Trump’s Speech: Why did it Work?

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Analysis by Reporting San Diego

March 1, 2017 (San Diego) The speech to Congress worked. It was a positive speech. If had nationalist overtones, but in general it was well received by the media and those who watched it. This is to the consternation of hard-core Democrats. Yes, we will be the first to acknowledge that there were a few problems with facts. But that is not our role. There are plenty of fact checkers out there. Few will ask why did it work?

We would like to take a dive into the linguistics of the speech. We want to take a dive into the emotions and moral compass of the speech. George Lakoff has written of this, and in our mind, it will help explain the success. Moreover, we will also look at the triangulation at play. We might have had Bill Clinton delivering this speech. If Democrats are not concerned, they are not paying attention.

Conservatives know that politics is not just about policy and interest groups and issue-by-issue debate. They have learned that politics is about family and morality, about myth and metaphor and emotional identification.

This speech worked at all those levels. This is a critical point. These are working under the surface at unconscious levels. So CNN is doing all of us a favor when they run their poll with a focus group while the speech is being delivered.

There were two moments that Trump connected with almost the full audience. The beginning of the speech and the price of drugs. He hit the two notes that are radically opposed by liberals and conservatives. The former prefer the nurturing figure, the latter prefer the stern father. He addressed both of them. “I am going to take care of you (nurturer) and punish the evil doer (stern father.)

There was also quite a bit of triangulating. Trump was reaching to Democrats or at least Democratic issues. From the speech:

 Dying industries will come roaring back to life. Heroic veterans will get the care they so desperately need.

This works at multiple levels, none conscious unless you work at it. Jobs have gone away. Some of these industries are in the energy sector (coal) and this is the nurturer promising something new.

The way that veterans (of which we will make more) is both a stern father talking to children, as well as a nurturer.It hits both powerful conservative and liberal frames.

This was a point that made little sense if you look at it factually. That is the surface level.

 We will stop the drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth — and we will expand treatment for those who have become so badly addicted.

This is a stern father promising to stop the bad people poisoning our youth. It was a tough law and order moral position. It played well in areas of the country where opioids are a real issue.

The facts do not bear this out. There are two reasons for this. Later in the speech he pledged to dismantle the same services that deal with addiction. He also never said that opioids are a problem caused by overprescribing from medical doctors in the United States.

He kept the use of fear in this part of the speech. We know from data that this is not the case fully. But it works to activate the tough patent, moral story telling.

 According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted for terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country. We have seen the attacks at home -– from Boston to San Bernardino to the Pentagon and yes, even the World Trade Center.

This creates the dichotomy of us vs them. This is also one example of the many in the speech. It is moral storytelling, with a nationalist bent. It also set the ground for the president to fully embrace the 2013 Senate Bill that was never taken up by the House. It was the beginnings of the triangulation that is taking away an issue from democrats.

Later in the speech he said:

 Nations around the world, like Canada, Australia and many others –- have a merit-based immigration system. It is a basic principle that those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially. Yet, in America, we do not enforce this rule, straining the very public resources that our poorest citizens rely upon

I will not belabor the point of whether this ability to support oneself is there or not. Factually he is incorrect. I say that as an immigrant. However, this merit-based system was first proposed by President Barack Obama, embraced by the Chamber of Commerce, and adopted by the US Senate in 2013. This was textbook triangulation.

There were others. They were not classic Republican points. He is tugging the GOP leftward. He embraced fully the renewal of American infrastructure. He also adopted fully school choice. However, this has been a bipartisan goal.

His words, however, gave it a new mythic basis. He equated school choice to civil rights. In this sense, he created a new powerful language that will make it harder to reject. Never mind the Black Colleges rose from Jim Crow laws. We expect this to become a talking point. At the mythic level, it is very powerful.

So in the end, Trump triangulated immigration, infrastructure, schools and even the inner cities away from Democrats. It was skillful. It worked. He engaged his base with a good dose of fear but reached across to undecided and independent voters with the mythic model of the caring parent.

The beauty of this is that hardcore Republicans were made uncomfortable by some of the nurturing appeals, but were scared by the doses of fear inserted every so often. Democrats were quite frankly disarmed.

The morning after we will have to ask the obvious factual question. How do you pay for tax cuts, massive tax reform, and both a surcharge in military spending and infrastructure buildup? Facts don’t matter in mythic realities. The policy does not matter either. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were experts in making us feel good while deploying a myth. Trump showed potential in doing precisely that.

In the process, he is changing the Republican Party and it is shifting left. It is not very obvious yet. But the process has started, in the same way, that Clinton started the shift right for the Democrats. However, Trump is far more aware of morality and how it plays a role in politics than any of the Democratic leadership trying to oppose him. Until Democrats learn how frames do matter, they will continue to have their lunch taken away by Republicans. They barely communicate with their base and have no idea how to frame the debate in ways that will be convincing to people who are not into their story.

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