Tag Archives: presidency

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?

The Oppositional Turn

Source: White House photographer Pete Souza
Obama comforting a Hurricane Sandy Victim Source: White House Photographer: Pete Souza

 Almost all of the energy in our public rhetoric is reserved for unmasking what appears to many as the unjustified and self-serving optimism of political elites.

Anyone listening to any past president surely noticed that their public rhetoric was in a distinctly different key. Assuming that Donald Trump is a one-off anomaly, presidents speak in major chords that emphasize positivity, success, praise, enduring values, and always a degree of hope.  It’s the nature of the office to be affirming.  But such rhetoric is increasingly at odds with the sour and minor keys that tend to dominate the ‘rough music’ that comes with significant national and political events. It can hardly be news that irony and suspicion rule our airwaves, talk shows, blogs, news sites, and twitter feeds.

It’s clear to anyone who is listening that we live in an era dominated by oppositional rhetoric. The cultural voices that command the greatest attention are mostly reactive, negative and frequently vitriolic.  Almost of this energy goes into unmasking what appears to so many as the unjustified and self-serving optimism of political and corporate elites.  Increasingly, the negativity of the internet troll looks less like an isolated aberration than a new and durable rhetorical norm.  As a younger student of political communication in the 1970s, I don’t recall seeing the plethora of books asserting presidential conspiracies than can now be found among the “new releases” on the shelves of our public libraries.  And there is, of course, the current President’s daily vitriol.

How did we get here?  A bit of this effect is a matter of perception. The democratization of news gathering—or at least news commentary—means we hear less from official voices and more from dissenters.  Presidents can no longer easily command broadcasters to turn over prime time for an important speech.  The media competition for attention is too great. At the same time, more of our informational sources have merged straight reporting of public events with the entertainment imperative of centering a program on a host who can issue slicing rebukes. We expect our news with the twist of irony that comes easily in The Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, or online outlets like Slate or Salon.com.  As for talk radio: outside of NPR, no one seems to want to sound like a good-government wonk from Minnesota. A surer route to success is to become the audio equivalent of a professional wrestler tossing unworthy adversaries over the ropes.

In actual fact, as psychologist Stephen Pinker has noted in The Better Angels of Our Nature (Penguin, 2012), we are a somewhat more compassionate society than the one our ancestors knew. But it also seems apparent that we have less interest in advocates motivated to find common ground in civil discourse. This splintering of the culture is thus partly the effect of more decentralized and polarized news media, but it’s also caused by a cultural turn away from the communitarian trope that was proudly uttered in defense of significant advances in social welfare legislation following World War II.  The G.I. Bill, Social Security, and the civil rights acts of the mid-1960s were milestones as enactments of this value, which could be summarized as broad support to use the political resources of the nation for the benefit of all. In this common pre-Reagan belief, government was the solution, not the problem.

The challenge posed by the newer turn toward a more atomized and suspicious culture is whether we and other western democracies can maintain a sense of shared national destiny.  With a fragmented nation now served by fragmented media, finding what unites us is more difficult. That search is compounded by the fact that we no longer pay much attention to Presidents, even when they yearned to be the poets of our national spirit.