How to Help Trump

Without knowing it, many Democrats, progressives and members of the news media help Donald Trump every day. The way they help him is simple: they spread his message.

Think about it: every time Trump issues a mean tweet or utters a shocking statement, millions of people begin to obsess over his words. Reporters make it the top headline. Cable TV panels talk about it for hours. Horrified Democrats and progressives share the stories online, making sure to repeat the nastiest statements in order to refute them. While this response is understandable, it works in favor of Trump.

When you repeat Trump, you help Trump. You do this by spreading his message wide and far.

Nobody knows this better than Trump. Trump, as a media master, knows how to frame a debate. When he picks a fight, he does so deliberately. He tweets or says outrageous things, knowing they will be repeated millions and millions of times. When the news media and Democrats repeat Trump’s frames, they are strengthening those frames by ensuring that tens of millions of Americans hear them repeated over and over again.

Quick: don’t think of an elephant. Now, what do you see? The bulkiness, the grayness, the trunkiness of an elephant. You can’t block the picture – the frame – from being accessed by your unconscious mind. As a professor of brain science, this is the first lesson I give my students. It’s also the title of my book on the science of framing political debates.

The key lesson: when we negate a frame, we evoke the frame. When President Richard Nixon addressed the country during Watergate and used the phrase “I am not a crook,” he coupled his image with that of a crook. He established what he was denying by repeating his opponents’ message.

This illustrates one of the most important principles of framing a debate: When arguing against the other side, don’t use their language because it evokes their frame and not the frame you seek to establish. Never repeat their charges! Instead, use your own words and values to reframe the conversation.

When you repeat Trump, you help Trump.

In the coming weeks and months, I’ll use this space to provide simple, practical advice on how Democrats, progressives and conscientious journalists can use the principles of effective framing to expose and undermine Trump’s propaganda. Knowledge is power! We must arm ourselves with the fundamentals of effective political communication. We must know our values and frame the debate – and avoid helping Trump.

When you repeat Trump, you help Trump.

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One response

  1. Our Brexit result was nourished by the same kind of media interest. Boris Johnson, with his ‘posh, intellectual buffoon’ persona was a guaranteed source of British public interest. It’s a type we like, from Bertie Wooster and Toad of Toad Hall to Stephen Fry. Boris was featured on the news daily, looking colourful and entertaining. Like an intriguing politics teacher at Eton. In a big red Boris Bus.

    Random, grey Remain MPs, speaking to public meetings around the country, weren’t likely to say anything controversial or anything peppered with Latinate language and classical references, served up in an RP voice. We British can’t help reacting to that variety of English as ‘the voice of authority’. We believe it, where we wouldn’t believe a Birmingham accent or a Welsh accent without thinking. It’s the old BBC voice and the voice of every State occasion.

    Our media handed the referendum result to Boris. Had he campaigned for the other side, they would most likely have won. If Donald Trump hadn’t usurped Boris Johnson in the British media as a source of titillating interest, our Foreign Secretary would find himself followed and observed far more closely.

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