Simple Steps to Overcoming Trumpery: an Action Guide


This time it’s not mere partisan hyperbole. Fascism really has come to America, to an extent we’ve never seen before. (If you still have any doubt, look at the role of Steve Bannon.) And it’s not going to be pretty, even if you’re white, Christian and middle class. But you needn’t despair. There are steps you can take that will lessen the damage, and get the country on a healthy course again. It’s possible not only to survive Trumpery, but to “overcomb” it.

People who say that we should “give Trump a chance” are really, really missing something. He’s already been given a multitude of chances, and he’s blown them all to smithereens. All throughout the campaign, he was very consistently an absolutely horrible person. Since the election, he has consistently continued to be an absolutely horrible person. And he immediately began making absolutely the most horrible decisions imaginable. How much damage should we allow him to inflict before we speak up?

Following are 20 points of action. These are steps that just about anyone can take, though some require more time and effort than others. Some are general approaches that you can follow all the time.  Others are specific actions that you should do as often as possible. Only the most dedicated full-time activist would be able to pursue all of these actions; it’s fine if you single out one or two to devote your efforts to. The important thing is to act.

We will begin with the most obvious and progress to the less obvious.

1. Protest

This is the most obvious, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. Donald Trump has made it very clear, for his entire life, that he will do absolutely anything he can get away with. We can’t afford to let him forget for one minute that we’re still out here watching his every move. And we must make it as difficult as possible for the media to ignore us. That means that a large crowd of dissenters needs to greet every one of Trump’s public appearances, and respond to every one of his horrendous actions in office.

Bear in mind that if you protest without a permit, you may provoke the displeasure of law enforcement, and may even risk arrest. And it should go without saying that you should be on your best behavior. If there is even one unruly or destructive individual in even the largest group of protesters, it is one hundred percent guaranteed that this person will be singled out as representative of the entire crowd.

Trump supporters are very eager to label dissenters as “whiners”, “crybabies”, “sore losers”, “welfare bums”, etc. etc. Make sure that such labels are absolute bullshit.

2. Bug the hell out of your elected representatives

Yes, it really does work. Even, sometimes,  if the representatives are of the opposition party.  Phoning is more effective than writing, and better still is dropping in at the representative’s local office. In no case will you be able to actually talk to your congressperson or senator, but their staff will pass along your concerns about proposed government moves. Be presentable and be prepared. And let them become well acquainted with you. You can also connect with them at town hall meetings. If nothing else, picket their public appearances with signs conveying a crucial message.

3. Pressure the media

This is perhaps the most crucial step of all, since the media have had, to an ever greater degree, an influence on the public’s beliefs and actions. The media put Donald Trump in the White House in the first place, ignoring his excessive faults and flaws while greatly exaggerating and over-covering false narratives about Hillary Clinton. Since then, he’s been viciously biting the hand that fed him, maneuvering to stifle media scrutiny and dissent. It’s essential that we have their back, and call them out on every single shortcoming.

Monitoring the media can be an enormous task for one person, but you can form teams to divide the responsibility. You can keep track of media missteps via watchdog sites like Media Matters for America, which sometimes even issues action alerts advising you to contact media outlets and urge them to correct their course. Be courteous and precise, letting the media know how they have let the public down, and suggesting an appropriate corrective action. (“Hate mail” is counterproductive.) Specific journalists often list their email addresses to facilitate feedback.

4. Write letters to the editor

Many people read them, and they can have an impact, particularly in newspapers with large circulations like The New York Times or USA Today. Focus on facts rather than opinion; anybody can form an opinion quite easily, but solid facts are often in short supply.

5. Use social media — but use discretion

Facebook, Twitter, etc. are excellent vehicles for keeping people informed and mobilized. Unfortunately, they’re also awash with misinformation and useless prattle. Many users are suffering from political burnout, and may just unfriend you or tune you out if you overdo it. Post only the most relevant and crucial material, and intersperse it with more lighthearted fare, so people don’t come to think of you as a gloomy Jeremiah.

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Propaganda Prop # 5: Spin

The headline in USA Today was eye-catching: “Obama faces uphill battle for reelection.” But what was even more arresting was the accompanying graphic depicting poll results that matched him up against his potential GOP challengers. It demonstrated that he was in a statistical dead heat with all of them, and he was actually leading against at least one. So why didn’t the headline say “GOP challengers face uphill battle to unseat Obama?”  Well, because of a little thing called spin, which is the next in our series of propaganda tools.

We’ve all heard of spin, and we’ve hall heard plenty of spin. We’re surrounded by it, bombarded by it, saturated with it. And its power to alter perception is very much in proportion with its pervasiveness.

For better or for worse, President Obama almost certainly is headed for a second term. Indeed, it has seldom been in serious doubt. It’s not a definite thing, mind you; never underestimate the effectiveness of swiftboating and ACORNization; but you’d be much wiser putting your money on him than against him. Examine the chart on InTrade, which has become a very reliable predictor of such matters, and you’ll see that the probability of his reelection has hovered at around 60 percent for most of the past year or so, and only briefly dipped below 50 percent. Yet the conventional “wisdom” has always been that he has a better chance of building a cat house on the moon. Why? Because the media have relentlessly pursued the narrative that his electoral glass is half empty instead of (at least) half full, apparently hell-bent on making his November defeat a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Spin is  not, strictly speaking, a technique in itself, but a species of technique application. And it isn’t strictly a political activity, but its application to politics certainly trumps any other usage these days – even commercial advertising, which previously was the primary domain of spin.

You also might notice that spin sounds very similar to framing; and in fact, they’re often used interchangeably. But in practice, there are generally certain distinctions between the two. Framing usually promotes one of a number of possible interpretations, while spin generally means reversing the polarity of a given perception — i.e., making an unfavorable result appear favorable, or vice versa. Framing might be thought of as a preemptive strike to mold perception of future events, while spin may be thought of as damage control to reshape perception of past events.  (Even in the example cited, the spin is applied to poll results that already have occurred.) You’ll witness spin in action after just about any election, as the losers and/or their backers try to explain to the public that defeat didn’t really mean what it meant.

One of the most brazen (and most successful) political spin campaigns ever occurred after the 2000 election, when the supporters of George W. Bush — who, at the very least, lost the popular vote — hailed the 5-4 Supreme Court decision that put him in office as a sweeping mandate that reflected the overwhelming will of the people. They sported maps that colored in the “red” and “blue” states and proclaimed, I kid you not, that three-fifths of the nation had voted for Dubya. Fox “News” hawked T-shirts blazoned with such a map, reflecting “Bush’s stunning victory”.  Not to be outdone, the reactionary blog Free Republic zeroed in on California, publishing a map that showed Bush carried more counties in that state, and declaring that he “beat Gore to a bloody pulp” — in a state Gore won by a 12 percent margin!

We should note that spin descends into such grotesque silliness not necessarily by providing false information, but by seizing on the wrong information. What those maps really proved was that Bush voters were spread out among a wider expanse of real estate than Gore voters.  Which is about as relevant as saying that Gore voters tended to live in taller buildings. (Hey, why not a 3-D electoral map that stresses depth rather than breadth of voter distribution?) That vast red territory is occupied largely by cattle, rattlesnakes and scorpions — none of which cast ballots in that election (at least to the best of our knowledge).

But, as in the example of the Obama polls, another way to spin is just to offer a strained interpretation of the facts. For an all-time classic textbook example we turn, as we so often do, to the great Rush Limbaugh. And the topic was not politics but, as you might expect, he did his damnedest to politicize it. It was the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which damaged a portion of freeway around Los Angeles. Here’s how FAIR compares Limbaugh’s comments to events in the real world:

LIMBAUGH: On California contractor C.C. Myers completing repairs 74 days early on the earthquake-damaged Santa Monica Freeway: “There was one key element that made this happen. One key thing: The governor of California declared the [freeway] a disaster area and by so doing eliminated the need for competitive bids…. Government got the hell out of the way.” (TV show, 4/13/94) “They gave this guy [Myers] the job without having to go through the rigmarole…of giving 25 percent of the job to a minority-owned business and 25 percent to a woman.” (TV show, 4/15/94)

REALITY: There was competitive bidding: Myers beat four other contractors for the job. Affirmative action rules applied: At least 40 percent of the subcontracts went to minority or women-owned firms. Far from getting out of the way, dozens of state employees were on the job 24 hours a day. Furthermore, the federal government picked up the tab for the whole job (L.A. Times, 5/1/94).

Unable to wrap his brain around the notion that the big bad guvmint actually might be able to operate effectively on occasion, Limbaugh just blotted it out of the picture altogether. His recipe for turning reality on its ear was (1) Select some actual facts– i.e., that repairs were completed by a private contractor well ahead of estimated schedule; (2) Stir in some made-up facts — i.e., that the government cut corners on affirmative action and other regulatory measures; (3) Extrapolate an interpretation that is contrary to truth — i.e., that the efficiency of the project was due to the government “getting the hell out of the way”; (4) dish it up to the masses (serves several million).

That, folks, is spin at its spinfulest.

Propaganda Prop # 4: Framing

The year was 1984, and President Ronald Reagan, already the oldest president in the nation’s history, was up for reelection.  During his second debate against Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, a reporter queried him about a mounting concern that he was growing too senile to function effectively. His response, in part, was, “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” In addition to being a memorable one-liner, it was one of the most potent displays ever of framing, the fourth in our series of propaganda tools.

Framing is a psychological and sociological concept that has many applications and has been the subject of a great deal of research and experimentation. But in the public arena – particularly in current events and politics – it essentially means establishing guidelines that influence how the public perceives a particular topic – or even what topic the public perceives.

The Reagan quip (which probably was prepared in advance, but which he made sound off-the-cuff), in a single sentence, switched the frame from age to wit. And a few weeks later the voters decided, by a substantial margin, that they preferred a president who could turn a good punchline to one who wouldn’t fall asleep on the job.

It isn’t always so easy to establish a frame with a single sentence, but sometimes it’s done with only a word or two.

When politicians railed against the estate tax, most folks just yawned. When they re-christened it the “death tax”, they got a better response. After all, everyone dies, so the use of the term “death tax” implies that we’ll all be taxed on whatever we pass on to our heirs. In fact, the first 5 million or so you leave behind will not be subjected to federal estate tax. But Fox “News” had its viewers believing that when they kicked the bucket, President Clinton would send a truck to their house to confiscate half their stuff. The estate tax had been framed.

Privatizing Social Security? Fuhgeddabout it. But when you frame it as “personalizing accounts”, it becomes a bit more appealing. And mind you, these manipulative neologisms are often applied by the very people who sneer at “political correctness” for supposedly overdoing the euphemisms.

Americans also probably wouldn’t have been terribly gung-ho about an Operation to Invade and Occupy Iraq.  But when it was framed as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and part of “The War on Terror”, that was another matter. (The Bush Administration dropped an earlier label, Operation Iraqi Liberation, apparently because it became clear that its acronym might sound a bit too candid.) It became routine to frame supporters of that exercise as “pro-troop”, suggesting that the anti-war demonstrators were in fact protesting against the military itself.

Few words these days have the framing power, at least in the United States, of socialism, and variants thereof. Most Americans may not have a clue what socialism really is, but they know it’s the spawn of Darth Vader, because they’ve been told it is so many times. Thus, it was all but inevitable that those who wanted to thwart the Affordable Care Act would dub it “socialized medicine”, along with “government takeover” of medicine and “Obamacare“.  The latter has long been used as a derogatory term by Obama’s political opponents to imply not only a government takeover but a takeover by one person. But in a very interesting wrinkle, the president’s own campaign adopted the word,  reframing a frame!

The “socialized medicine” motif is hardly new; it was conjured by Republicans in Washington in 1993 when President Clinton also attempted healthcare reform. In fact, they conducted a poll in which they asked respondents whether they approved of Clinton’s plan  for “socialized medicine”. Not surprisingly, more than half said no, and this gave them ammo to shoot down the Clinton plan. Later, after the dust had settled, an independent polling organization queried people about specific provisions of the defeated bill without mentioning that its source was the Clinton administration (and of course without calling it  “socialized”), and three-fourths of them approved. A word or two, included or omitted, can make all the difference in how the public perceives an issue.

The GOP poll was an example of a push poll, which often isn’t really a poll at all but an attempt to frame an issue by implanting a suggestion in the minds of individuals contacted. If you spend much time online, you’ve surely seen “polls” (ads) by right-wing groups (notably NewsMax) targeting President Obama with  questions like “Do you believe Obama should be impeached ?”  or “Is Obama the worst president ever?”

You’d have a hard time getting approval of a “Bill to Discriminate Against Gays” even in the Deep South. But a law that did just that, when packaged as the “Defense of Marriage Act”, was approved by Congress, and a “Marriage Protection Act” was voted into law even in ultra-blue California. Nobody can explain exactly how allowing more people to marry would threaten the “institution” of marriage with extinction. And how can you defend it by reducing its numbers and restricting it to those individuals (heterosexuals) who are far less likely to stay married? Quite often, the topic is framed as a debate over religious beliefs (which are prohibited by the Constitution from being the basis of law) rather than about marriage equality.

But  large numbers of people are quite willing to overlook the absurdity of the proposition if it is expressed in resonant words. Some even believe that allowing gays to marry would open the door to marrying llamas or toasters. But hey, even that would result in more weddings, so how exactly would it be destroying marriage? How would your cousin tying the knot with his Corvette cause you to become less married? Is marriage a commodity in limited supply so that it needs to be rationed?

It’s a powerful testimony to the ability of ideology, expressed in the right language, to short-circuit the brain. It’s the power of framing at its finest.