Tag Archives: self awareness

The President’s Rhetorical Style


There is still time, but at some point soon Trump’s trail of rhetorical malfeasance will deny him the legitimacy he needs to be an effective president.

After the first few weeks of the Trump Administration we can begin to see the rhetorical style he will adopt as the nation’s chief executive.  And it’s altogether unsettling because it is still mired in a rudimentary campaign style we expect leaders to abandon as chief executives.  Presidents need to act on the premise that they have the interests of the entire nation at heart.  What will work for an insurgent candidate—and Trump was a classic example—is not suited to the kind of useful bridge-building that we expect from a President.  The nation’s leader must be at least nominally respectful of the other branches of government: the courts, congress and the “fourth branch:” a free and independent press.  Presidential language is usually inclusive rather than divisive, better when talking about “us” rather than “I” or “me,” and usually aspirational rather than apocalyptic.   We want leaders to recount the myths about ourselves we want to believe.  “Making American Great Again” partly fits. But given Trump’s history, the phrase carries the stain of retreat at the very time that the American project has made enormous gains:  in LBGQ and women’s rights, economic recovery and a rising African American middle class, a more inclusive approach to health care, the rebirth of many American cities, and meaningful action to curb environmental abuses.  So for those who see social and political progress in American life, a program to make the country what it once was triggers the corollary question: what exactly is the moment in our past that you want to revisit?   Most college educated Americans are well-versed in patterns of recent history that indicated narrower opportunities for African Americans, women, and others who felt the effects of discrimination.  Is there anything that motivates this vision beyond the admirable but questionable possibility of more home-based manufacturing?

Trump’s recent rhetorical style doesn’t offer much reassurance.  Combine his sentimental search for a better past with the puzzling impulse to speak telegraphically, and there are few opportunities to amplify a coherent vision of where he wants to take the nation.  It used to be a liability to speak only in short sound bites.  Trump has tried to turn that style into a leadership asset that seemed to work best in counties with citizens who are generally less productive and less educated.1

Additional aspects of his style are now well known or will be.  Here are just three:

He is excessively self referential.  Trump has a hard time engaging values and ideas.  He clings to discussions of his actions and successes, along with those whose slights are renamed as threats.  Hence we get the rather offensive message delivered as an adolescent Tweet that “the media” are “the enemy of the American people.”  Among most American thinkers, Thomas Jefferson would been aghast to hear such a statement.

To be sure, Trump is not getting good press.  But he seems to have forgotten the old adage to not argue with people who buy ink by the barrel.

The President lacks subtlety, often veering into the realm of hyperbole.  His words now come back to him as caricatures:  “Sad!,” “disaster,” “loser,” “moron,” “bad,” “amazing,” “huge,” “sick,” and so on.  It’s a language hovering at the fringes of false dualisms.  Consider this segment from his press conference of February 16: “I inherited a mess, it’s a mess at home and abroad. A mess. Jobs are pouring out of the country. See what’s going on with all of the companies leaving. Going to Mexico and other places. Low minimum wages. Mass instability overseas no matter where you go. The Middle East, a disaster. North Korea. We’ll take care of it folks. We’ll take care of it all.”

This kind of disaster talk is the way a homeowner might first react on discovering a flooded basement.  But as President he will need to come to terms with the world as it was before Trump noticed. “Taking care of it all” is not in the cards. If ever a figure needed a sense of history and the soft touch of nuance, it is an American leader trying to govern a diverse nation.

His rhetoric signals an individual who is paradoxically needy, but not very “other directed.”  He seeks approval, but only on his terms, something that will be increasingly problematic as he is forced to maneuver within the federal establishment.  He won’t be able to “win” every time he tries.  And courtship and compromise with his competitors and opponents will have to be something he learns on the job.  He needs to start by turning himself into a better listener, reader and seeker of middle-ground solutions.

Trump is prone to scapegoating.  Defeats or setbacks always have an external cause.  Seemingly not given to self reflection, Trump redefines obstacles or criticism in terms of the venal motives of others.  And so there is a growing verbal salad of accusations made against others that comes closer to the language of webpage trolls than presidents who must cultivate a degree of forbearance.  Among the hundreds of diatribes uttered about those who have contributed to his opposition or the ostensibly weak state of the nation include, among many others: Macys (“very disloyal to me”), John McCain (“always looking to start World War III,”“sadly weak on immigration”), Mexico (“they’re killing us”), the mainstream media (“My rallies are not covered properly”), Meet the Press (“totally biased against me”), Barack Obama (“hollowing out our military”), Germany (“going through massive attacks to its people by the migrants allowed to enter the country”), Hillary Clinton (“the most corrupt person to ever run for the presidency of the United States”), and so on.  Trump’s logorea of endless persecution now runs into the hundreds (“The 307 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter: A Complete List,” New York Times, February 7, 2017).

It used to be a liability to speak only in short sound bites.  Trump has tried to turn that style into a leadership asset that seems to work best with the less productive and less educated.

True, presidents are not in the habit of public self-criticism.  But most resist the urge to find an external cause for every obstacle.  When the Obamacare first went “live” online and quickly became less than user-friendly, it was indeed the President who admitted there was a problem.  He promised a reset and moved on.

Sadly, this President doesn’t seem to recognize that his daily rhetoric throws off obvious signs of an outsized need for approval.  He seems to lack the requisite self-awareness of a fully functioning person.  So the august rhetorical tools of the presidency–among them, remaining silent in the face of criticism–mostly go unused while he entertains himself on social media and rails against cable news anchors.

There is still time, but at some point soon Trump’s trail of rhetorical malfeasance will deny him the legitimacy he needs to be an effective president.


1. Mark Muro and Sifan Liu, “Another Clinton-Trump divide: High-output America vs low-output America,” Brookings Institution , November 29, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2016/11/29/another-clinton-trump-divide-high-output-america-vs-low-output-america/



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Turing, And The Bogus Rivalry With Machine-Based Intelligence

IBM's Watson Wikipedia.org
                     IBM’s Watson           Wikipedia.org

In reality, humans have nothing to fear. Most measures of artificial intelligence use the wrong yardsticks.

We are awash in articles, books and films about the coming age of “singularity:” the point at which machines will supposedly duplicate and surpass human intelligence.  For decades it’s been the stuff of science fiction, reaching perhaps its most eloquent expression in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 motion picture, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The film is still a visual marvel. Who would have thought that Strauss waltzes and images of deep space could be so compatible?  Functionally, the waltzes have the effect of juxtaposing the familiar with a hostile void, making the film a surprising celebration of all things earthbound.  But that’s another story.

The central agent in the film is the HAL-9000 computer that begins to turn off the life support of the crew during a long voyage, mostly because it “thinks” the humans aren’t up to the enormous task facing them.

Kubrick’s vision of very smart computers is also evident in the more recent A.I., Artificial Intelligence (2001), a project started just before his death and eventually brought to the screen by Steven Spielberg.  It’s a dystopian nightmare. In the film intelligent “mechas” (mechanical robots) are generally nicer than the humans who created them.  In pleasant Haddonfield New Jersey, of all places, they are shot on sight for sport.

Fantasies of machine intelligence have lately given way to IBM’s “Big Blue” and “Watson,” mega-computers with amazing memories and—with Watson—a stunning speech recognition capability that is filtering down to all kinds of devices.  If we can talk to machines, aren’t we well on our way to singularity?

For one answer consider the Turing Test, the challenge laid down by the World War II code-breaker Alan Turing. A variation of it has been turned into a recurring world competitions.  The challenge is to construct a “chatterbot” that can pass for a human in blind side-by-side “conversations” that include real people.  For artificial intelligence engineers, the trick is to fool a panel of questioners at least 30 percent of the time over 25 minutes. According to the BBC, a recent winner was a computer from the University of Reading in the U.K. It passed itself off as a Ukrainian teen (“Eugene Goostman”) speaking English as a second language.

In actual fact, humans have nothing to fear.  Most measures of “human like” intelligence such as the Turing Test use the wrong yardsticks. These computers are never embodied. The rich information of non-verbal communication is not present, nor can it be.  Proximate human features are not enough.  For example, Watson’s “face” in its famous Jeopardy challenge a few years ago was a set of cheesy electric lights.  Moreover, these smart machines tend to be asked questions that we would ask of Siri or other informational databases.  What they “know” is often defined as a set of facts, not feelings. And, of course, these machines lack what we so readily reveal in our conversations with others: that we have a sense of self, that we have an accumulated biography of life experiences that shape our reactions and dispositions, and that we want to be understood.

Just the issue of selfhood should remind us of the special status that comes from living through dialogue with others.  A sense of self is complicated, but it includes the critical ability to be aware of another’s awareness of who we are.  If this sounds confusing, it isn’t.  This process is central to all but the most perfunctory communication transactions.  As we address others we are usually “reading” their responses in light of what we believe they already have discerned about us.  We triangulate between our  perceptions of who we are, who they are, and what they are thinking about our behavior. This all happens in a flash, forming what is sometimes called “emotional intelligence.”  It’s an ongoing form of self-monitoring that functions to oil the complex relationships. Put this sequence together, and you get a transaction that is full of feedback loops that involve estimates if intention and interest, and—frequently—a general desire born in empathy to protect the feelings of the other.

It’s an understatement to say these transactions are not the stuff of machine-based intelligence, and probably never can be.  We are not computers.  As Walter Isaacson reminds us in his recent book, The Innovators, we are carbon based creatures with chemical and electrical impulses that mix to create unique and idiosyncratic individuals.  This is when the organ of the brain becomes so much more: the biographical homeland of an experience-saturated mind.  With us there is no central processor.  We are not silicon-based. There are the nearly infinite forms of consciousness in a brain with 100-billion neurons with 100-trillion connections.  And because we often “think” in ordinary language, we are so much more—and sometimes less—than an encyclopedia on two legs.