Political spin fascinates me. In 2013, I earned my Master’s degree in strategic communications, plus I’ve always had a keen interest in politics. I’ve attempted to stay out of most discussions of politics because I end up losing friends because people don’t realize they’ve brought a knife to a gunfight when they attempt to influence me with rhetoric that doesn’t ring true.
I try to dig a little deeper and be a skeptic of all sides. The conservatives have given me a lot more digging here lately.
My purpose for writing is not to suggest who you should cast your vote for in November. I won’t insult your intelligence with any suggestion that you lack the cognitive ability to reach your own conclusions once you have all of the information. I know you are smart; you’re reading my blog, after all!
In my blogging, I merely offer insight as a professional marketer and strategic communicator. And, oh boy, this week in political rhetoric sure offered powerful and rare insights into how the machine works.
Lesson #1: Disrupt and Distract
The remarkable week started with President Donald Trump taking enormous criticism for his perceived lack of leadership as states took the initiative to take care of their own needs and the mainstream news media showed the timeline of how the COVID-19 coronavirus took root and quickly spread in North America.
Quicker than you could say, “Hey, don’t look at me, look over there!” thousands of protestors gathered in the Capitols of North Carolina, Missouri and Wisconsin to protest stay-at-home orders, the statewide lockdowns intended to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Despite initially appearing as a spontaneous and grassroots reaction of the people, the protests had a strong Tea Party/Trump Rally flavor to them, complete with red MAGA hats worn instead of face masks in many instances and Trump 2020 signs flashed for the TV cameras. Fox News Channel actively promoted the protests in a naked sort of “Come-on-down-with-your-AK47″ partisan one-sidedness that they used to at least TRY to conceal.
Pro-gun activists walked around government buildings with assault rifles, which wasn’t un-nerving or thuggish at all.
From a strategic communications perspective, the events appeared aimed at shaping public opinion about the stay-at-home orders, staged by far-right groups whose Facebook groups are rife with conspiracy theories claiming the government will force people to get vaccinations and that health experts have been inflating the number of COVID-19 deaths.
Reports have since linked organizations funded by the Koch brothers, the conservative Heritage Foundation and even the uber-wealthy family of Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.
Some commentators on the opposition have offered the theory that the push to exert political pressure to end the stay-at-home orders was meant to not only hurt Democratic governors like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer but to also cut down on the ability of people to file for unemployment compensation and give property owners the cover to demand rent payments from business owners who’ve had no control over whether they could operate.
After decades of smothering labor unions, business interests are also desperate to end uprisings like the workers at Amazon and Target demanding more pay and safer working conditions during the surge in demand for products.
Some politicians have even been so bold as to suggest that human lives must be sacrificed to save the economy. To which I say, “Fine. You First.”
The ballsy rhetoric led Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to announce that he’d lift most restrictions on businesses operating in the Peach state. Quite a gamble, sir. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are a wimp.
The inevitable backlash to the backlash involved exhausted nurses in their scrubs and surgical masks confronting the Tea Party-esque protestors directly in the street, defying them with a powerful reminder that the stay-at-home orders were meant to contain the number of coronavirus patients flooding hospitals. It’s really hard to make the case that the value of your 401k is more important than avoiding filling our Emergency Rooms with plague victims.
So the public, still mindful of the fact that COVID-19 is highly contagious and can be spread by people going out to stores, failed to put its support behind the statehouse protests.
President Trump, who knows how to read opinion polls, called out Kemp at one of his daily briefings, essentially betraying one of his loyalists by claiming that he agreed it was too soon to be lifting restrictions – after weeks of suggesting the virus would just magically disappear once temperatures rose and the solution was more damaging than the sickness.
Georgians now serve as a sort of involuntary case study of what happens when politics are put before scientific recommendations. Unfortunately, they’re right next door to us here in Alabama, where our governor had enough common sense to keep some restrictions in place a lil while longer.
Some Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested this week that states should file for bankruptcy rather than relying on the federal government for financial aid – a move that would potentially give GOP leaders an opportunity to cut public pensions that retirees depend on to survive.
Congress passed $484 billion in relief funds for small businesses and hospitals this week. The Democratic-led House faced pressure to act from the Republican-led Senate, with lawmakers from each side threatening to delay action while accusing the other side of stalling with political games while Americans are suffering.
I think we can all agree that this is no time for politics or games. However, the pressure to act is immense – and skilled politicians rarely miss an opportunity to exploit a crisis to reward their donors/supporters.
This pandemic that has killed more than 50,000 Americans and thrown a record 26 million out of work, wiping out all the jobs created during the longest employment boom in US history.
Lesson #2: Find a Scapegoat to Blame
On April 21, former South Carolina U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy posted to Facebook this week to suggest that the coronavirus is overblown and was taken out of “the perfect fascist playbook.”
“It all seems rather convenient for the nations and opponents of our current President and economy 5 months before an election. Couldn’t have hit at a more perfect time. With the Democrats running out of campaign talking points in light of no school shootings, no migrant caravans at the southern border, fighting in Syria winding down, North Korea not firing missiles and Trump beating a sham impeachment. The corona virus gave them one last hail Mary to try and point fingers at Trump with the clock winding down in 2020. It all just seems fishy, a little too well-timed if you ask me. Copy and paste if you dare,” Gowdy wrote.
Gowdy, you might recall, was the former Chair of the House Oversight Committee and House Benghazi Committee that conducted long drawn-out investigations that ultimately found no evidence of specific wrongdoing by then-Sec. of State Hillary Clinton. Investigations that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy admitted were a partisan political undertaking rather than a substantive inquiry during a 2015 interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity.
Gowdy went on to join President Trump’s legal defense team as he was being impeached for cooking up another scandal in a phone call to the president of Ukraine, seeking an investigation to imply corruption to weaponize against former Vice President Joe Biden this November.
Damn. Doesn’t the impeachment seem like years ago? That’s the sort of year we are having.
Lesson #3: Blame the Media
We also got an illustration of how political spin works this week after Donald Trump went off-script at his daily press conference on Thursday, rambling on about possible quick cures to the coronavirus. This led to the company making Lysol urging its customers not to consume its disinfectant products because they are dangerous if injected or ingested, as many took the president’s comments to suggest.
His exact quote was: “”And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in one minute. Is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning … it would be interesting to check that. It sounds interesting to me.”
It appears the president was inspired, in part, by QAnon conspiracy theorists who have advocated for drinking a diluted form of bleach. QAnon adherents believe Donald Trump is secretly running a military operation to rid the government of satanic, child-eating cannibals, and many QAnon followers believe those same people are responsible for the virus.
In his defense, I know the president is desperate to give people hope in a dire time, but false hope ultimately leads to greater despair and an erosion of trust in the information we are given. The cynic in me also notes that Trump seems extraordinarily pre-occupied with his poll numbers ahead of the November General Election, along with the closing numbers on the Stock Market. This certainly puts Gowdy’s suppositions in an interesting framework of consideration.
In an effort to quell the impact of viral social media posts after his comments at the briefing this week, the World Health Organization released a warning in March stating that “UV lamps should not be used to sterilize hands or other areas of skin as UV radiation can cause skin irritation.”
After the president made his statement from the podium in the White House briefing room, the spin went into immediate overdrive. His aides were taken completely surprised by his off-script contemporaneous comments.
New White House Press Secretary suggested he said something different (even though we all watched him live on TV saying those precise words): “Leave it to the media to irresponsibly take President Trump out of context…”
I saw Trump supporters copying and pasting references to obscure medical treatments using ozone to argue that, in fact, a disinfectant CAN be safely injected into a human to kill viruses and bacteria, so Trump wasn’t wrong after all!
Uh huh. I’m sure the guy notorious for not reading his daily threat assessment report was well versed in obscure research into oxidizing compounds when he blurted out what he said. This is the same guy who proposed setting off nuclear bombs in the center of hurricanes. And who recently led the right-wing chorus pushing hydroxychloroquine, which, embarrassingly, the National Institutes of Health warned this week can cause serious side effects and should only be prescribed by physicians under their close supervision or as part of trial studies for that reason.
His supporters are proud people, and they’ll eager run with any cover they’re provided by Trump HQ, however implausible or flimsy it may be. They live on to argue and vote another day.
Lesson #4: Beware of Defendants Who Won’t Stick to the Alibi
On Friday, Trump threw them all under the bus when he explained his comments by claiming that he was being “sarcastic” when he asked medical experts about treating coronavirus by injecting disinfectant.
Asked about the comments during a bill signing on Friday, the president said, “I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen.”
He then suggested he was talking about disinfectants that can safely be rubbed on people’s hands. And then he returned to the sarcasm explanation, saying it was “a very sarcastic question to the reporters in the room about disinfectant on the inside.”
It wasn’t the first time Trump had suggested a controversial comment was merely sarcasm and the fault was with the rest of the world for failing to detect that. For example, he has insisted that his famous 2016 “Russia, if you’re listening” request for Russia’s help obtaining Hillary Clinton emails was him being “sarcastic” and making “a joke.”
This raises the issue of how appropriate it was to be sarcastic in a press briefing being watched by millions of people desperate for the latest facts about taking precautions for a deadly virus.
Trump did recently use that venue to make an ill-advised joke about models he had slept with when distinguishing that this was different from the projection models for growth of the virus, so who knows when to take him seriously?
Lesson #5: Don’t Dispatch Morons as Surrogates
One of my friends, a staunch Trump supporter, attempted to bait me Saturday morning with a direct message on Facebook, complaining that her intended post showing a bottle of “Clorox Chewables” had been censored by the social media platform. The bottle in the picture had been hastily altered in Photoshop by someone to say “Liberal Cure, MSNBC Recommended”.
Remarkable. In just a few hours, it had gone from something Trump was being mocked for to something conservatives were passing around attempting to suggest that a left-leaning news channel was promoting.
When I questioned her about it, she insisted Trump didn’t recommend anyone ingest disinfectants and that’s why “they” made the meme.
When I explained Trump’s miscommunication with his defenders, she changed the subject and said, “People need common sense and stop taking shit so literal. Lambs to the slaughter is all I can say!! If it’s dangerous or stupid just don’t do it!!”
Perhaps realizing that she hadn’t yet owned the libs, she added, “I’m just tired of all the lambs believing the shit that’s twisted and straight-up lies they are being fed!! They need to wake up and realize that it’s a way to control them. Like how a lot of deaths are being lied about and aren’t covid 19. Very sad actually.”
Trump supporters are lecturing everyone else about how they are sheep being manipulated by a government seeking to control them. And who is this insidious pack of villains leading us to our slaughter?
Could they mean the government we have, which is mostly run by Republicans, who hold the Presidency, have a majority on the US Supreme Court, control one-half of Congress, and control 31 of 50 state legislatures? Are these powers-that-be THE “they” we are supposed to fear?
Oh, don’t worry. I am terrified.
The root of the claim that COVID-19 deaths are being exaggerated is that it isn’t always easy to distinguish right away whether someone died of a heart attack or because they had the coronavirus. The reports do distinguish between presumed deaths vs verified COVID-19 deaths by a medical examiner.
Given an inch of suspicious gray area, the conspiracy theorists on the right will run with it for a mile to imply that they weren’t idiots for initially laughing at the rest of us while their reality TV savior dismissed the coronavirus as a hoax. Nobody likes looking like a damn fool while corpses are stacking up in NYC make-shift morgues in refrigerated truck trailers.
When I pressed my friend to get into it in deeper detail, she wrote, “Sigh… I’m not going to change your mind and you aren’t going to change mine, so I guess that’s all of that.”
It reminded me of those spirited discussions I used to have with my brother, who died before getting to see the rise of Trump as a political force. He would eventually end the conversation by saying, “Well, I guess I am just a big fat idiot and you know everything!” before stomping off in a huff.
Lesson #6: Cut Your Losses and Throw off the Scent of the Foxes on Your Tail
The Friday press conference was very telling. Trump loves speaking at the briefings, which serve as a sort of surrogate Trump rally since he can’t exactly gather thousands of his supporters in arenas to shower him in worship and chant “Lock Her Up!” at whichever female opponent has drawn his ire.
On Friday, however, the daily briefing abruptly ended without any Q&A with the assembled reporters, leading to the hashtag #ChickenDonald trending on Twitter after CNN Commentator Wolf Blitzer sort of rubbed it in.
Shortly thereafter, Twitter was seeded with anti-Biden Tweets implying renewed relevance of allegations that the former Vice President inappropriately touched a former aide. A lot of the Tweets came from accounts with Bernie supporter connections implied, which (at least to me) made them seem suspiciously like Russian bots.
To quote Mr. Gowdy, “It all just seems fishy, a little too well-timed if you ask me.”
Sort of like the release of the Wikileaks stolen Clinton campaign emails that hit the news cycle just hours after that the damaging “Access Hollywood” tape aired. That’s the video in which the future president was recorded on a live microphone bragging about getting to grab women’s pussies without repercussions because he’s a celebrity. Comments that were also brushed off as insincere and mere locker room banter to impress the boys on that bus, I remind you.
It seemed pretty obvious that the Clinton emails dumped by Wikileaks were pre-loaded to hit the news cycle at some date before the election as a sort of “October surprise”, but they came in very handy when the Trump campaign needed a major distraction from its own embarrassing story.
This week, coincidentally, a new bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence Committee backed the US intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help then-candidate Trump, which he, of course, had repeatedly dismissed as “fake news” while claiming, without any proof, that officials like former CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper were using the intelligence community to attack him.
That committee, from the Republican-controlled Senate, defended the intelligence community’s work. It warned Russia was likely to try to interfere again in 2020. Trump supporters were distracted from the news of the bipartisan report by conveniently-timed comments made by Attorney General William Barr on a conservative radio show that he’s been “very troubled” by findings of a separate report investigating the origins of the Russia investigation.
How much do you wanna bet that we won’t get that information released ahead of the election? Probably about as likely as that middle-class tax cut Trump was discussing right before the mid-terms that mysteriously evaporated once the results came in.
On Saturday morning, Twitter was at a crawl. A conspiracy theorist might suggest that the Trump Administration might have tampered with the online discourse at a time when it was harming the president rather than serving him. Remember, Mr. Gowdy said, “It all just seems fishy, a little too well-timed if you ask me.”
Lesson #7: Don’t Let Your Enemy Know Your Next Move
Also on Saturday morning, a leaked 57-page document created by the US National Republican Senatorial Committee advised candidates on everything from dealing with accusations of racism to tying Democrat opponents to Beijing. China would be made the villain to distract from Trump’s handling of the coronavirus.
1. Stress that China caused the virus “by covering it up”
2. Imply that Democrats are “soft on China”, and
3. Display strength by promising that Republicans will “push for sanctions on China for its role in spreading this pandemic”.
“When asked whether the spread of the coronavirus is Trump’s fault, candidates are advised to respond by pivoting to China,” reads a story in Politico.
“Don’t defend Trump, other than the China travel ban – attack China,” the memo reportedly states.
This would be consistent with what we are seeing so far. Trump’s re-election campaign recently released a web video painting Joe Biden as cozy with the authoritarian country. The pro-Trump super PAC America First Action has launched several television commercials tying Biden to China.
To get ahead of criticism that the GOP would be inciting racism, the memo urges candidates to say that “no one is blaming Chinese-Americans. This is the fault of the Chinese Communist Party for covering up the virus and lying about its danger. This caused the pandemic and they should be held accountable”.
Lesson #8: Carve Out Some Wiggle Room
The memo itself is a remarkable look inside of the strategic messaging of a political machine.
It forwards unproven theories for which “none of the alternative models can rule out” the core premise. We are getting a rare glimpse at the ways the public can be given just enough latitude to explain away the cognitive dissonance between reality and political rhetoric.
One section, “Answers to Likely Arguments,” directs candidates on possible things to say when their rhetoric is challenged. Such as, “Why are you pushing conspiracy theories?”
It also includes pointed questions for attacking the World Health Organization — which offered cover this week for Trump’s failure to properly plan a national pandemic strategy — as well as Democratic leaders like Biden, who they advise portraying as “soft on China” and recommending they add “he brought his corrupt son Hunter” on a trip to China.
Absolutely fascinating from a strategic communication or political science perspective. So, who is the sheep and who is manipulating whom?
Lesson #9: Change the Subject
It will be fascinating to watch the Sunday morning TV shows and see the latest political spin that the politicians attempt to sell us now that the public has access to their playbook and the president’s story keeps changing.
The Republican Party’s planned China-focused assault is complicated by Trump’s occasional praise for President Xi Jinping. And there’s a hypocritical Tweet for virtually every circumstance Trump faces as president, some pointed criticism of Obama that comes back to bite him in the ass.
This was one particularly insane week during what has turned out to be an unprecedented time.