Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Trouble With Tough Talk

Considering how much his followers attribute Trump's success to his tough talk and his refusal to use supposedly politically correct terms -- though often this is used as an excuse for the use of simply rude phrasing -- I think it may be a good time to examine these claims, to ask whether supposedly tough talk, that is using terms designed to fire up one's supporters and offend one's rivals, is a viable political tactic.

I suppose the first thing we need to establish is the fact that, for anyone who is using political rhetoric, those firmly in his corner do not constitute a majority. Were one confident of a majority, there would be no need for tough talk, or any talk at all. Once you have a solid majority, enacting your agenda is relatively simple. But, in politics, especially in modern times, such a solid majority of dedicated supporters is unknown, and thus, if you are attempting to persuade, defend, convince or other otherwise make a case, you are trying to win over those not yet supporting your position.

Given that reality, it seems supposed tough talk is probably a self-defeating approach.

Perhaps it would be easiest if I started with an example.

Recently, Trump has taken to claiming ISIS is praising Obama as its founder. In a similar vein, some conservatives have taken to calling Obama our Islamic president, some in jest, or to make a point, but others quite seriously proposing him as some sort of Islamic Manchurian candidate. Underlying these claims are a number of valid, if less heated, criticisms. Starting with the most basic, that Obama has shown too little backbone in dealing with hostile Islamic forces, through to his questionable deals with Iran both on hostages and Iran's nuclear program and on to the harshest claims, such as the claim that his treatment of Iraq, especially his withdrawal of troops, made possible ISIS's creation of an Islamic state. However, often these specific criticism get little voice, as those using supposed tough talk believe -- rightly among those with whom they agree -- that the shorthand of calling Obama a Muslim conveys everything that needs to be said.

Which points out the first problem with such tough talk. Often, in using such terminology, those speaking forget they are not trying to persuade those who already agree, but are trying to convince the unbelievers, those who might be open to the argument but remain undecided, those who are unaware of the issue entirely, those who as yet have no opinion, and even those who presently disagree but are open to argument. Those are the people who need to hear details, who need to hear the entire argument, but by simply shouting slogans and hurling insults, we cut short the presentation of the issue, the discussion of facts, and resort to little more than name calling. That is fine for firing up those who agree, it works to get cheers at a rally or raise the hits on one's blog, but in terms of gaining political support, it is not a very sound approach.

But there are worse consequences.

We can see these in the Trump campaign. Trump is a master of taking a valid issue, and finding the most stupid and offense way of presenting it. For example, his claims about Obama and ISIS, whatever his intent, make it sound as if there was once intentional collusion between the two, a position rightly rejected by most people, even among conservatives. Obama may be far too weak on defense, and too interested in appeasing potentially hostile powers, but there is no need to propose malice where stupidity will do.

The problem is, by presenting the issue in such a stupid way, Trump is not only harming himself, or causing voters to shut out his arguments, he is also making it impossible for others to bring up the issues. After Trump has tainted the issue with his tough talk, those we are trying to reach begin to associate the entire topic with his arguments. And so, when someone else brings up Obama's role in the creation of ISIS, the listener immediately shuts them out, believing the speaker is going to rehash the stupid argument presented by Trump. Thus, issues that once may have been potential means of winning over the undecided are now toxic, tainted by Trump's tough talk so that no one else may raise them in a more sensible way.

Which brings me to my final problem. Tough talk also, whatever else it may or may not do, serves to confirm the media image of conservatives as bigoted, racist, sexist bullies. It may amuse some conservatives to call the first lady a wookie, or hint that Obama is gay, or talk of Lie-a-watha or Faux-cahontas, but to those who do not agree, these terms often simply sound crass, and play into the image the media paints of conservatives.

When I raised this before, the inevitable response was "the media will always attack us, so why worry about it?" But that response misses the point. Unfounded media criticisms do not carry that much weight. The undecided may buy into it slightly, but without any confirmation, it is also easily refuted, and even when not refuted, is hardly persuasive when based on little more than media allegations. On the other hand, when we go out of our way to confirm those claims, when our actions fit the media claims, those claims gain tremendous weight, and the independents are easily convinced we are precisely what the press claims.

The other argument offered in favor of such supposed tough talk is that by "giving in" to PC speech we surrender to the left. But that is a straw man argument, as it manages to conflate two different issues. There is "politically correct", the term for hypersensitive, sometimes absurd, and often changing liberal verbiage, and then there is simple politeness. I am not arguing we need to be PC, we do not need to follow the dictum of the moment on whether one is "African-American", "a person of color" or what have you. Even using supposedly outdated terms such as "black" is fine. However, that does not mean we should start using "the n-word". Just because we reject the absurdly protean extreme sensitivity of political correctness does not mean we should be rude. One can be both polite and accurate. Sadly, those advocating tough talk often miss that point and confuse rudeness with accuracy and independence.

Of course, I doubt I will change minds. Thanks to the internet's obsession with number of followers and politicians' obsession with votes and "firing up the base", the right will be plagued with this absurd belief in the power of "tough talk" for a long time to come. Still, I may reach a few people, and if I did so, I may have done some good. At least I hope so.

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