George Lakoff has once again identified a vexing and paradoxical challenge to liberal politics: Should we pay attention to everything President Donald Trump says, or should we pick and choose what to focus on?
The problem, according to the eminent cognitive scientist, is that chasing every tweet allows the president to frame the debate in ways preferable to him and his Republican Party. Worse, Lakoff wrote in a series of tweets, repeating Trump’s framing “embeds them deeply in the brains of millions of people” as well as increases “his credibility with his base.”
“He acts, his opponents only react. He is in heroic control.”
I’m not sure that's true.
I might have agreed with Lakoff during the George W. Bush years, when race-baiting was covert, lying more sophisticated and corruption more subliminal. But in this new era, in which everything about Trump is out in the open, I have a hard time believing he is in control and his opponents are only reacting. He may be heroic to his base, but that base is shrinking. His strength is furthermore borne of profound weakness.
Part of my complaint is that Lakoff’s formulation seems doubtful that citizens can come to sane conclusions on their own when given the right amount of reliable information. I understand well our present moment of conspiracy theory and propaganda, an era in which the United States will not defend itself against hostile foreign attacks on its elections and democratic will. But we are also living in a time when conservatism—the once dominant school of political thought in Washington—is contracting in its influence. This president is the logical outcome of policy positions and rhetorical strategies taken by leaders in the Republican Party for the last four decades. This president is in essence a bright line that many Americans now realize they will not cross.
In the last 48 hours, the president has called for the jailing of political opponents; attacked freedom of the press and freedom of speech; and threatened North Korea with nuclear war. This is on top of an established pattern of alienating allies and embracing foes; widespread corruption in his administration (as recently reported by Bloomberg Businessweek); and what appears to be bribery by foreign governments who curry favor by soliciting his properties around the world. In general, Trump acts as if he’s not the president of the United States of America (which, by the way, includes Puerto Rico) but the president of the Republican base of America.
The Republican Party, moreover, is deeply compromised. It can no longer claim to be the party of family values because Trump’s immigration policies are ripping families apart. It can no longer claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility because the GOP’s tax overhaul adds trillions to the country’s $20 trillion in debt. It can no longer claim to be the party of state’s rights because that law punishes blue states for voting Democratic. It can’t be the party of constitutional conservatism because the GOP enables Trump’s assault on checks and balances, the Bill of Rights and the rule of law.
All of this has led conservative intellectuals to rethink their past positions, among them Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, Max Boot of Foreign Policy and David Frum of The Atlantic. Their rethinking of conservatism is a microcosmic form of a macrocosmic pattern in which conservatism’s sphere of influence is shrinking. As Frum put it, “The project of defending [Trump] against his coming political travails—or at least of assailing those who doubt and oppose him—is already changing what it means to be a conservative.”
But that’s not where this ends. As conservatism’s sphere of influence shrinks, liberalism’s is growing. I can only speak for myself, but what I see on social media is startling: people pledging allegiance to the principles of liberalism—freedom and equality—but discovering in the Trump era these are liberalism’s core. As Max Boot put it in an important essay, “If the Trump era teaches us anything, it is how far we still have to go to realize the ‘unalienable Rights’ of all Americans to enjoy ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,’ regardless of gender, sexuality, religion, or skin color.”
And many appear to be waking up to the fact that much of what they thought was liberalism was the creation of conservative ideology—distortions, misrepresentations or outright falsehoods. I can’t help thinking that the growing awareness of the Russian threat has somehow snapped a majority of people out of their stupor, encouraging them to realize democracy is insufficient to real freedom. For that, we need to defend and protect liberal democracy.
None of this is to say Lakoff is off base. I’m just not as dubious of our obsessive tendency these days to debate and re-debate Trump's tweets. This president wants more attention, and some argue we should not give it to him. But there’s good reason we should. The more honest conservatives know about Trump, the more liberal they get. That, to me, is worth the risk of overexposure to this president's tweets.
John Stoehr is a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, an essayist for the New Haven Register and a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor.
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