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article imageOp-Ed: Linguist George Lakoff explains how Trump tactics work

By Ken Hanly     Nov 17, 2018 in Politics
As many have pointed out Trumps tactics include outright lies, unsupported statements, and exaggerations. The well known American linguist argues that these tactics lead the media to respond in ways that help those tactics work in his favor.
In an interview with Lakoff in Vox Sean Illing talks to Lakoff about how Trumps' tactics work for him through the response of the media. Lakoff argues that Trumps' lies and half-truths, provide news events which the media exploits and immediately report.
Trump can thus determine the issues the press talks about and divert attention away from things that he does not want the media to report about. He creates the controversies he wants and and also says things that his base want to hear. At the same time the press is forced into an opposition role.
Press reaction to Trump helps his cause
Lakoff says of Trump: "He manipulates the media by constantly tweeting and saying more and more outrageous things. The media says, “Well, we have to cover the president. We have to repeat what he says.” But there is no real reason this has to happen. Journalists could, if they choose to, ignore the president’s tweets."
Illing points out that whether what Trump says is ridiculous or not it is taken as important because of his position and needs to be reported. Lakoff responds that when Trump says something and the press deny it they are actually helping him. Denying what he has said brings the issue to people's minds. As Lakoff puts it denying a frame puts that frame in mind.
Lakoff might mention that often the lie is not denied but just reported objectively and thus the frame is put in mind even without a denial and will stay in the consciousness of many who hear the lie or half truth.
Truth sandwiches
Lakoff's suggested response to the dilemma that reporting or even denying what Trump says can help Trump is to suggest that reporters should respond in the form of "truth sandwiches": " Journalists could engage in what I’ve called “truth sandwiches,” which means that you first tell the truth; then you point out what the lie is and how it diverges from the truth. Then you repeat the truth and tell the consequences of the difference between the truth and the lie." Lakoff says that if the media did this consistently then it would be more difficult for Trump to lie.
While this may be true, perhaps this would be considered be going beyond just reporting and providing an opinion piece. It would need research by the journalist to backup the claim that there was a lie. It would mean a lot more work for the journalist and the owners of the mass media might not go along with it since there could be considerable opposition to continually criticizing the president. The media is often dished out in short bits that simply report what important figures say.
Lakoff argues that the truth sandwich does more than just expose the truth Trump is attempting to suppress. It shows the difference between the two putting the truth first and then stating the lie and also putting the truth afterwards and discussing its consequences. This is why the sandwich metaphor is appropriate. Trump gets his message across by putting it first and then repeating it so it penetrates peoples' mind.
Lakoff admits that it will be difficult to convince people against Trump but says that if the media did not allow themselves to be manipulated by Trump it would be much more difficult for his tactics to work. As it is now the press appears that they must report everything he says which can just help him.
Lakoff argues that by merely reporting what the president says which could be considered just doing their job, they are simply reinforcing his communication strategy. I agree with Lakoff that just reporting what Trump says whether lie or truth or whatever, which would be considered objective reporting, could be to aid Trump in manipulating the public.
Calling a Trump lie a lie is to strengthen it
Lakoff suggests that the best way to avoid making Trump's tactic successful is not to report them. If you call what Trump says a lie you reinforce it in peoples' brains according to Trump. It may reinforce it positively in supporters of Trump but for others it surely can have the effect of regarding what he says on the issue in a negative manner even though it increases ones attention to the matter.
Illing points out that Trump has 55 million Twitter followers and there are many in the media who are happy to amplify any of his comments. Even though the rest of the media is silent the message will get through and amplified. Illing could note as well that the media could then be rightly accused of ignoring important statements that Trump makes and this would help energize his base and their criticism of the press.
Truth sandwiches as the backup tactic
If the media does feel it has to report on some of Trump's lies the best that can be done is to do it in form of truth sandwiches which will have the effect of reinforcing the truth rather than the lies. Given that Lakoff believes that people respond to language in terms of their underlying framework of values surely Trump supporters will filter out the truth in the truth sandwiches and see them as an attempt to hide the truth which for them is the lie. It is as they would say "fake news".
George Lakoff
George P. Lakoff was born on May 24 1941. He served as a Professor of Linguistics at the University of California in Berkeley from 1972 until he retired in 2016. He is a well known cognitive linguist and philosopher. He is known for his thesis that the lives of individuals are much influenced by the central metaphors they use to explain complex phenomena.
The conceptual metaphor thesis was introduced in a book he wrote with Mark Johnson in 1980 Metaphors We Live By. The views expressed in the book have been applied in politics, literature and mathematics.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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