Bluff, Mo., Sept. 6, 2004

“Sticking the landing” can be hard for all of us.  Using the wrong acronym, I once explained to students that “unexploded IUD’s” were a particular problem in places like Afghanistan. They humored me by not bursting out in laughter.

What is interesting about presidents is that they leave a clearer record of their rhetorical misdeeds.  Listen to a collection of Trump teleprompter gaffes that he tries to correct by doing what amounts to some freelance riffing after the wrong word has been said.  He usually works sideways to get back up to the term he intended to use, like a jazz musician trying to turn a wrong note into a useful improvisation.

Donald Trumps teleprompter trick or is it a tic MSNBC

Donald Trumps teleprompter trick or is it a tic

President Obama was more conscious of word choice. He often spoke like an academic, sometimes using tedious pauses while he searched his brain for the phrase or word. To achieve this kind of fluency, Obama had to speak more slowly than the human norm of about 200 words a minute.  He gave up a certain glibness for the advantages of more precision.  It’s now apparent that some of us miss the rhetoric of such a laser mind.  Others relish the circus of visceral responses that now issue from the West Wing.

Even so, let’s not let the impurity of political rhetoric taint what remains a miraculous capability spread far and wide across the species.

Negative Models

Trump is an easy and often deserving target.  A President who flouts traditions, protocols and courtesies cannot help but turn himself into a negative model.

Designers of public health campaigns work to produce ads or billboards urging Americans to quit or reduce behaviors that have serious effects. They will usually use one of two persuasion strategies: a message built around positive images of people doing the right thing, or an approach using negative images that are supposed to motivate their targets to change. This second “fear drive” strategy means that the message will display examples of the problem the campaign is designed to remedy.  The “dissonance” created between the problematic and the preferred behavior is meant to create a kind of mental stress that is relieved if a person complies. If smoking around children is the issue, the central image may portray a child in a fog of smoke. If texting and driving is the problem, show what it looks like in a way that emphasizes the risks.  In all cases the final “tag” of the campaign is some form of “Don’t!”

This fear drive approach entails some form of what is called “negative modeling.”  An image of a person reading his phone while driving is used on the hope that the image is self-evidently risky. By contrast, a positive modeling approach would most likely show something like an alert driver with two hands on the steering wheel and a load of kids in the backseat. The image models the solution, and the kids are a reminder of what’s at stake.

My students love to develop fear-drive messages. Their campaigns typically give us images of students sprawled on a bathroom floor in their own vomit (“Give up binge-drinking”), children in the thrall of a video screen (“Limit screen-time for children”), or abused farm animals (“Eat less meat”). But here’s the problem.  Even these images are not as obvious as we might assume.  People don’t “read” messages in uniform ways.  And this can lead to a condition that is the black death of health campaigns. It’s called “norming the problem.” This happens when a member of the target audience tacitly accepts even negative visual representations as routine or ordinary. If that interpretation applies, the target won’t be persuaded. The problematic behavior no longer carries a stigma.

Trump Models the Wrong Values.

All of this brings me to the President.  We ought to be concerned about how his insurgent and norm-busting behavior is “read” by Americans.  To many of us, the man in the White House surely is the problem.  After all, the president is traditionally the first symbol of government that is acquired by young children. The slights, personal attacks and the violation of simple courtesies model the wrong values.

But for some Americans fed up with politics and politicians, the trashing of these norms is part of Donald Trump’s appeal. Insurgencies feed off of feelings of alienation. Conventional wisdom has it that many of the economically or politically disenfranchised share his “drain the swamp” impulses clearly signaled in his calculated disrespect. Think of something as apparently fulfilling as as a demolition derby on a warm August night. The mayhem has a certain appeal.

To be sure, the impulse to rhetorically trash core American institutions is hardly new.  Think of the Watts riots, the Detroit rebellion, and anti-war skirmishes throughout the 1960s and into the 70s. We often understood and even celebrated the messages they sent. Or think of the biting satire in media left and right that mocks banks, universities, the White House, Congress and industries like “big oil.”  Right now many Americans are not in the mood to acknowledge  the virtues of institutional effectiveness. It’s no longer as easy to honor institutions that prior generations rightly cherished.

Trump is both the beneficiary and victim of this national state of mind.  He brings out the Howard Beale in a lot of people (Network, 1976). For many, his disruptions are just fine.

At the same time, he is also an easy and deserving target.  A President who routinely ignores traditions and conventional protocols cannot help but turn himself into a negative model.  Aside from many in the GOP, few corporations or public institutions would tolerate his lies and digital rants.  And so a troubling question remains:  Have we entered a new phase in our civic space that elevates incivility?  Has Trump “normed” the Presidency downward? Will we ever be able to reclaim and celebrate the kind of generous persona that was evident in presidents like Gerald Ford or Barack Obama: leaders who respected diversity, honored supporters and critics alike, and embodied the values of reflection and tempered judgment?