Tag Archives: presidency

The Frail ‘Rules’ of Rhetorical Courtesy

It may be possible to briefly escape to a theater to witness old video clips displaying the grace and decency of Fred Rogers, but we still must return to the daily spew of an insecure and needy leader.

Periodically civil discourse in the United States withers. The remarks of some public officials are intemperate and too many are compliant. Those of us who have been around awhile remember Alabama Governor George Wallace’s 1963 declaration of segregation “forever:” certainly a low point in the American project.  More commonly, agitation for change motivates activists to defy the rhetorical norms of social discourse in favor of the rougher ‘music’ of personal condemnation, leaving little room for finding middle ground. There have always been moments in our history when this kind of incivility gains the upper hand: for example, in the vilification of President Lincoln by even the abolitionist press, or during the 1968 presidential campaign, when tensions over the Vietnam War, racial injustice and the assassinations of MLK and RFK brought the melting pot to a boil.

We are in another such period.  But this time the challenge to civil order has not originated from angry newspaper editors or youthful marchers in the streets of Chicago, but from the single agent of the Commander-in-Chief.  The President of the United States is a full-time social disruptor with an unhelpful penchant for trashing core values in the American canon.  Listening matters less than judging. Arguments with evidence are not worth the time.  Facts and even prior statements are disowned.  Self-promotion dominates over self-reflection.  Our best political norms emphasizing tolerance and a degree of generosity have never seemed more frail.

Americans are living through a virtual festival of rhetorical abuse unmatched by any other president. 

If we were unprepared for how silent the Constitution and the President’s party can be in reining in a chronic norms-breaker, many Americans have been stunned by the almost daily verbal slights and discourtesies Donald Trump shows toward ordinary citizens, neighbors, trading partners, immigrants, the press, and especially the nation’s traditional allies.  It seems that women who lead our most important international partners are especially in for unhealthy doses of disrespect.  Germany, led by Angela Merkel, is our most powerful ally; Britain is our closest. It was a breathtaking violation of international norms to hear a President dressing down a British Prime Minister Theresa May in an interview given within hours of meeting her face to face.  He noted in Britain’s Sun that, among other things, a rival within her own party would make a good prime minister, making a mockery of his role as her guest.  (He later offered kinder words, like a sullen teen asked to ”make an effort;” it’s a recurring pattern where Trump is forced by his handlers to issue a rhetorical corrective.)

It was just a few years ago we heard a very different message in a 2012 joint statement released jointly by Barack Obama and then Prime Minister David Cameron:

"The alliance between the United States and Great Britain is a partnership of the heart, bound by history, traditions and values we share.  But what makes our relationship special--a unique and essential asset--is that we join hands across so many endeavors.  Put simply, we count on each other and the world counts on our alliance."

Americans are living through a virtual festival of rhetorical abuse unmatched by any other president.  Not even an old Marx Brother movie can match the rude assaults dished out by the former reality show personality.  It’s as if we have been locked in a dingy bar with an insult comic who won’t leave the stage. It may be possible to briefly escape to a theater to witness old video clips displaying the grace and decency of Fred Rogers, but we still must return to the daily spew of a fearful and needy leader.

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?