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Published on November 13th, 2016 | by Zachary Shahan

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“Unfit” & “Unhinged” — A Lesson In Messaging & How To Not Elect Batshit Crazy Presidents

November 13th, 2016 by  

The best explanation I read of Trump’s rise to the presidency wasn’t published this week. It wasn’t published last week. And it wasn’t even published in the last 6 months.

The best explanation I read of Trump’s rise was published on March 28 by communications and blogging genius Joe Romm (my unofficial blogging mentor).

The article was titled, “Donald Trump May Sound Like A Clown, But He Is A Rhetoric Pro Like Cicero.”

I think Joe was scared at the time of what he saw as a ridiculous but very real possibility. And I think he’s depressed as shit now.

Interestingly, Joe was picked up by John Podesta to lead climate blogging on Think Progress (climate is the #1 issue on the huge and highly influential website). In case you don’t follow politics closely, John Podesta was Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, was Bill Clinton’s chief of staff in the last two years of his presidency, and founded the Center for American Progress, which Think Progress is part of. But none of that really matters to this story — it’s just an interesting side note.

The point of this story is understanding how insanely crappy Hillary Clinton and her campaign’s messaging was, so that the people with the better policy pie for the voting public don’t mess things up so badly again.

Before I launch into the specific messaging tutorial, though, it’s important to keep a few things in mind: the average person is not smart (by definition), half the population isn’t even as smart as that person, people don’t do deep research … if any at all, people make far too many decisions based on emotion than on sound logic, and 26% of the voting public voted for Donald Freakin’ Trump. (Another side note: Yes, if you voted for Trump, I’m not encouraging you to read this article. I want people who do their research and have a moral spine to learn how to communicate better, and that doesn’t include people who voted for a con man who brags about sexual assault, stimulates and promotes overt racism and violence, and builds a career on conning and bullying people.)

OK, on to the key points!

“Unfit” and “unhinged” — these were two of the key adjectives the Clinton campaign wanted to pin on Donald Trump in order to scare voters away. If it wasn’t painstakingly obvious to you as you watched that, I think it needs to become obvious to you now — horrible, horrible choices.

Persuasion is generally about moving people emotionally. Commercials don’t give you a bullet list of important facts. Beer and cigarettes aren’t sold using logical, research-based monologues from Nate Silver on their health benefits. Donald Trump didn’t win the election by explaining to the public the long-term effects of building a ridiculous wall on the Mexican border (or why that definitely isn’t going to happen), the long-term effects of encouraging Russia to hack his opponents’ emails, or the long-term effects of demonizing and bullying over half the population.

“Unfit” — the characterization Hillary and her campaign kept using to describe Trump — moves no one’s emotions. “Unfit” didn’t convince people to swing Hillary’s way. The people who thought that was a good attack were already on Hillary’s side because they knew Donald Trump is batshit fucking crazy and shouldn’t be let anywhere near the president — let alone be the one getting sworn in as the president!!

“Batshit fucking crazy” instead of “unfit” might have worked. Can you imagine that? The media would be all over it. Hillary’s campaign team would probably think that would be a disaster. Was it a disaster for “Mr. Trump” how much the media focused on Donald’s “un-establishment” and “unpresidential” statements during the primaries, and then in the general election as well? No, and pundits couldn’t figure out why.

trump-warning

Remember, art is also important for conveying a message. I imagine you can quickly picture the famous Obama “Hope” painting from his initial campaign. This would have been a good one to convey “batshit fucking crazy” to a soon-to-be-voting public.

It didn’t matter — and actually even helped him — for a few reasons, and not simply because that meant he got more exposure/face time on TV.

Donald was speaking like a normal person full of rage, full of genuine emotion, and full of confidence. He was real. He was sick of politicians who didn’t fix all of the country’s problems (something a ton of people can relate to). Because he spoke in an emotional, “real” way, people felt those emotions with him — and they believed him. They believed him more and more, more and more, more and more.

Remember when Trump supposedly had “a ceiling” number of voters (okay, let’s just use the word — “deplorables”) who would support him, and that was too small a number to win the Republican nomination? Yep, that was the argument for a long time — after Jeb Bush dropped out of the race even. The idea was that only so many voters would choose to vote for someone so unqualified and so crude. The idea was that there was no way the voters (even Republicans) would vote for someone with such shallow, bad, impossible proposals. The idea was that Trump was too extreme for the extremist wing of the most extremist party, and so he had a ceiling of potential supporters that was really way too low to win the nomination.

Ah, Republican politicians should have known better — they’ve been exploiting the shit out of people by using and abusing misinformation and emotional scare tactics for decades! Anyone who isn’t in the 1% club of super-rich millionaires and billionaires, who isn’t fundamentally and irreparably connected to the pollution industry, and who isn’t some kind of invincible Lucifer in disguise should probably never vote Republican*.

Yes, when Donald got more ridiculous in his statements, pumped his language full of more emotion and rage, became more “unhinged,” more people decided he was the guy to vote for. After all, he understood their anger with a political system that failed them too many times. Whether Republican, Democrat, Green, or Libertarian, I think we can all say we’ve felt like the political system failed us at times — anyone here feeling like that right now?

Here is Joe Romm’s opening line in the article I referenced at the top:

“An emotional speaker always makes his audience feel with him, even when there is nothing in his arguments; which is why many speakers try to overwhelm their audience by mere noise.” — Aristotle, Rhetoric.

Here are the 3rd and 4th paragraphs:

“Did you know that there is a rhetorical device, a figure of speech, that allows you to lie and exaggerate and say the most absurd things — ’Mexico must pay for the wall’ or ‘the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese’ — while actually making lots of people believe you are a genuine and truthful person? Donald Trump does.

“Yes, while Donald Trump may seem to be a clown or buffoon, he is in fact one of the most effective practitioners of persuasive rhetoric the political world has seen in a long time. If he wins the GOP nomination it will be in large part because of his mastery of rhetoric.”

Let’s be honest — there’s a great chance Donald doesn’t understand why he’s so effective at persuading people to his side, “conning them” if you will. But he knows how to do it.

Furthermore, Hillary — even if she knows why she isn’t good at it — is not at all a natural at this art form. I forget when it was exactly, but she lamented at one point in the primaries how bad she was at this compared to people like Obama, Bill Clinton, and Bernie Sanders. Thinking that “unfit” and “unhinged” were words to use to sway people away from Trump is an excellent example of that. Thinking that “trumped up trickle down” was going to appeal to anyone beyond her core core was another example. Frankly, I could go through many quotes to find example after example, but that would be too depressing.

These words and phrases are too sophisticated, too elite, too far outside a 5th grader’s vocabulary, and too unemotional to persuade swing voters. “Crazy” or “stupid” or “horrible” would have been much more effective. Oh yeah, Donald had “horrible” practically trademarked, so I guess that was off the table — except commandeering the opponents’ attacks is actually quite effective (“Lyin’ Ted” popped up when people started focusing more and more on Donald’s lies).

Now that I think of it, “Crazy Bernie” was going to be Donald’s nickname for Bernie Sanders if that ended up being his opponent. He was basically pre-empting opponents on what I think would have been one of the best adjectives to hammer home repeatedly on Donald.

Donald, as childish as it sounded to many of us, was superb at picking adjectives for his opponents to smear into people’s heads. He even turned them into nicknames for more memorability and stronger effect. He was branding his opponents, just as he has spent decades branding himself in a specific way. “Crooked Hillary” stuck, didn’t it, and it fit in perfectly with her (incorrect) reputation, and surely helped to fuel the media narrative. Of course, it helped that this was the smear the GOP was focused on branding Hillary with for ~25 years.

Back to the real problem with Hillary, what did “unfit” do?

One way to think of it is this: What emotion do you want the listener or reader to feel? Anger? Fear? Excitement? Once you have that down, think of words that come to mind for the given context. Not many people think “unfit” when they’re in a fearful situation. If you get into an emotional argument with someone, are you going to yell at them that they are “unfit?” Only if you’re an extremely introverted, thoughtful, well educated person who has a hard time letting loose and letting your emotions get the best of you. Sound like anyone?

Hillary — given her natural characteristics, which are ironically great for the role of a president — doesn’t have the instincts to scare common people away from her opponent, even when that person is a batshit fucking crazy lunatic. (By the way, I think “badshit fucking crazy” stimulates fear while simultaneously conveying a sense of idiocy. The person being described isn’t just scary — he’s idiotic. I think it’s a pretty damn good fit, and could have scared away the Rust Belt voters who gave Donald the presidency.)

Alas, the campaigner unfit to direct a lynch mob onto her opponent lost and the batshit fucking crazy lunatic will be president. Ironic, but what wasn’t this election?

(As it turns out, Donald is so good at lighting the emotional fire of lynch mobs that there are protests going on across the country now — protests from people fearful as shit, angry as hell, and more emotionally charged than Hillary could make them feel if she spent months taking notes at Trump University.)

Here are some more quotes from Joe Romm’s brilliant March article about the talented “clown” who defied the assumption of nearly every political expert on the planet (with subheadings added by me and a few extra comments under the extended quotes):

How the Least-Qualified Candidate in History Beat the Most-Qualified Candidate in History

“Rhetoric works to grab and keep attention — and to make ideas and phrases stick in your head — which is a key reason modern marketing whizzes and branding experts stuff their advertisements with them. Trump is nothing if not a marketing and branding genius. Indeed, he is arguably nothing but a marketing and branding genius.

“How powerful is rhetoric? In his dialogue, ‘Gorgias,’ about the master rhetorician, Plato gives him this speech:

‘If a rhetorician and a doctor visited any city you like to name and they had to contend in argument before the Assembly or any other gathering as to which of the two should be chosen as doctor, the doctor would be nowhere, but the man who could speak would be chosen, if he so wished.’

“So a rhetorician could persuade any audience, no matter how intelligent, that he was more of a doctor than a real doctor. The Elizabethans certainly viewed rhetoric that way. One best-selling 16th-century handbook asserted that mastery of rhetoric and the figures of speech makes the orator ‘the emperour of men’s minds & affections, and next to the omnipotent God in the power of persuasion.’ “

Anger & “Truthful Hyperbole”

“How many current politicians can you name that have been intentionally using key figures of speech for 40 years? In Donald’s case his preferred figure is ‘hyperbole’ — or rather ‘truthful hyperbole’ as he labels it in his 1987 bestseller The Art of The Deal:

‘The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.

‘I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.’

“It’s an effective form of lying while excusing and rationalizing your lies. In that sense, ‘truthful hyperbole’ is a ‘euphemism,’ which itself is a figure of speech. And since hyperbole is by definition untruthful exaggeration, Trump’s phrase is an ‘oxymoron,’ which is also figure of speech.

“That said, the hyperbole Trump is using four decades later isn’t ‘innocent.’ Why? A key purpose of hyperbole is to express the emotion of anger, as Aristotle explained in classic work, ‘Rhetoric,’ the first in-depth study of the art. Aristotle explains the hyperboles ‘show vehemence of character; and this is why angry people use them more than other people.’

“When Trump makes wildly over-the-top claims — he’s going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it — it has no effect on his supporters to point out that this is hyperbolic nonsense. Quite the reverse. Trump’s claim moves them emotionally and persuades them precisely because it is hyperbolic nonsense. They are angry, and he’s showing that he is angry too — which is vastly more effective communications than the bland assertions by the professional politicians that they “understand” there is a lot of anger out there.”

As it turns out, Trump didn’t come up with the phrase “truthful hyperbole.” His The Art of the Deal ghostwriter — who wrote the entire book — did. Frankly, I don’t think Trump thinks in a way that would come up with that label. But the author — who had a good enough understanding of figures of speech and a good enough understanding of Donald Trump to invent the phrase — nailed it. He identified that Trump was a master of rhetoric, even if Schwartz himself didn’t explicitly understand that and even if Trump was just intuitively manipulating people to get his way.

I’m Not Gonna Say It, I Won’t Say It

“‘Your language will be appropriate if it expresses emotion and character,’ notes Aristotle. ‘To express emotion, you’ll employ the language of anger in speaking of outrage; the language of disgust and discrete reluctance to utter a word when speaking of impiety or foulness; the language of exultation for a tale of glory.’

“Trump loves the rhetorical device of phony ‘reluctance’ to utter a word or phrase: ‘She just said a terrible thing. You know what she said? Shout it out because I don’t want to say. OK you’re not allowed to say and I never expect to hear that from you again. She said — I never expect to hear that from you again — she said he’s a pussy…. That’s terrible! Terrible.’

“This figure, apophasis (from the Greek word for ‘to deny’), emphasizes a point by pretending to deny it, stresses an idea or image by saying you don’t want talk about it, as with Trump’s use of ‘pussy.’ A favorite of Cicero’s — ’I will not even mention the fact that you betrayed us in the Roman people by aiding Catiline’ (63 BC) — it’s also called paralipsis (from the Greek word for ‘omission’).

“Trump, however, is more Ciceronian than Cicero himself:

  • “I was going to say ‘dummy’ Bush; I won’t say it. I won’t say it,”
  • “I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct,”
  • “Unlike others, I never attacked dopey Jon Stewart for his phony last name. Would never do that!”
  • “I promised I would not say that she [Carly Fiornia] ran Hewlett-Packard into the ground, that she laid off tens of thousands of people and she got viciously fired. I said I will not say it, so I will not say it.”

“Seriously — but then again, this should be very serious, selecting a President.”

Climate Collapse (or, as Joe labeled this section, “Made In China”)

“Let me end where I began with one particular example of Trump’s (un)truthful hyperbole, to see how it works:

“Okay, so that is laughably absurd on its face. It would be generous to call this truthful hyperbole, though it certainly does capture a sort of an inchoate anger at the Chinese. But how does Trump himself view the truth of it?

“We actually found out when Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called him out on this exact statement during a debate with Hillary Clinton, saying the New York billionaire should be unelectable because he ‘thinks that climate change is a hoax, invented by the Chinese.’

“Trump was then asked to defend his inane claim on Fox & Friends, and he replied (video here):

‘Well, I think the climate change is just a very, very expensive form of tax. A lot of people are making a lot of money. I know much about climate change. I’d be — received environmental awards. And I often joke that this is done for the benefit of China. Obviously, I joke. But this is done for the benefit of China, because China does not do anything to help climate change. They burn everything you could burn; they couldn’t care less. They have very — you know, their standards are nothing. But they — in the meantime, they can undercut us on price. So it’s very hard on our business.’

“Let’s set aside the laughable hyperbole that Trump ‘received environmental awards.’

“Trump asserts he means ‘this is done for the benefit of China’ as a joke — which is how most in the media reported it. But the fact is Trump immediately repeats the claim again: ‘Obviously, I joke. But this is done for the benefit of China.’

“The point of ‘truthful hyperbole’ then is to allow Trump to spout lies but speak them as emotional truths that, when caught, allow him to claim that he ‘obviously’ doesn’t actually believe — even as he repeats the lie again.”

Yikes. That Trump quote looks like something a batshit fucking crazy person would say — it’s the kind of thing that had many of us believing there was no way in hell Trump could win the presidency. Yet, it convinced one more person (or who knows how many more people?) that global warming is a hoax created to benefit the Chinese.

Shit just got real, didn’t it?

Don’t Stop Now

Politicians — whether good or bad — are more likely to get elected if they know how to persuade people, if they know how to stimulate emotions in people.

If you’re a progressive, I encourage you to go buy Joe Romm’s latest book right now: Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga. And I encourage you to run for office.

If you’re a batshit fucking crazy lunatic, I’m disappointed to find out you read this far, and I hope you didn’t learn anything along the way.

And, oh yeah, another tip for progressives: never elect another rhetoric-handicapped Hillary Clinton in the primaries, and never discount another Donald Trump in an election. When it comes to persuading people who make decisions based on emotions more than on logic (i.e., the vast majority of the public), he has an upper hand. Don’t forget this Plato quote:

“If a rhetorician and a doctor visited any city you like to name and they had to contend in argument before the Assembly or any other gathering as to which of the two should be chosen as doctor, the doctor would be nowhere, but the man who could speak would be chosen, if he so wished.”

*I say “probably” because I know of at least one awesome person who ran for city council as a Republican despite being something far, far on the left side of politics. He ran because he knew that there was basically no chance stupid voters in the city would elect a Democrat. He won, and actually ended up mayor for a while.


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About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.



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