Overnight the world learned that President Trump and the First Lady both tested positive for COVID-19. I wish them a full recovery.
But our challenge isn’t that Trump has COVID-19; it’s that the nation does. And it didn’t have to be this way.
A Teachable Moment: Patterns of Crisis
We are in a very teachable moment.
Crises follow predictable patterns. One is that most harm in a crisis is self-inflicted. Sometimes the initial crisis event itself is self-inflicted. But even when it isn’t, most of the loss of trust, confidence, and competitive position is self-inflicted because of an ineffective response.
A foundational principle of crisis response is to understand the scope and severity of a crisis and the risks it represents, and to respond based on those risks. Donald Trump never did.
On January 28 Trump’s national security advisor told him that COVID-19 would be the single largest national security threat in his presidency.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, Director of Columbia University’s Pandemic Resource & Response Initiative
On February 7 Trump admitted to Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward that COVID-19 is spread in the air and is more deadly than the flu.
Compartmentalize the problem or solution. Trump did.
Tell misleading half truths. Trump did.
Lie. Trump did.
Tell only part of what you did. Trump did.
Blame others for your failures. Trump did.
Over-confess. On this one, Trump did not.
Panic, leading to bad decision-making. Trump did.
Shoot the messenger when you receive bad news. Trump did.
Trump has committed nine of the ten missteps when it comes to COVID-19.
The Human Consequences of the Missteps
COVID-19 cases on October 2, 202
Unlike other crises, this has had significant human consequence. At least 75 percent of the cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. would not have happened. And 150,000 people, according to Dr. Redlener, would still be alive.Leaders are judged based on how they deal with their most significant challenges. Trump failed this leadership test. Given the magnitude of the failure of crisis response after Trump was fully aware of the risks, this may be the single worst failure of leadership in American history.
I have previously published that I believe Trump’s handling of COVID-19 to be the single worst handled crisis, and largest leadership failure, in American history.
Again, I wish both the President and the First Lady a full recovery. But perhaps now we can move to a national masking, social distancing, contract tracing, and testing policy.
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Logos Consulting Group is pleased to announce that the next book by Logos President Helio Fred Garcia is now available for pre-order.
Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It is about the power of communication to do great harm, and how civic leaders and engaged citizens can hold leaders accountable to prevent such harm. Garcia focuses on the forms of communication that condition an audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against a targeted group, rival, or critic.
Sending Up a Flare
In the book’s preface Garcia writes,
“In my teaching and research, I study patterns: patterns that help leaders enhance competitive advantage, build trust and loyalty, and change the world for the better. I study the patterns of audience engagement and audience reaction. I study persuasion and influence, and the power of language to change people, mostly for the better.”
But he also provides a caution:
“I’ve also been acutely aware of the use of communication to hurt, to harm, and to humiliate, and of how dehumanizing and demonizing language can lead some people to commit acts of violence. I typically don’t teach those things in a classroom, but I often send up a flare, warning students, former students, and others of the predictable, if unintended, consequences of speech that, under the right conditions, can influence people to accept, condone and commit violence against members of a group.”
Garcia notes that he found himself sending up many flares in recent years, but that something changed in 2018. In the Fall of that year he posted on social media persistent warnings about stochastic terrorism, the technical term for language that provokes some people to commit violence. He says,
“My concern grew into alarm as the 2018 mid-term elections approached and as President Trump’s language crossed a line. I worried that someone would be killed by Trump followers who embraced his increasingly incendiary rhetoric about immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, and critics.”
Garcia’s fears were soon realized.
“In a single week, about ten days before the mid-terms, two separate terror attacks took place: one killed eleven people at worship in a synagogue; one failed but had targeted a dozen Trump critics with mail bombs. In both cases the perpetrators justified their actions by quoting Trump language. One of them, the mail bomber, described his conversion from being apolitical to being ‘a soldier in the war between right and left’ that resulted from his several years in Trump’s orbit.”
The following day Garcia posted a blog on Daily Kos describing the relationship between language and violence. That post was republished by CommPro.biz. Words on Fire is the continuation of that original blog post.
In reflecting on the President’s language, Garcia noticed another pattern: the forms of his language were familiar. He realized that the president was using the very same rhetorical techniques that had preceded previous mass murders, including genocides. He worried that, left unchecked, the president would continue, with increasingly dire consequences.
Garcia explored the kinds of language that historically had preceded acts of mass violence. And he studied contemporary sources including the U.S. Holocaust Museum Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. The center defines “dangerous speech” as:
“speech that increases the risk for violence targeting certain people because of their membership in a group, such as an ethnic, religious, or racial group. It includes both speech that qualifies as incitement and speech that makes incitement possible by conditioning its audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against people who belong to a targeted group.”
One of the key elements of creating such conditions is to dehumanize others. The Center’s handbook Defusing Hate notes that:
“Dangerous speech often dehumanizes the group it targets (e.g., by calling its members rats, dogs, or lice), accuses the target group of planning to harm the audience, and presents the target group’s existence as a dire threat to the audience.”
Garcia also studied the work of Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley, who says that when leaders persistently dehumanize others they lessen the capacity of citizens to empathize.
Dangerous speech begins with dehumanization but doesn’t end there. Garcia has identified twelve communication techniques that individually and collectively create a social context that conditions an audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against people who belong to a targeted group. Each technique is a bit different from the other, although the individual techniques have elements in common. They serve as a kind of Playbook that malicious leaders have used to divide communities and to accumulate power. The twelve forms are:
Dehumanize: Calling groups of people animals or vermin who are infesting the nation.
Demonize/Delegitimize: Attributing to a group or rival a menacing, evil identity or calling into question the legitimacy or qualification of a group or rival.
Scapegoat: Blaming a group for all or many of the nation’s problems.
Public Health Threat: Claiming that members of a group are carrying or transmitting dangerous diseases.
Safety Threat: Claiming that a group, rival, or critic is a threat to public safety – likely to cause death or injury to the nation or to the dominant group – or is a threat to civic order.
Violent Motive: Claiming that a group has violent or hostile intentions toward a dominant group.
Severely Exaggerating Risk: Labelling a minor issue or routine event a major threat.
Sinister Identities: Attributing vague or sinister identities to a group or its members.
Conspiracy: Saying that something is part of a sinister conspiracy.
Discredit Information: Discrediting the source of objective information or of information critical of the leader.
Conflation: Conflating the leader and the state, so that any criticism of the leader is seen as an attack on the nation.
Menacing Image: Juxtaposing a menacing image (noose, swastika, flaming cross) with a person or person’s image, a location, or a facility associated with the target.
Words on Fire documents these forms of communication, and the consequences of that language, both before Trump and by Trump.
But it does more. It assesses how American political life came to this dangerous and demoralizing place.
And it offers hope, a path forward: a framework, a mindset, and a set of techniques to help civic leaders and informed citizens recognize the patterns of dangerous speech early, intervene early, hold those who use such language accountable for the consequences, and ideally prevent such violence in the first place.
Garcia and a team of researchers spent 14 months working on the book. In addition to studying historic mass killings that followed the persistent use of dangerous speech, Garcia and his researchers watched hundreds of rallies, interviews, and public appearances by Donald Trump as candidate and president, and read thousands of his tweets. Garcia also examined hate crime violence statistics and trends. And he examined national security and law enforcement scholarship on lone wolf violence up to and including lone wolf terrorism. Garcia synthesizes the fruits of this research and describes how lone wolves develop a terrorist mindset and how they are activated to commit violence.
From Stochastic Terrorism to Lone-Wolf Whistle Terrorism
Since 9/11 the use of communication in ways that trigger lone wolves to commit acts of violence, up to and including terrorism, has been known as stochastic terrorism. The name comes from a principle in statistics and describes something that may be statistically predictable but not individually predictable.
But Garcia has concluded that the phrase stochastic terrorism is difficult to grasp, and even to say, and tends to limit discussion. He proposes a different way to describe the phenomenon, based on who is motivated to act on the communication – lone wolves – and what triggers them to so act – a kind of dog whistle that he calls a lone-wolf whistle.
“Acts of violence triggered by such language I call lone-wolf whistle violence. When such language triggers mass violence with a political, ideological, or similar motive I call it lone-wolf whistle terrorism.”
A Call to Action
Words on Fire also profiles leaders who stepped over the line and were called on it. All, in their own ways and in varying time frames, stopped what they were doing. As responsible leaders do.
Garcia also explores humility as an essential leadership attribute that makes empathy possible. It is empathy that allows leaders to see the damage their rhetoric may cause, and humility and empathy that lead them to stop.
The book closes by providing a framework for civic leaders, engaged citizens, journalists, and public officials to recognize when a leader may have crossed the line, and a way to understand the likely consequences of dangerous speech. Garcia takes the Lone-Wolf Whistle Terrorism Playbook and recasts it as a toolkit or checklist in the form of questions to ask that can help determine whether a leader’s rhetoric is likely to inspire lone wolves to take matters into their own hands.
Early reaction to Words on Fire by those who have read the manuscript has been quite positive, and the book has several early endorsers.
David Lapan, Colonel, USMC (ret), former Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security spokesman, says:
“Language is power, and powerful. It can uplift, or harm. Helio Fred Garcia is an astute student of language and communication. This book offers historic examples, keen insights and valuable advice on recognizing patterns of language that can harm or lead to violence.”
Evan Wolfson, Founder, Freedom to Marry, says:
“Drawing on history and his deep expertise in communications, Helio Fred Garcia documents how Trump’s barrage of hate, divisiveness, falsehoods, and triggering are even uglier and more dangerous than we thought, right out of the autocrat’s playbook. During the Nixon administration, John Dean blew the whistle on the ‘cancer growing on the presidency.’ Words on Fire provides a clear and alarming CAT-scan of the cancer growing from this presidency, and a highly readable guide to how we can call out and combat Trump’s toxic language and malignant agenda, pushing back against the corrosive forces that enable Trumpism and put our country in such peril.”
James E. Lukaszewski, America’s Crisis Guru®, says:
“Many of us were taught a lie as youngsters that sticks and stones can break our bones, but words will never hurt us. Fred courageously, graphically and powerfully illustrates that it is words on fire that bloodlessly, without scars or visible traces cause deep internal permanent damage while often triggering accompanying physical damage. And that if we remain silent one victim incinerated by words on fire damages the rest of us.”
“Words On Fire should be mandatory reading and a guide book for every reporter and editor anywhere. Journalists have significant responsibility for spreading the flames of intentionally incendiary, punitive, abusive language. There should be ethical and cultural sanctions for mindlessly but intentionally originating or transmitting dangerous language. Every business school needs to develop courses for managers and leaders in detoxifying and extinguishing fiery, intentionally emotional and harmful language, whatever the source, followed by every religious leader and elected official. Important institutions in our society and culture have the affirmative responsibility to stand up and speak out against the users and use of words on fire.“
Public reaction has also been positive. In the week after Words on Fire became available for Amazon pre-order, it became the Amazon #1 New Release in Rhetoric and #2 in New Releases in Public Administration the #3 best seller in Public Administration.
Words on Fire is scheduled for publication in mid-June. It is available for pre-order in both paperback and kindle edition.
Prior Books by Logos President
Words on Fire is Garcia’s fifth book. His first, published in 1998, was the two-volume Crisis Communications, now out of print.
Garcia has been on the New York University faculty since 1988. He is an adjunct professor of management in NYU’s Stern School of Business Executive MBA program, where he teaches crisis management, and where he was named Executive MBA Great Professor. He is an adjunct associate professor of management and communication in NYU’s School of Professional Studies, MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication program, where he twice received the Dean’s award for teaching excellence, in 1990 and in 2017. In that program he teaches courses in communication strategy; in communication ethics, law, and regulation; and in crisis communication.
Garcia is an adjunct associate professor of professional development and leadership at Columbia University, where he teaches ethics, crisis, and leadership in the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. Garcia is also a Senior Fellow in the Institute of Corporate Communication at Communication University of China in Beijing.
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This week the Donald Trump phenomenon seemed to reach a tipping point, with Republican leaders scrambling to prevent his continued wins in the primaries, and with debate discourse hitting new lows. Not only did we see him feign ignorance of David Duke and the KKK, but we were even treated to debate commentary about the relative size of the candidate’s genitals.
Trump: Not a Cause But a Consequence
But the rise of Donald Trump as the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, and all the bipartisan angst it is creating, is not a cause but rather a consequence.
It is the predictable result of decades of degradation of political discourse, facilitated by a media more interested in grabbing an audience’s attention than in covering issues. And the worst part is that we should have seen it coming.
In fact, we could have seen it coming if we had known what to look for. And we should have known.
Even now as the frightening reality is finally being recognized, we seem to be grappling only with the symptom of the problem — what Trump says and how to prevent him from ever being in a position of authority — without recognizing that there’s a greater challenge that will continue regardless of how we address the immediate problem.
We can solve the Trump problem but still be as vulnerable to another authoritarian figure who energizes the disenfranchised, the angry, and the scared to similar effect.
Most educated Americans are familiar with Nineteen Eighty-Four. That popular novel is based in a dystopian future in a continuous state of war, where an intrusive and authoritarian government keeps people uninformed, and where political language is intentionally misleading. So the Ministry of Peace wages war. The Ministry of Truth controls all information, news, propaganda, and art. The Ministry of Plenty rations food. Our term “Orwellian” refers to the use of language to convey the opposite of reality.
But most educated Americans are not familiar with the essay that served as the novel’s basis. Sadly, Politics and the English Language helps us understand the current state of the American body politic, and it isn’t pretty.
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”
“Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties… – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
The problem arises when politicians use language in a disingenuous way, asserting things they don’t necessarily believe and making arguments that may sound compelling but that logically don’t make sense.
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”
But however damaging individual instances of political language, of insincere speech, or of intentionally misleading statements may be, it’s the effect of these that causes harm.
The central idea in Politics and the English Language is this:
Political speech has the effect of reducing citizens’ critical reasoning skills….
…This creates a self-perpetuating cycle…
…where as people become less discerning they become more susceptible to political speech…
…which further diminishes their critical reasoning skills…
…and so on…
…and so on…
…until a fully uninformed public creates conditions for authoritarian government to thrive.
A Cause Can Become an Effect, And So On:
It’s The Cycle That Matters
The key idea, though, is the relationship between cause and effect.
Orwell notes that an effect can become a cause, and a cause can become an effect. It’s the cycle that matters. And in the end the result is a citizenry that remains intentionally ignorant of the issues that matter, unaware of what is happening to them, and easily manipulated by politicians.
“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.”
“Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
The predictable result of this cycle is a citizenry that is easily manipulated, that becomes immune to persuasion by evidence and reasoning, and that doesn’t notice the multiple contradictions all around.
Identity-Protective Cognition Thesis
Three years ago Orwell’s argument that political language causes a decline in critical thinking was supported by research by professors at Yale, Cornell, Ohio State, and the University of Oregon. Their study, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government, showed that math problems that seem to be about benign topics are easily solved by people with strongly held political views. But when the same math problems are framed in terms of polarized political issues — in this case, gun rights — both progressive-and-conservative-leaning participants have a very hard time getting the math right.
The authors conclude that
“Subjects [use] their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks.”
A 2011 essay in Mother Jones by Chris Mooney on the neuroscience of political reasoning helps us understand why this is so. The piece begins with seminal research from the early fifties by famous Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger, who concluded:
“A man with conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
“Since Festinger’s day, an array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions.”
“This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.”
For example, Susan Harding, a professor of anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, who has written extensively about the religious right, explained a process called “revoicing.” She described revoicing as creating apparent structures of legitimacy and embedding within them positions, points of view, or ideologies that would not pass muster in actual legitimate institutions. She says that this revoicing process leads to controversial positions and institutions becoming mainstream by co-opting the symbols and vocabulary of the mainstream. She gives an example of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell:
“Falwell’s church ministries, media and political organizations, and educational institutions were, in effect, a hive of cultural workshops in which both fundamentalist and secular ideas, images, narratives, and practices were smelted, refashioned, melded, packaged, and distributed with spectacular success.
Falwell’s Lynchburg Baptist College morphed into a liberal arts college, Liberty Baptist College, and then into a university, Liberty University. The Museum of Earth and Life History on its campus occupied the cultural space of a museum of natural history, but recorded displays of man and beast with the assumptions of creation science rather than evolution. Liberty Godparent Homes converted a former home for unwed mothers into a staging ground for pro-life save-a-baby narratives that in turn revoiced feminist story lines in born-again Christian terms.
We can see this revoicing, this co-opting of mainstream symbols, vocabularies, and institutions, playing out over the last decade:
The Creation Museum, which has the look and feel of a science or natural history museum, but whose exhibits and educational material assert that the earth is only thousands of years old, that evolution is a fraud, and that humans and dinosaurs co-existed.
The Intelligent Design Institute, which seems to be a think tank and educational organization is really a media and production group whose work is used to refute the scientific theory of evolution.
Fox News, ostensibly an objective news organization, but whose editorial focus in the promotion of conservative causes and candidates. It even has an appropriately Orwellian slogan, “We report, you decide.”
This process provides cover for those who would ignore mathematics, science, and observation and insist that reality is consistent with a particular political, social, or religious viewpoint. Take, for example, a fourth grade science quiz administered by a religiously-affiliated school in South Carolina. The student received a perfect grade for answers that would have been marked as incorrect in a school, religious or otherwise, with a mainstream science curriculum; in fact, some of the quiz’ questions would have been unintelligible in a more traditional science curriculum. But this approach is influencing millions of citizens and future voters.
At about the same time the revoicing discussion was taking place, the new late night comedy host Stephen Colbert coined the phrase Truthiness to describe political discourse. Parodying Fox News, he defined truthiness as preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true. As Colbert put it, “I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart.”
Sadly, what Colbert intended as a comedic take on misdirection has proven to be a defining element of much modern political debate. Candidates argue not the truth they know but the truth they wish, as if it were known.
Why All Heart Matters
Colbert differentiated between thinking with the brain and knowing with the heart. He actually hit on something profound about how humans make judgments, and why it’s so easy for political language to have the Orwellian effect.
“The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience: Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it.”
“That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.”
“We’re not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.”
“We have seen this trend for several decades, where for political expediency citizens have been conditioned to not trust any source of news that includes conclusions contrary to those consistent with a political point of view.”
We Apply Fight-or-Flight Reflexes
Not Only to Predators, But to Data Itself
Such citizens, who reflexively flee from the facts, are unlikely to be aware of, or even care about, contradictions among any candidate’s positions. Simultaneously holding two contrary positions, the very definition of absurdity, would ordinarily dismiss someone as not to be taken seriously. But in the political world such contradictions seem not to matter.
In such an environment citizens literally are unable to notice absurdities. But the same part of the brain, the Amygdala, that causes the flight response also causes the fight response. So any intruder is seen to be worthy of a fight. And violence tends to ensue.
And as the French philosopher Voltaire once warned, “those who can make us believe absurdities can make us commit atrocities.”
So within a week of Trump calling for a ban of all Muslims entering the country, we saw a rash of attacks on mosques and on people perceived to be Muslim or Arab. We have seen people removed from his rallies while being taunted by Trump from the podium, calling for his supporters to punch the person being removed in the face; to have the crowd strip people of their coats before sending them into the freezing weather. This week, after his flirtation with the KKK and white supremacists, we saw peaceful non-protesting black students ejected from his rallies, and at least one white supremacist leader assault a black woman as she was being removed from the rally.
“The single best predictor of Trump support in the GOP primary is the absence of a college degree. ”
“Diplomas are what Ron Brownstein calls the “new Republican fault line.” In 2012, Mitt Romney struggled for months to consolidate support because, even as he had clear support among college-educated Republicans, he fared worse among non-college voters.”
So there’s more than a passing coincidence in Trump’s cheering “I love the poorly educated!” after the Las Vegas caucuses.
“Voters who agreed with the statement “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were 86.5 percent more likely to prefer Trump. This feeling of powerlessness and voicelessness was a much better predictor of Trump support than age, race, college attainment, income, attitudes towards Muslims, illegal immigrants, or Hispanic identity.”
This helps explain voters’ reports that they support Trump because he speaks what they feel.
There is also a fear of the other:
“Trump has clearly played on fears of non-white outsiders, by likening Mexican immigrants to rapists, promising to deport illegal immigrants and to build a wall between the U.S. and its neighbors, pledging to keep Muslims out of the country during the Syrian diaspora, and playing coy with his relationship with the KKK.”
“But he has also told a simple three-part narrative to attract the despondent demographic: America is losing; Donald Trump is a winner; and if Trump becomes president, America will become a winner, too. This Great Man Theory of political change, however, strikes others as potentially dangerous…”
Fourth, Trump voters want to wage war against outsiders, both those within and those beyond our borders. According to Matthew MacWilliams of University of Massachusetts, Amherst,
“The classic definition of authoritarianism implies a tradeoff — more security for less liberty — but MacWilliams says it’s also about identifying threatening outsiders and granting individuals special powers to pursue aggressive policies to destroy them. The best predictor of Trump support… [is] “authoritarianism … [and] a personal fear of terrorism” that best predicted Trump’s support across the state.”
“Trump’s foreign policy, like his policy for anything, is a muddle. He’s cautious toward the Israel-Palestine conflict, yet he told Fox News he would kill the families of ISIS members to stop their advance, something awfully close to a public pledge to commit war-crimes.”
“But it’s his domestic security policies that have been astonishingly hawkish. He’s promised to shut down mosques, keep a database of Muslims, and round up the children of illegal immigrants. Indeed, when you put it together, Trump’s hysterical promises to protect his white in-group from non-white outsiders looks like race-baiting…”
His support seems to be strongest in places with history of racial animosity:
“According to the New York Times’ Nate Cohn, who used data from Civis Analytics, Trump’s support is strongest from the Gulf Coast, through the Appalachian Mountains, to New York, among marginally attached Republicans (possibly former Democrats). It is a familiar map for some demographers, since it’s similar to a heat map of Google searches for racial slurs and jokes. “That Mr. Trump’s support is strong in similar areas does not prove that most or even many of his supporters are motivated by racial animus,” Cohn writes. “But it is consistent with the possibility that at least some are.”
And what to Trump voters care about? According to a Public Policy Polling survey of Trump voters in South Carolina,
70% think the Confederate flag should still be flying over the State Capital; only 20% who agree with it being taken down.
38% of Trump voters say they wish the South had won the Civil War; only 24% are glad the North won and 38% aren’t sure.
36% of Republican primary voters in the state are glad the North emerged victorious; 30% are for the South, but Trump’s the only one whose supporters actually wish the South had won.
By an 80/9 spread, Trump voters support his proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States.
31% would support a ban on homosexuals entering the United States as well, something no more than 17% of anyone else’s voters think is a good idea.
There’s also 62/23 support among Trump voters for creating a national database of Muslims and 40/36 support for shutting down all the mosques in the United States, something no one else’s voters back.
Only 44% of Trump voters think the practice of Islam should even be legal at all in the United States; 33% think it should be illegal. To put all the views toward Muslims in context, though, 32% of Trump voters continue to believe the policy of Japanese internment during World War II was a good one, compared to only 33% who oppose it and 35% who have no opinion one way or another.
Fixing The Body Politic
So what can the nation do to halt the decline and to make things better?
The first thing to note is that things will surely get worse before they get better.
The second is to recognize that there is no easy fix.
Again, Trump is not the problem. He’s the current symptom of the problem. South Carolina voters do not hold their positions BECAUSE of Trump. Trump is merely the person who happens to appeal to their views now.
Rather, the problem is that authoritarian government depends on uninformed, scared, and angry voters, who can channel their negative emotions toward others, and who see in their candidate some relief from their anxieties.
Orwell told us that. And we have seen it play out over the last few decades.
The problem is a body politic that is comfortable being uninformed and suspicious of facts, data and people with whom they don’t agree or connect.
But the problem arose because of the convergence of social, technological, political, economic, and demographic trends over decades. The solution is also decades-long. Regardless of who happens be be the next president.
The central question of our republic is this: Do we continue down the path where authoritarian government becomes both inevitable and seemingly natural, or do we recommit to actual democracy?
There is much we would need to do.
But over the long term, the only sustainable solution will be a restoration of a core founding value of education. Of elevating the ability of voters to think clearly and to discern carefully.
Indeed, founding father Thomas Jefferson called for education as the key to democracy.
Jefferson becomes the antidote to Orwell.
Jefferson: An Educated Citizenry
is Necessary for a Thriving Democracy
Throughout his life, including before and after serving as president, Jefferson noted that education is the key to accepting others and to exercising effective citizenship. (Indeed, on his tombstone, he lists only three accomplishments: author of the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom; author of the Declaration of Independence; and founder of the University of Virginia. His term as president didn’t make the cut.)
Among his views on the relation between education and democracy:
“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”
“The most effectual means of preventing [the perversion of power into tyranny are] to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibits, that possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.”
And, as if in direct rebuke to Donald Trump:
“No nation is permitted to live in ignorance with impunity.”
“[I have] a conviction that science is important to the preservation of our republican government, and that it is also essential to its protection against foreign power.”
A Decent Respect for the Opinions of Mankind
But of all the Jeffersonian notions, the one that most directly speaks to remedying the challenges Orwell describes is a little-remembered but central idea from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. In the opening paragraph, Jefferson describes why the Declaration was needed in the first place. He declared:
“…a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
That decent respect for the opinions of mankind goes in many directions:
A decent respect by politicians for the opinions of citizens.
A decent respect by citizens of this nation for the opinions of those in other nations.
A decent respect by governments for the people.
But decent respect has been sorely missing in American politics for some time. Orwell called it…
Please note: Helio Fred Garcia is executive director of Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership; board chair of the Interfaith Alliance Foundation; and an adjunct associate professor of management and communication at New York University School of Professional Studies, MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication, where he teaches, among other things, communication ethics. But the views expressed here are solely his own and not necessarily reflective of any other entity.
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In international affairs, some phrases are so consistently misused that they should immediately arouse suspicion: “The talks were productive.” “Our civilian nuclear energy program.” “We cannot confirm or deny.” And here’s another one: “People’s Democratic Republic.”
People’s Democratic Republics are actually the least likely countries to be popular, democratic, or republican.
Let’s start with a look at how countries name themselves. Founding fathers like George Washington, Mohandas Gandhi, and Ho Chi Minh all have something in common with more conventional parents: Arguing over baby names. For example, Macedonia, grown from a baby to a teenager, is embroiled even still in a bitter naming dispute with Greece — which is formally named the Hellenic Republic.
Most countries’ formal names consist of a geographic word (which we usually use as each country’s common name) with one or more types of modifiers:
Popularity: Words asserting that power belongs to the people. (Republic of France; Democratic Republic of the Congo; People’s Republic of China; Socialist Republic of Viet Nam)
Royalty: Words referencing a hereditary ruler. (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; Grand Duchy of Luxembourg; Sultanate of Oman)
Unity: Words implying togetherness or the sum of constituent parts. (Russian Federation; United States of America; Commonwealth of Australia)
A few countries combine categories (Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia), use other modifiers (Independent State of Samoa), or eschew descriptions altogether (Canada). But for all their revolutionary boldness, most national founders have settled on the safe choice: Simply “Republic.”
Just four countries have dared to bedazzle their names with a Popularity trifecta: The People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria; the Lao(s) People’s Democratic Republic; the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea; and the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. But these utopian names belie bleaker conditions on the ground.
There’s an Orwellian trend in national names.
Each year, the NGO Freedom House publishes an international index of political rights and civil liberties — in other words, of how popular, democratic, and republican countries actually are. These rankings show that the more Popularity words a country’s name includes, the fewer political and social freedoms its people tend to have.
George Orwell’s Politcs and the English Language decries imprecision and obfuscation in the political language of his time. And that was 1946. Orwell, who died before any of the three-Popularity-word countries was established, would be shocked at how far doublespeak has come.
What explains this combination of lofty language in official documents and base repression in the streets?
Perhaps the founders who peppered their countries’ names with Popularity words really did intend to conceal the authoritarian flavors they planned. Or perhaps their chosen names are evidence of unattainably good intentions that inevitably went awry.
But the most important factor in these countries’ lack of political and social freedom may be their age. Countries with multiple Popularity words in their names tend to be founded more recently than other countries. That means they’ve had less time to develop open political norms and institutions. In naming their countries, these founders may simply have been victims of a long-term uptrend in Orwellian language — a scourge yet absent when the longstanding Kingdoms and Republics of, say, liberal Europe were born.
Whatever the cause, treat the phrase “People’s Democratic Republic” like you’d treat the phrase “We cannot confirm or deny”: When you hear it, take a closer look.
The United Nations list of formal country names is available here (PDF), and the Freedom House 2014 Freedom in the World report is available here. Note that the Freedom House data in this post has been inverted (so that higher numbers mean more political and social freedom, rather than less) and shifted (from a 1-7 scale to a 0-6 scale) for ease of understanding. All of the original rankings and the differentials between them are fully preserved.
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Communication has power. But as with any powerful tool, if misused it can easily be dissipated or cause self-inflicted harm.
The Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, and former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government, Joseph Nye, defines power as the ability to get what you want. In his 2001 book The Paradox of American Power, Nye distinguishes between hard power – military force and economic might – and soft power – attraction. He says that the paradox is this: the more a nation uses hard power, the more it dissipates soft power. But it can use soft power all it wants without in any way diminishing its hard power.
In his 2011 book, The Future of Power, professor Nye describes a power shift from state players to ordinary people. This power shift changes the game for all concerned: for corporations, for NGOs, for governments, and for all others. The power shift is this: what used to be the exclusive domain of governments, militaries, and corporations, are now the domain of regular people.
In a TED Talk at Oxford University he put it this way:
“Computing and communication costs have fallen a thousand-fold between 1970 and the beginning of this century… If the price of an automobile had fallen as rapidly as computing power you could buy a car today for five dollars. …In 1970 if you wanted to communicate from Oxford to Johannesburg to New Delhi to Brasilia to anywhere, you could to it. The technology was there. But to do it, you had to be very rich. A government. A multi-national. A corporation…. But you had to be pretty wealthy. Now, anybody has that capacity… So capabilities that were once restricted, are now available to everyone. And what that means is not that the age of the State is over, the State still matters, but the stage is crowded.”
We saw that power shift in 2011 when the Chinese government initially lied about a high-speed train crash and its victims. But Chinese citizens took to the Chinese versions of social media, Sina Weibo and Renren, and embarrassed the Chinese premier into coming clean.
Information as an Instrument of Power
A new contribution to this discussion comes from Dr. Amy Zalman, in a recent policy piece in Perspectives. Dr. Zalman, who is currently the Department of Defense Information Integration Chair at the National War College, grapples with a paradox about information as an instrument of power.
In “Getting the Information Albatross Off Our Back: Notes Toward an Information-Savvy National Security Community, Dr. Zalman notes, “while the effects of the information revolution on national security deepen, the American ability to act powerfully in these new circumstances remains shallow.”
“We are virtually drowning in information —the words, images, and sounds through which humans communicate meaning to each other via various technologies, from the human voice to remote sensors. Yet, the United States wields ‘the information instrument of national power’ — as national security parlance would have it — poorly.”
Dr. Amy Zalman
She observes that rapid advances in communication technology have fundamentally changed society – not only relations between citizens and governments, but for all forms of institutions among themselves, and among those who matter to them. She says,
“These changes are so profound as to have chipped away at the bedrock of the international system, the sovereign state. Once considered inviolable, the autonomous boundaries of states are now transgressed daily by people, news, and ideas set in motion by new technologies.
Yet no such revolution has occurred concerning the United States’ priorities when it comes to using informational power. Both in normative documents, such as the National Security Strategy, and in actual practice, the United States appears to think little of informational power as a strategic instrument.”
We Need a Mindshift to Accompany the Power Shift
Zalman argues that incremental reforms will not resolve the basic problem: The United States organizes information activities on the basis of a Cold War mindset.
“During the Cold War, it made good sense to think of the informational ‘instrument’ of power as the capacity to inject American values into populations whose governments and/or technological advancement limited their access to outside ideas.”
Hence the overwhelming success then of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. They projected American voices to where they could not otherwise be heard.
But Dr. Zalman admonishes that we are no longer in the Cold War.
“Soon, almost everyone in the world will be able to receive as well as disseminate informational content. There are few populations that are unknowingly isolated from others’ media. The ideological landscape is variegated and complex, not bipolar.”
Consider the failure of US public diplomacy in the aftermath of 9/11:
“The failure of the Cold War/Industrial Age model should be clear from the informational debacles of the ‘global war on terror.’ In the decade following the 9/11 attacks, just as in the Cold War, the United States sought to “tell its story” to Muslim publics that we imagined not only as isolated from information about the United States, but as geographically secluded in Muslim majority countries.
The effort backfired among not only satellite TV- saturated cosmopolitans in Arab and Western capitals, but also provincial Afghans who in some areas had not heard of the 9/11 attacks. In both cases, the mistake was the same: the United States failed to note that people everywhere already have their own narratives, their own histories, and their own ways of articulating even the values we universally share.”
Prescriptions for Effective Use of Information as an Instrument of Power
Dr. Zalman calls for a new conceptual framework and a new alignment of resources to mobilize power within that framework. It consists of the following:
Retire the Cold War/Industrial Age Information Model.
Instill a New Framework of Information Power. Using information powerfully today requires the ability to
“Act in accordance with the fact that actions, as well as intended communications, relay meaning to others
Use different kinds of communicative media to distribute and collect information
Develop and sustain networks required to tackle multi-disciplinary issues
Engage other stakeholders by aligning goals and interests on an issue-by-issue basis
Navigate the symbolic territory of adversaries, friends, and key stakeholders. By ‘symbolic territory,’ I mean that landscape of historical memory, stories, images, figures of speech, and metaphors through which people understand and relate their experiences.”
3. The education of professional senior leaders should reflect and promote a new framework of thinking.
4. The United States Government should organize informational activities to generate informational power.
“Today, we need a new model that reflects the fact that all government actions and activities are potentially communicative, and that this situation poses both risks and opportunities. Every agency should house an office of informational power to develop proactive communications risk strategies, to exploit opportunities for mutual engagement— whether military exercises or agricultural exchanges— and to coordinate with other USG agencies.”
Lessons for Leaders and Communicators in Business and Other Realms
Whether at the national level or at the level of individual business enterprises, NGOs, not-for-profits, and other organizations, we need to think differently about telling our story.
It’s not about telling our story. It’s about connecting with our stakeholders, and having them share in our story. We need to be as good at listening as at sending messages. We can’t direct until we connect. Or as I say in The Power of Communication, we can’t move people until we meet them where they are. But that means knowing where they are; caring about where they are; and mobilizing resources to actually connect.
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Over the past 8 months I have had the good fortune to spend time in Beijing, Paris, Zurich, and Marrakech, Morocco, speaking with leaders of governments, the military, religious institutions, humanitarian organizations, universities, and other social institutions.
And in my travels I detected something I hadn’t noticed before: a meaningful deterioration in the regard with which the United States is held. Not about particular events, but a general decline in respect and admiration. Not of Americans, but of the nation’s role in the world.
I’ll blog about this more later, but Sunday’s New York Times has a series of pieces that prompt me to revisit those observations and also to use them as a teachable moment to illustrate some key principles from my latest book.
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The United States government is finally taking strategic communication seriously.
This week President Obama used all the instruments of diplomacy to advance the US foreign policy agenda, including getting Russia, France, and Britain to stand with the US against continued nuclear development by Iran.
President Obama’s wins at the UN and in the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh this week are just the latest indication of a more mature and intentional foreign policy that aims at influencing world leaders and the world community in ways that increase the security of the United States.
An important element of this new approach is a renewed emphasis on effective public diplomacy.
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Words shape world views. Words provoke action and reaction, which in turn provoke more words. Getting the words right is critically important. Getting the action right is also critically important. And aligning the words and actions is even more important.
Much public diplomacy and other national and international discourse of the U.S. government in recent years has gotten it wrong.
A new policy paper by a Dr. Amy Zalman, published by the EastWest Institute, highlights the mis-steps of the recent past and prescribes solutions for future public discourse.
Dr. Zalman is a senior strategist at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), where she focuses on trans-culturally astute research for U.S. government clients. She also writes the “About Terrorism” reference website for New York Times online division About.com. She has a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies from NYU and is highly proficient in Arabic. I met her when we were NYU faculty colleagues.
In reading Dr. Zalman’s assessment of and prescriptions for future public diplomacy I was struck by how much her underlying philosophy aligns deeply with Logos Institute’s own philosophy about communication as an instrument of strategy. And also how her assessment provides valuable insights not only on ways to counter extremism, but also on best practices in strategic communication across a range of disciplines. Read more
Senator Barack Obama yesterday announced an effort to deal with rumors in a timely way, to prevent them from taking hold and throwing his campaign off balance.
He’s right to be so concerned. Rumors can throw a presidential campaign off its game, and provide adversaries, critics, and opponents with a first-mover advantage that’s hard to beat. The last 20 years teach a great deal about the importance of effective rumor control.
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Almost 20 years ago I was head of communication at a major company, and I spent much of every day speaking with reporters. The deal I had with the CEO was straightforward: “I won’t lie to you; I won’t lie for you; you can’t lie to me.”
At one point my boss lied to me, hoping I would pass the lie on to the press. I called him on it, and he promised not to do it again. Then he did it again. I unknowingly passed the lie on to reporters. They found out, and called me on it. So I quit.
Leaving my job wasn’t a hard decision, even though it was a painful one. Among other things, my wife was pregnant with our first child. And I didn’t have another job to go to. But it was one of the best decisions I’ve made.
Then as now I taught communication ethics in a graduate program at NYU. And one of the perennial questions of communication ethics is: When is it necessary to quit? I don’t suggest that there are easy answers. Every circumstance is a bit different. And it’s a highly personal choice. But there are consequences to making the wrong choice. And we all have to own the consequences of our choices.
Comes now Scott McClellan, in a tell-all book about his time as press secretary for President George W. Bush, that will be published next week. Read more
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