You Can’t Argue With a Joke

January 23, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Of all the responses I’ve seen to the Trump/Spicer claim that the inaugural drew the biggest crowds in history, this one – from a hockey game in Dallas –  was by far the most effective.

Whoever runs the Jumbotron for the Dallas Stars deserves a Peabody. The attendance figure pokes fun and deflates Trump’s assertions but without being derisive. The factual criticism that followed Trump’s and Spicer’s performances can be disputed, as Spicer tried to do.  Even if the “facts” that Team Trump presents are false, at least there’s an argument about who’s right. Besides, Kellyanne Conway may have gotten some sympathy for the way that journalists pounced on her “alternative facts.” How would you feel if a bunch of smart-ass reporters checked your every word? 

The Jumbotron avoids those traps. You don’t notice it right away. So a second later, when you do notice the attendance figure, you feel like one of the in-crowd that gets the joke. You’re on Jumbotron’s side. If you laugh – how could you not? – you already share the assumed story behind the humor: that Team Trump is lying about the numbers. Game over. If Trump and company argue with it, they come off as tedious and tendentious. Imagine Trump ranting about how the Jumbotron is the most dishonest scoreboard in history by the way. Imagine Spicer and Conway offering alternative facts about the hockey game attendance. They’d just be digging themselves in deeper while showing that they are utterly humorless.*

* I make no predictions. Trump may still tweet something about this.

Why Deny the Obvious Lie?

January 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is there method in Trump’s megalomania?

Why would Trump say things that are obviously untrue? Not only untrue but easily demonstrated as untrue, like his claim that his inauguration had drawn the largest crowds in history. Photographs clearly showed that the crowd on the mall at Obama’s first inauguration was larger.

This screenshot is from an interactive graphic (here ) that allows you to slidethe dividing line back and forth to see the whole mall for both inaugurations.

Trump, as we have come to realize, never admits that he was wrong. And now he has a press secretary who does the same. Yesterday, Sean Spicer repeated the false claim.
This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period.
He criticized other estimates, saying,
No one had numbers, because the National Park Service, which controls the National Mall, does not put any out.
Spicer did not take any questions, so we can’t know whether he realized the contradiction between these two statements. If no one has numbers, how can Spicer be so sure that Friday’s crowd was the largest in history?

Spicer went further.
We know that 420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama's last inaugural.
Reporters checked with the actual Metro statistics. Spicer was lying.*

Why would Trump leave himself open to headlines like this? (Click for a larger and clearer view.)

The psychological answer is that he can’t help himself. He really believes that everything he does is the most stupendous, and he makes up evidence to support his beliefs. To protect his ego from contradictory evidence he launches vigorous attacks on those who provide contrary factual evidence, even – as with his “landslide victory” or the size of the crowds at the inauguration – when the truth is easily available to anyone. Other politicians would be embarrassed to have their statements exposed as blatantly false. But Trump cannot be embarrassed by the truth because he cannot be embarrassed by anything. He is shameless.

But Ezra Klein at Vox thinks the attack on facts is not just psychological, it’s also strategic.

   the groundwork is being laid for much more consequential debates over what is, and isn’t, true.
   Delegitimizing the institutions that might report inconvenient or damaging facts about the president is strategic for an administration that has made a slew of impossible promises and takes office amid a cloud of ethics concerns and potential scandals.
   It’s not difficult to imagine the Trump administration disputing bad jobs numbers in the future, or claiming their Obamacare replacement covers everyone when it actually throws millions off insurance.

The strategy certainly works among Trump’s supporters, the folks who get their news only from Fox or right-wing Internet sources. For the rest of the public, it will depend on the strategies that the media take for reporting on an Administration with so little respect for facts.

* The New York Times (here) has documented a few other falsehoods from Trump and Spicer, including Trump’s false assertion that during his speech the rain stopped and the sun shone and that “it poured after I left. It poured.” In fact, the rain was light and continuous throughout –  no sunny skies, no downpour.

Me Or Your Lyin’ Eyes

January 21, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Trump accused television networks of showing “an empty field” and reporting that he drew just 250,000 people to witness Friday’s ceremony.
“It looked like a million, a million and a half people,” Trump said. (WaPo)

Words Matter

January 21, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s the word cloud from Trump’s inaugural speech.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

America and American are no surprise. They appear frequently in many inaugurals. But they occupy a more prominent place in Trump’s speech. Compare Trump’s with the first inaugurals of Obama and George W. Bush.

Words take their meaning from context. It’s the valences of America – the words and ideas that the speaker connects it to – that convey the message.  “American carnage,” for example, was a phrase that grabbed the attention of many people. But it was just a variation of disaster, the term Trump preferred during the campaign. Carnage is more graphic, but it carries no special overtones. “America first” does.

This was not one of Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks said with little reflection. Trump even repeated the phrase. 
From this day forward, it’s going to be only
America first, America first.
Trump’s writers, possibly Trump too, worked carefully on the speech. They must have known that after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, “America first” became the watchword of those who did not want the US to join European nations in the war against Hitler.* So just in case anybody hadn’t already gotten the idea, Trump is saying that the US will not intervene in Europe if some strongman marches into neighboring countries to seize today’s version of the Sudetenland or Poland.

Putin probably loved this speech. Estonians, not so much.

“America First” was revived in recent years. It was similarly isolationist and similarly anti-Semitic – the most prominent member of the 1940 committee was Charles Lindbergh – and, no surprise, pro-Trump.

The other unusual word in the cloud is back. This echoes Trump’s campaign theme that he will return the US to some glorious past, mostly by restoring industrial jobs for men. (See this post of two weeks ago.)
We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams.
This economic nostalgia often combines with a social and moral nostalgia  – a longing for a time when norms, society, and identities were stable and predictable. As Archie Bunker sang each week at the “All in the Family” theme song “Those Were the Days,”                                       
And you knew who you were then.
Goils were goils, and men were men.
Back also echoes the “Take our country back” meme so popular among conservatives for these last eight years.  (See “Repo Men.”)

In sum, the word cloud shows, as many observers said, that the inaugural speech sounds very much like Trump’s campaign speeches. It has the same combative tone, and it runs on the same assumptions about American history: America used to be great, with abundant industrial jobs for men, few imported goods, and few documented immigrants, all of them documented. The world is a zero-sum game, and we were winning. Then They (liberals, globalists) took over the country. All aspects of American life became disasters. Foreign countries were beating us.  But now, I (Trump) will restore that glorious world.

Does this describe reality? Or is it, to use another term prominent in the word cloud, a dream?