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Messaging and Trump, or the Value of Words - Metaphors Are Lies

Messaging and Trump, or the Value of Words

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This is not entirely in the wheelhouse of this newsletter, but, well, it involves words so close enough.

Noah Berlatsky has a typically interesting post on how messaging works. The takeaway is, unsurprisingly, that it does not work the way that political gurus want it to — there is no one trick that will turn an election on a dime. People are simply not that stupid. Thier beliefs are not formed by soundbite, but by experience and years of persuasion. There is, as Noah points out, no one weird trick to winning an election. However, Noah does mention Trump as something of an outlier to this general rule. I think he gets the point subtly incorrect, but incorrect in a way the reinforces his larger point.

Noah says that Trump “reversed decades of GOP messaging on Russia.” I don’t think this is actually the case. Yes, it is true that GOP messaging had been anti-Russia for fifty years, but I believe only superficially so. The messaging had actually been anti-Leftist and pro-capital. As soon as Russia became a capitalist dictatorship, supporting it was an easy lift.

I am about to speak in broad terms and largely about the elites of our political divides. The discussion that follows in in generalities, so keep that in mind.

The right, in the United States, generally, did not spend the Cold War defending democracy. It spent the cold war attacking socialism and communism and thus defending capital. It often used the language of democracy in these arguments but just as often did not. To the majority of the elite Right in this country the worst part about a communist dictatorship was the communist part. They had no trouble overthrowing elected socialist governments in Chile or Iran, for example, and no trouble defending supporting right-wing dictatorships up to and including the point where they were murdering nuns.

The defense was not of democracy, it was of capital and traditional hierarchy. So, when Trump, and to be fair, others on the right, came along and defended Putin it was an easy pill for a significant portion of their fellow travelers to follow. Putin’s Russia was not communist. It was the opposite — it was capitalist, it was chauvinistic, hostile to the concepts of liberalism, and presented itself as a staunch defender of traditional life. It was, in short, the kind of society that the right had been telling its followers to support for the entirety of the cold war.

And that is the value of messaging. Noah is correct that you cannot change messages on a dime and expect voter behavior to change. But if you spend the time to consistently message about what you believe in an accessible way, then when the time comes, you can take advantage of opportunities. The elite right sees Putina and his army of disinformation trolls as an ally. They were able to make at least a portion of their base believe the same because they had laid the groundwork for decades.

This is the danger of the popularism’s and centrism’s “one weird trick” fetish, then. No, messages do not, by themselves, turn elections. But by swapping out messages wily-nilly each election, by turning your back on community and government-based solutions for neo-liberalism, you weaken your ability to convince people that what you stand for actually matters.

One of the reasons that the response the fiscal crisis of 2008 was so poor was that, despite it proving most things about neo-liberalism and predatory capitalism wrong, the left had abandoned its message of collective oversight of the economy for at least thirty years. So, it had very little persuasive power when it came time to propose solutions. It was inconceivable that we do anything other than make the banks whole at the expense of the populace because no one had forcefully argued to do otherwise for a generation or more.

Messaging matters, but only over time.

Trump, then, was not an outlier but the proof of Noah’s thesis. You can change minds. You just have to be consistent, patient, and know when to take your chance.

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