Trump continues to use fear appeals and scare tactics when it comes to Muslims and terror. And while he is minimally effective – and getting less so every day – his supporters are sympathetic others who are increasingly misinformed about terror and Islam. A piece of video footage showing Trump supporters at a rally had one fellow screaming at another that Islam was an “ideology.” The point was that Islam is a nefarious set of beliefs and practices designed to manipulate you into its belief system.
The dilemma here is that defining Islam as violent justifies an armed response when, in fact, the only response that will be effective is a long-term war of ideas pitting *Islamist extremism against liberal democracies. As Gutmann and Thompson have claimed in their highly recommended book Democracy and Disagreement,“of the challenges that American democracy faces today, none is more formidable than the problem of moral disagreement.” In other words, those who have sacred values and are what Scott Atran calls “devoted actors” rather than “rational actors” pose the biggest challenge to liberal democracies because conflicts over fundamental values are so resistant to resolution. You cannot simply subject the moral disagreement to the rational calculations of the marketplace.
But if wanton murder of men, women, and children is so fundamental to Islam why is it such a recent phenomenon on the world stage? Why doesn’t “jihadism” as it has come to be known have long history? Typically, Islamist terror is first associated with the 1979 Iranian revolution. But even the Iranian revolution can be analyzed as a clash of political ideologies where Islamists attach themselves to religious sounding terminology (“infidels,” “holy wars,” “party of God”) in order to give themselves religious justification.
It is true enough that Islamism is really a totalitarian movement that has hijacked some religious terminology in an effort to alter traditional Islam and challenge Western democracies. But Boroumand and Boroumand writing in the Journal of Democracy make the following emphatic statement and I quote in full:
“There is in the history of Islam no precedent for the utterly unrestrained violence of Al Qaeda or Hezbollah… To kill oneself while wantonly murdering women, children, and people of all religions and descriptions… has nothing to do with Islam and one does not have to be a learned theologian to see this… The truth is that contemporary Islamist terror is an eminently modern practice thoroughly at odds with Islamic traditions and ethics” (p.6).
I don’t mean to imply that traditional Islamic religious teachings hold an inclusive democratic vision for the world or that it resonates with contemporary ideas about liberal democracies and human rights. But the long view of any religious evolution has it moving toward a widening circle of inclusion and dignity for others. As of now, there are more than a few Islamic countries that are pluralistic but have no political concept of “pluralism.” For this reason they define rigid group boundaries and more nascent forms of control.
But as with most of the issues in this election, Trump is not the answer to anything.
*Terminology note: I use “Islamist” or “Islamism” to refer to those extreme groups or ideologies that justify violence and cherry pick the Koran to give their ideology a religious sounding façade. The term “Islamic” refers to the long political, religious, and scholarly tradition of institutional Islam.
When Donald Trump proposed that Ghazala Khan – the Muslim Goldstar mother of Captain Humayun Khan who was killed in Iraq – was not allowed to speak, ostensibly because of Muslim sexist control of women, he dehumanized Mrs. Khan. Interestingly, Trump dehumanized Mrs. Khan by assuming that Islam was responsible for her dehumanization thus projecting the issue to the foreground.
To “dehumanize” someone is typically thought of as portraying the other person as uncivilized and animal-like. It has historically been used to explain the psychological changes in individuals during times of war or atrocity. In order for genocide and mass murder to take place the perpetrator must see his enemy as less than human and thereby more deserving of being killed. And, dehumanization helps perpetrators justify their behavior since they are not taking the life of a “real” human being.
But in recent decades researchers have been more interested in subtle forms of dehumanization in which human characteristics (such as emotions) are denied to some other individual or group. This can happen on an individual as well as group basis. Freedom of expression, for example, is considered a natural “human” right and it is “dehumanizing” to deny the right. Most research is on racial and ethnic groups. For example, studies show that the association of one ethnic group with an animal (e.g. Blacks with apes) causes significant perceptual distortions such as the overestimation of children ages and criminal culpability. Such research helps explain police violence and the disparities of police violence toward different groups (for a review of dehumanization research see Haslam and Stratemeyer).
Immigrants and asylum-seekers are also dehumanized (Trump calling Mexicans coming over the border “rapists” and “drug dealers”) as well as an increasing number of groups such as psychiatric patients, homeless people, gay men, and older adults. Although dehumanization is related to stereotypes, they are not equivalent since it is possible to stereotype without dehumanizing and vice versa. Moreover, keep in mind that “super humanizing” someone is equally as dehumanizing since it defines them as “other than human.” The ascription of superhuman physical or sexual qualities to an ethnic group diminishes the recognition of their experience of pain and their capacities for sensitivity.
The consequences of dehumanizing are serious and persistent. More than a few studies report how dehumanization leads to increased punishment because offenders are considered less than human, as well as the endorsement of extralegal behavior such as torture for terrorists. Trump’s dehumanization of Mrs. Khan perpetuated a stereotype designed to challenge the authenticity of their sacrifice, and to categorize the Khans in such a way as to make them less deserving of sympathy. Individuals or groups who are dehumanized are assumed to be less worthy of respect and conciliation.
The combination of stereotypes and dehumanization makes for an explosive mixture producing distorted perceptions and easy justification of violence. But even in situations where violence is less implicated (the Trump example) there is a sort of psychological violence that makes it easier to overlook or ignore the potential for aggression and cognitive distortions.
The below was first posted in March of 2014. Thought it would have new interest given events in Turkey.
The photograph above is of Fethullah Gulen who Victor Gaetan writing in Foreign Affairs compared to the Muslim Martin Luther. Interestingly, I have been writing a little bit about Gulen recently in a book that I’m finishing up and during my research I had become a little intrigued with Gulen. You can find the article in Foreign Affairs here.
A typical descriptive statement about Islam over the last decade is that it never experienced a Reformation. It is true enough that Sufi-ism and scholars such as Said Nursi inspired new more humane schools of thought but they remain marginalized. Much of Islam, not all, is harsh and rooted in the political and military conditions of the ancient world and there has never been a moderation of these tenets by a Muslim Martin Luther. There has never been a Muslim Reformation. Martin Luther was an influential and controversial figure in the Christian Reformation movement. He was responsible for entire new lines of thinking in Christianity and set in motion a sort of enlightenment. Luther had a desire for people to feel closer to God and this led him to translate the Bible into the language of the people, radically changing the relationship between church leaders and their followers. Martin Luther is generally associated with rooting out corruption, preventing religion from being used as a tool for political power, and humanizing the church his anti-Semitism notwithstanding.
Even at the risk of exaggeration, many feel the contemporary version of the Muslim Martin Luther is Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is a Turk who has been in the United States since 1999. He has worked to promote a modern school of Islam and is an Islamic intellectual committed to secular education, economic development, democracy, and acceptance of scientific knowledge.
Gulen has taught that Islam should devote more energy to public service and be separated from politics as much as possible. His emphasis on helping others and doing good deeds in the community is consistent with much Koranic teaching and directs attention away from political organization. This is in sharp contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood whose ascendancy in the last half-century has argued that the state should be Islamic and armed struggle is a moral and spiritual obligation. Moreover, Gulen is committed to education, including science and math, and has over 1000 schools around the world with video and instructional material made easily available to students.
As you might imagine, Gulen is not popular with modern-day Islamists. He has been exiled in the United States for many years and clashed with Erdogan over foreign-policy and authoritarian politics. Gulen is a strong supporter of democratic dialogue and he has chastised Turkey and other Islamic countries for poor treatment of journalists and a failure to engage sufficient constituencies over issues such as the Gezi Park protests.
The Gulen movement upholds numerous liberal conditions such as the belief in the intellect and the fact that individuals are characterized by free will and responsibility to others. Not all of Islam divides the world up into categories such as dar al-harb (the house of war) and dar al-Islam (the house of peace) but understands humans as more coherent and integrated. A verse in the Koran states that “there is no compulsion in religion” which emphasizes the individual intellect and freedom of choice.
Gulen is both careful and brave. He will not be intimidated and continues to speak up even in the face of the easy violence that could confront him. While Erdogan continues to clamp down on Turkey with Internet censorship and control of the judiciary, Gulen continues to infuse Islam with the teachings of tolerance and democratic sensibility.
Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have to get over their aversion to loss. This is difficult because research on cognitive processing and decision-making indicates that people fear loss more than they value gain. Both sides have tried to minimize loss rather than take the risks of possible gains. The two-state solution – whose death is premature and has been exaggerated – will require both sides to operate against their natural inclinations.
But the two-state solution is the only real answer. It’s the only way both groups maintain their identity and have the opportunity to cultivate their own history, culture, and literature. And it certainly is the only way Israel remains democratic and Jewish. There is no way Israel can be a reasonably ethical liberal state if it has to lord over a minority group that challenges the nature of the state and whose religion and national history is contrary to the state. Below is an abbreviated account of some basic assumptions and principles that will facilitate the establishment of two states. Again, for this to work both sides have to orient toward gain rather than loss. For more and related information see the Quartet report.
- The Israelis and the Palestinians must begin by mutually agreeing and understanding that peace and solutions to their problems cannot be achieved with force. They can only be achieved by consistent recognition of both sides and freedom from violence.
- Both sides should reaffirm the unacceptability of acquiring territory by force. This includes the settlements whose legal standing might be a matter of argument but clearly are a serious threat to any comprehensive peace.
- The matter of refugees must be settled and both sides will lose a little. Israel will provide compensation and readmit a small number of people, and the Palestinians will surely not flood the state of Israel with large numbers of descendants and families claiming property rights.
- Efforts at Palestinian state building must be recognized and supported by international organizations as well as Israel. Palestine must make progress on the matter of developing institutions (educational, cultural, state) that are stable and consistent with the constitution of the state.
- The two sides must solve the problem such that it is an “end of conflict” status. In other words, they need to satisfy the obligations and expectations of both sides and resolve any questions of recognition, political status, and legitimate demands. This includes a negotiated end of conflict including issues related to refugees, borders, and legal standing. This end of conflict status will be based on the following issues:
- All planks of a negotiated end of conflict are facilitative of the desire to establish democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous states.
- Clear recognition of borders along the 1967 border guidelines with the acceptance of agreed-upon exchanges and swaps.
- Specified security arrangements.
- Rigorous control of terrorism.
- An agreement as to the status of Jerusalem which might include sharing Jerusalem as the capital of two states.
- Firm and fair agreements on outstanding issues related to water, electricity, and environmental concerns.
- Firm restraints on the incitement of violence.
For some period of time after negotiated agreements the two polities will engage in trust and confidence building designed to develop an atmosphere of cooperation. The two sides will work to achieve the full potential and possibilities of neighborly relations. This will include the development, for example, of trade and educational exchanges as well as systematic efforts to learn about the other culture.
Of course, many of these will be difficult to achieve and there will always be those who claim naïveté with respect to actually solving this prototypical intractable conflict. But if you have another way, show me.
One of the divides that has emerged more starkly from the Brexit debate and the candidacy of Donald Trump is the distinction between elite and popular discourse. Just being overly general for the moment, elite discourse is most associated with the educated and professional classes and is characterized by what is considered to be acceptable forms of argument, the use of evidence, the recognition of complexity, and articulation. Popular discourse is more ethnopolitical and nationalistic. It is typically characterized by binary thinking, a simpler and more reductive understanding of the issue, and an ample amount of cognitive rigidity makes it difficult to change attitudes. To be sure, this is a general characterization because both genres are capable of each.
Still, consistent with the well-known polarization of society is the withdrawal of each side into a comfortable discourse structure where the two codes are increasingly removed from one another and the gap between them cannot be transcended very easily.
Additionally, elite and popular discourses share some different sociological and economic orientations. Elites are more cosmopolitan and popular is more local and nationalistic. Elites live in more urban centers and are comfortable with and exposed regularly to diversity. Those who employ more popular discourse tend to live in smaller towns and are more provincial. They seem to resist cultural change more and are less comfortable with diversity.
These two orientations toward language divide the leave-remain vote over Brexit and the electorate that characterizes the differences between Clinton and Trump. But this distinction is more than a socioeconomic divide that reflects some typical differences between people. It symbolizes the polarization currently characterizing American politics and has the potential to spiral into dangerous violence as the “popular” form of discourse becomes more “nationalistic.” It lowers the quality of public discourse and typically degenerates into even more rigid differences and stereotypical exemplars of elite and popular discourse. Nationalist discourse substitutes close minded combativeness for elite debate which can be passionate but is geared toward deliberative conversation that can be constructive. Nationalism is the deep sense of commitment a group has to their collective including territory, history and language. When national “consciousness” sets in then one nation is exalted and considered sacred and worthy of protection even in the face of death. Trump’s catchphrase “make America great again” or “let’s take our country back” or his appeals to separation and distinctiveness by building walls that clearly demark “us” and “them” are all examples of a nationalist consciousness that glorifies the state.
The nationalism espoused by Trump and the “leave” camp during Britain’s vote on the EU question are the primary impediments to consolidating, integrating, and strengthening democracies. All states with any sort of diverse population must establish a civil order that protects those populations; that is, no society will remain integrated and coherent if it does not accommodate ethnic diversity. At the moment, Trump’s rhetoric is divisive and representative of a tribal mentality that clearly wants to separate in many ways various communities in the US. Trump’s references to Mexicans, Jews, Muslims, for example betrays his own nationalistic sentiments.
The two ways to handle ethnic diversity are either pluralistic integration or organizational isolation of groups. Isolating and separating groups is inherently destabilizing and foment ripe conditions for violence. Building a wall and making determinations about who can enter the United States and who can’t are all examples of isolating groups. Intensifying nationalist discourse and the privileging of rights for a dominant group is fundamentally unsustainable.
This gap in the United States between an elite discourse and the nationalist discourse has grown wider and deeper. Each side snickers at the other’s orientation toward language and communication and continues the cycle by reinforcing the superiority of his own discursive position.
The results of the most recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll are in and the news is certainly good for Hillary. She leads Trump by double digits and he seems to be declining precipitously. In a head-to-head matchup Clinton leads Trump 51% to 39% among registered voters.The results are informative and the poll also shows some interesting data that should be useful for Hillary.
If you are a Republican hoping to defeat Hillary Clinton in the fall you must be pretty dispirited. I mean Hillary is beatable – or at least it appears she was beatable. Her high negatives coupled with all the people who dislike her for reasons justified or not seemed at one point insurmountable. But then along comes the Republican Party and they behave the way the Democrats usually do. That is, when they want to form a firing squad they get into a circle. No political party choice has been so tin-eared about the temperament and qualifications of a candidate since McCain chose Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. Let’s take a closer look at the numbers and what they probably or potentially mean.
The most troubling data in the survey for Hillary is the net “new direction” data which indicate that 56% of those polled would like to set the nation on a new direction. This makes it difficult for Hillary to identify herself with the President and as a candidate that will continue Obama’s policies. But on the other hand, President Obama’s approval ratings at 56% are higher than since the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Obama is more popular than Bush was during the last days of his presidency. So using the President during the campaign – dependent of course on audiences and context – will generally be a safe bet for Hillary.
Just about two thirds of Americans think Trump is unqualified to be President. They believe his temperament is insufficiently stable and his comments about ethnic groups and women are unacceptable. It doesn’t matter if such comments are defined as racist or “politically incorrect” because his comments are considered inappropriate. The intensity of criticism for an opponent does not have to rise to racism; inappropriate is good enough. It marks the user as insensitive at best and incompetent at worst with no facility for basic civility or contextual awareness.
The majority of the populace considers Trump unqualified and astounding 64% do not believe he has the credentials to be President. Still, there’s a group of people who consider Trump unqualified for the job and disapprove of his comments about women, minorities, and Muslims but they plan to vote for him anyway. These are the people composed of two characteristics: extreme Obama hate which means they’ll vote for anybody who isn’t Obama or is associated politically with Obama, and those who want the country to move in a new direction. Hillary can probably safely pay little mind to one of these groups. The Obama haters are probably tinged with a little racism (at best) and it would be difficult to make progress with them.
But she has to convince the electorate that things are going to change for the better and new directions are in the offing. Hillary is the establishment candidate and easily defined as just “more of the same.” She shares an elite form of discourse with Obama and those of her politically competent generation which stands in contrast to Trump’s populism. Then again, she has Trump’s bumbling verbosity working to her advantage; that is, Trump could capitalize on the populist message if he knew how to communicate it. But my guess is Trump will continue to fail his party and his supporters by refusing to understand the difference between himself and his message. He will substitute authenticity for communicative effectiveness. And for Hillary to move toward stronger identification with supporters she should convince them that “she is with them” rather than “they are with her.”
How Group Membership Distorts Political Thinking and the Impossibility of Quality Political Communication
Watching citizens yell at one another during debates and political discussion has reminded me of something more than the loss of civility. It prompts me to recall the distorted communication that occurs so often during political conversation. These distortions in meaning and argument result from the ingroup mentality of belonging to a particular political party. People cling to their own beliefs as driven by reasoned analysis of the real world while the beliefs of others are the result of ideology, emotions, and biases. We easily divide political rivals into simplistic binary categories: red states or blue states, Democrats vs. Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Add to this the combustible mix of bloggers, talk radio hosts, and TV pundits and political discourse becomes hot and hostile rather than deliberative and respectful. Actually, labeling oneself as a member of a preferred group (e.g. “I am a conservative” or “I am a Democrat”) is dangerous and results in information distortions.
Party identifications are the result of people categorizing themselves as a member of an ingroup defined by certain characteristics. By categorizing myself as say “a Republican” I adopt characteristics of similar others, and embrace a list of appropriate beliefs and behaviors. I start to speak and behave in ways that I believe are consistent with my membership in this group called “Republicans.” When my group membership is coupled with motivations to enhance my own group’s self esteem, then I will produce favorable judgments and evaluations about my own ingroup, and unfavorable evaluations about outgroups. Thus, as a Republican I would consider myself a patriot and Democrats as socialists. This is a dangerous situation that produces serious errors and failings in political discourse. Let’s examine a few.
One thing that happens with strong group identification is that the social norms of that group become overly influential. If I identify as a “Democrat” then I will be more than usually influenced by how I imagine Democrats think and behave despite the merits of an issue. I will be more influenced by party membership than policy. In one research study Democrats and Republicans were given a policy statement and told that the policy was supported by either a majority of Democrats or Republicans. Subjects in the study disproportionately favored a policy when it was identified with their own political party. This means that political judgment is too influenced by group identification and not sufficiently the result of objective consideration and analysis.
Secondly, being a member of a political party causes partisans to make biased conclusions. People explain and judge political behavior on the basis of their own political worldviews. Hence, a conservative when confronted with someone from poor economic circumstances will easily attribute this to laziness or lack of ability where a liberal will cite unfavorable social circumstances. Again, the explanations for political events should be based on deep consideration of issues and more complexity (many things explain poor economic circumstances), not simply on consistency with my own group’s ideology.
Excessive suspicion and negativity toward politicians is a third bias of political party membership. During the healthcare debate Obama was called a socialist and even likened to Hitler (a strange confluence of political ideologies!). These extreme negative judgments about a politician’s character result when a politician from the other party (the outgroup) presents a position inconsistent with your own group’s position. Under these circumstances there is a tendency to exaggerate differences and attribute personal blame to the other.
Finally, political party favoritism has a strong emotional reaction because partisans are so motivated to favor their own group. For Democrats, their strong negative emotional reaction to George W. Bush diminished their ability to arrive at logical conclusions. If Bush was for something, Democrats were against it.
The healthcare debate, for example, has to be won on its merits. The above problems can be overcome by increased communicative contact with members of the other party and a widening of goals such that people see themselves more interdependently. Proper political communication is difficult and challenging but given the alternative it is a challenge we must meet.
I hear plenty of people blurt out that Hillary Clinton is “untrustworthy” or “they don’t like her” or even that she is a “liar.” But when I press them on this, when I say give me examples and ask them to explain why in any detail they usually can’t tell you. The least prepared will say something like, “I don’t know, I just don’t like her.” (That’s a compelling analysis!) Others will rush to the examples of her email or Benghazi, or if they’re old enough they will mention Whitewater and Vince Foster. These are all attacks on Hillary Clinton designed to damage her even though they have no basis in truth or blaming her is unjustified. It is about time she combats this image with more enthusiasm. The below is as good start and is re-posted from The Guardian
It’s impossible to miss the “Hillary for Prison” signs at Trump rallies. At one of the Democratic debates, the moderator asked Hillary Clinton whether she would drop out of the race if she were indicted over her private email server. “Oh for goodness – that is not going to happen,” she said. “I’m not even going to answer that question.”
Based on what I know about the emails, the idea of her being indicted or going to prison is nonsensical. Nonetheless, the belief that Clinton is dishonest and untrustworthy is pervasive. A recent New York Times-CBS poll found that 40% of Democrats say she cannot be trusted.
For decades she’s been portrayed as a Lady Macbeth involved in nefarious plots, branded as “a congenital liar” and accused of covering up her husband’s misconduct, from Arkansas to Monica Lewinsky. Some of this is sexist caricature. Some is stoked by the “Hillary is a liar” videos that flood Facebook feeds. Some of it she brings on herself by insisting on a perimeter or “zone of privacy” that she protects too fiercely. It’s a natural impulse, given the level of scrutiny she’s attracted, more than any male politician I can think of.
I would be “dead rich”, to adapt an infamous Clinton phrase, if I could bill for all the hours I’ve spent covering just about every “scandal” that has enveloped the Clintons. As an editor I’ve launched investigations into her business dealings, her fundraising, her foundation and her marriage. As a reporter my stories stretch back to Whitewater. I’m not a favorite in Hillaryland. That makes what I want to say next surprising.
Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.
The yardsticks I use for measuring a politician’s honesty are pretty simple. Ever since I was an investigative reporter covering the nexus of money and politics, I’ve looked for connections between money (including campaign donations, loans, Super Pac funds, speaking fees, foundation ties) and official actions. I’m on the lookout for lies, scrutinizing statements candidates make in the heat of an election.
The connection between money and action is often fuzzy. Many investigative articles about Clinton end up “raising serious questions” about “potential” conflicts of interest or lapses in her judgment. Of course, she should be held accountable. It was bad judgment, as she has said, to use a private email server. It was colossally stupid to take those hefty speaking fees, but not corrupt. There are no instances I know of where Clinton was doing the bidding of a donor or benefactor.
As for her statements on issues, Politifact, a Pulitzer prize-winning fact-checking organization, gives Clinton the best truth-telling record of any of the 2016 presidential candidates. She beats Sanders and Kasich and crushes Cruz and Trump, who has the biggest “pants on fire” rating and has told whoppers about basic economics that are embarrassing for anyone aiming to be president. (He falsely claimed GDP has dropped the last two quarters and claimed the national unemployment rate was as high as 35%).
I can see why so many voters believe Clinton is hiding something because her instinct is to withhold. As first lady, she refused to turn over Whitewater documents that might have tamped down the controversy. Instead, by not disclosing information, she fueled speculation that she was hiding grave wrongdoing. In his book about his time working in the Clinton White House, All Too Human, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos wrote that failing to convince the first lady to turn over the records of the Arkansas land deal to the Washington Post was his biggest regret.
The same pattern of concealment repeats itself through the current campaign in her refusal to release the transcripts of her highly paid speeches. So the public is left wondering if she made secret promises to Wall Street or is hiding something else. The speeches are probably anodyne (politicians always praise their hosts), so why not release them?
Colin Diersing, a former student of mine who is a leader of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, thinks a gender-related double standard gets applied to Clinton. “We expect purity from women candidates,” he said. When she behaves like other politicians or changes positions, “it’s seen as dishonest”, he adds. CBS anchor Scott Pelley seemed to prove Diersing’s point when he asked Clinton: “Have you always told the truth?” She gave an honest response, “I’ve always tried to, always. Always.” Pelley said she was leaving “wiggle room”. What politician wouldn’t?
Clinton distrusts the press more than any politician I have covered. In her view, journalists breach the perimeter and echo scurrilous claims about her circulated by unreliable rightwing foes. I attended a private gathering in South Carolina a month after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. Only a few reporters were invited and we sat together at a luncheon where Hillary Clinton spoke. She glared down at us, launching into a diatribe about how the press had invaded the Clintons’ private life. The distrust continues.
These are not new thoughts, but they are fundamental to understanding her. Tough as she can seem, she doesn’t have rhino hide, and during her husband’s first term in the White House, according to Her Way, a critical (and excellent) investigative biography of Clinton by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, she became very depressed during the Whitewater imbroglio. A few friends and aides have told me that the email controversy has upset her as badly.
Like most politicians, she’s switched some of her positions and sometimes shades the truth. In debates with Sanders, she cites her tough record on Wall Street, but her Senate bills, like one curbing executive pay, went nowhere. She favors ending the carried interest loophole cherished by hedge funds and private equity executives because it taxes their incomes at a lower rate than ordinary income. But, according to an article by Gerth, she did not sign on to bipartisan legislation in 2007 that would have closed it. She voted for a bankruptcy bill favored by big banks that she initially opposed, drawing criticism from Elizabeth Warren. Clinton says she improved the bill before voting for passage. Her earlier opposition to gay marriage, which she later endorsed, has hurt her with young people. Labor worries about her different statements on trade deals.
Still, Clinton has mainly been constant on issues and changing positions over time is not dishonest.
It’s fair to expect more transparency. But it’s a double standard to insist on her purity.
Trump is not a smart politician who knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t craft his populist message and ill manners into some clever verbal strategy that is designed to have a particular effect. No, he’s authentic. When you hear him fumble over ideas, encourage violence, display a lack of knowledge, make fun of others, lie, and express his racist and sexist ways he is acting genuinely and organically. This is who he is, someone without the manners or temperament to be the Commander-in-Chief. When he states that a Mexican judge cannot be fair he is expressing an idea clearly representative of his thinking and natural consciousness. When Trump suggests punching a protester in the face, or tries to erase Obama by denying his birth certificate, or expresses disgust toward women and those with handicaps he is offering us the best and most reliable look into his thinking and thought processes.
The clearest and most direct path way into Trump’s consciousness is through his use of language and discourse. By discourse I mean how language is used as a tool for social life and how language carries meaning because it is the most direct link to reality.
For example, the well-known quip that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is a good example of the relationship between language and consciousness or the performative expression (the language) of cognitive, sociological, psychological, and political content. An individual act of violence can be framed with all of the assumptions and implications of the term “terrorist” or it can be a noble activity of a group struggling for freedom and human rights – the “freedom fighter.” The language used in particular situations is what evokes the semantic network of meanings, and assumptions, and interpretations that accompany the terminology.
Racists betray themselves through language. They will use a derogatory term to refer to a group (all groups have them, “the N word,” “spic”), associate a particular substandard behavior with a group (“Mexicans are lazy,” “Jews are cheap”) assume commonalities among group members that don’t exist (“all Muslims are violent” “those coming across the border are drug dealers and rapists”), expect bias and distorted interpretations because of group membership (“Israelis and Palestinians perceive things only in accordance with their own interests”), rely on historical stereotypes, and assume that the discriminated against group is less deserving of moral treatment.
There are, of course, volumes written about bias, discrimination, and old-fashioned racism. But one of the more interesting strands in this literature is the practice of morally excluding members of minority groups. In cases of extreme threat and violence (e.g. jihadists) the group is considered unworthy of moral treatment (see Opotow’s research).
Trump’s comment about Mexicans (not to mention women) betrays his attitudes about the moral standing of these groups and the extent to which they can be denied considerations of justice and fairness. Trump has essentially delegitimized Mexicans and by his statement that he could not get fair treatment from a Mexican judge, assumes them to be less developed and worthy. In cases of dangerous violence moral exclusion can justify genocide and extremes. But even if we give Trump more credit than that, he is still expressing an ideology of exclusion which justifies attributions of prejudice and discrimination to the “other” group.
Trumps racism is in line with the tendencies to treat an outgroup (Mexicans) as worthy of special consideration; that is, this group violates some standards assumed to be characteristic of his own ingroup and they are therefore problematic and outside the boundaries of democratic processes. Of course, his reference to the judge as “Mexican” rather than an “American” betrays Trump’s inclination to consider ethnicity as generative and a more explanatory category then being “an American.” That’s rank racism.
The above video poses a reasonably serious analysis of Trump’s stability and personality disorders. It is a fair campaign issue. Discrediting Trump needs to a key chapter in Hillary’s playbook.
There are two strategic directions that lead Hillary Clinton down a path to victory. The first is the basic campaign function of not only defining yourself but defining your opponent. The second is demographics and the Electoral College strategy. This post will be concerned with how Hillary Clinton should define Donald Trump; what is a winning strategy here and how does Hillary incorporate Trump’s longtime personal and corporate brand into an unacceptable election brand. Next week I will take up the Electoral College and demographic issues that Hillary must exploit.
Hillary, of course, needs to work on her presentation of self as well as her image as someone who is untrustworthy and entitled. But progress on this front will be difficult and I would not spend that much time on it. Secretary Clinton has been around a long time and deep seeded images of her trustworthiness will be difficult to dislodge. The Republicans have been persistent and successful for decades at attacking her and simply letting the attacks do the damage and later walking away from the truth.
Secretary Clinton should spend most of her time not defining herself but defining Donald Trump. And the campaign must be channeling me because last week she initiated attacks on Trump that were perfectly timed, consistent with his negative narrative, believable, and resonant with the electorate. It might have been a pivotal week in the campaign where Hillary Clinton finally captured command of the news cycle as well as the discursive infrastructure necessary to make progress on combating Trump.
I have made the point a few times in previous blog posts, as well as in my everyday discussions with friends and colleagues, that Trump can legitimately be defined as “unstable” in the clinical sense of the term. His instability, and ensuing danger, should be the commanding narrative or “brand” that defines Trump. This strategy is defensible in numerous ways:
First, most of what Trump is arguing is nonsense (wall between the US and Mexico, banning Muslims, sending back immigrants, trade war with China) and completely implausible. Clinton should speak to these things directly by challenging them and pointing out that Trump is incompetent and lacking the legislative skills to enact any policies. This will continue to define Trump as incompetent and by pointing out the logical consequences (even if it is reductio ad absurdum) of his proposals. This strategy will not destabilize his base, but it should be more effective for the rational others and those who do not fit squarely into Trump’s demographics.
Second, Hillary has to walk the line between not falling into Trump’s discursive traps and allowing him to define the rules of discourse but also being tough and finding the right street language to characterize Trump and his policies. This is another way of saying “Hillary can’t bring a knife to a gunfight.” She has to control the negative messages as much as possible.
Third, the “instability” strategy must be the driving theme of her campaign. And this must go beyond name-calling into actually branding Trump as lacking the manners and presidential standing necessary for the job. Successfully characterizing Trump as unstable requires a certain amount of subtlety because if the message is too aggressive there will be a boomerang effect and the message will be rejected as too extreme or implausible.