I think I found the source for Donald Trump’s approach to public speaking. There is a clear precedent for his technique.
It’s Jane Elliot!
Jane Elliot is of course the Ohio grade-school teacher made famous for a classroom exercise in which she taught her students to discriminate against each other on the basis of eye-color. If you watch her in action, you can see the elements of Donald Trump’s rhetoric style unfolding before you.
It’s funny, because I’ve been thinking for some time that I have never seen anyone lie so readily, so easily, and in the face of such clear counter-evidence. Never have I seen anyone whose praise or whose censure was so obviously a function of his own self-interest. It is as if facts have no bearing on his evaluation of anything or anyone, and the only thing that registers significance in his evaluation of the world around him is what he wants to happen. Those who support his goals are terrific, and those who oppose him are failures, sad. I keep thinking, no-one I know of has ever been so obvious about it. But no. The man has a clear role model. If you watch Elliot teaching her students to mistreat each other, it’s all there. She may have meant her exercise to warn people against this sort of thing, but I can’t help wondering of Trump didn’t watch her at some point and say to himself; “Yep! That’s exactly what I want to be.”
Elliot set out to instill prejudice in her third graders in the space of a single day, and then to reverse that prejudice the following day, before debriefing the lot of them and ending the lesson. She didn’t have a lot of time and she wasn’t the least bit subtle about it.She employed all manner of tactics to communicate contempt for the wrong-eyed children in her classroom.
You might think Elliot’s lessons less relevant to real-world politics, because, well third graders, right? But of course, Donald Trump’s own rhetoric has all the features of grade school communication. Far from a detriment, it turns out childish vocabulary and simplistic arguments are actually one of the keys to his success. With his simple words and constant repetition of basic themes, Trump leaves a very clear impression. It is the single-mindedness of Trump’s presentation that seems to resonate with his supporters, and in that respect, his approach is very much like that of Elliot.
But does the nature of the message matter?
You bet it does.
It’s not just any simplistic message that Trump offers supporters; it is a simplistic message about who is a better person; them or someone else? In this respect, his approach mirrors that of Elliot. It isn’t merely that Trump advances a message of hatred; it is that he presents that hatred in terms of a clear pay-off. You are are better than they are! That is what Trump keeps telling people (whoever you are and whoever they might be). It’s an invitation to enter a world with a clear hierarchy of value, and to enter that world on the value-laden side of that hierarchy. You don’t even need to do anything. You are already better than the many scapegoats he offers you (Muslims, Mexicans, the Media, minority activists, etc.) Trump really doesn’t call on supporters to do much more than vote for him. Their role in his his America is to be the real Americans while the rest of us take our lumps. It’s this message that survives all the messy details. It is a message not the least bit undermined by questions of fact, reason, or even the evidence of the senses. In this respect, Trump is very much like Elliot teaching half of her classroom to think of the other half as lesser people.
When I watch Elliot tell a child (at about 5:20) that a blue-eyed parent would never kick his son while using the apparent claim that a brown-eyed parent had done that very thing, I can’t help but think of Trump’s many anecdotal attacks on immigrants. It shouldn’t take much critical thinking to see past the argument, but is that more important than the invitation to be better than someone else?
Apparently not for a lot of people.
When Elliot begins telling the Brown-eyed children they can’t use the drinking fountain (at around 6:10), and when she restricts their playground privileges, she is effectively telling the blue-eyed children they are special. The things they all used to take for granted now belong only to the blue-eyed children (at least for a day). The pay-off is not substantially different from that enjoyed by an audience assure more of their kind of jobs will be created while watching others threatened by cuts, told their own health-care will be taken care of (somehow) by cutting others loose, and of course their citizenship will not be sullied by the presence of certain kinds of people. (And no legality was NEVER the issue in Trump’s new-fangled Know-nothingism) We on the left haggle over the details of these policies as if they matter. To the average Trump supporter, I do not think they do. He may be right about this or wrong about that, but what matters most to those who support them is that he keeps elevating them above someone else. He does it free of charge. They don’t have to understand anything difficult; they don’t have to work harder (at least he doesn’t say they will); they don’t even have to listen very carefully. Being better in Trump’s world is as simple as saying yes to him and his gold gilded message. In scapegoating enemies domestic and foreign, Trump is telling anyone who cares to accept him that they are special. They get to drink at the fountain. Others don’t.
When Elliot tells her children that the brown-eyed people are slow or stupid, she creates the very facts she purports to describe. Elliot noted (at 13:15) how the student performance rose or fell with the changes in their status during the course of her exercise. There is little to distinguish this from the effects of social stigma and/or poverty on groups for whom prejudice is not simply an exercise. When Trump promotes such distinctions, he generates real harm.
(At about 12:10) “Do blue-eyed people know how to sit in a chair? Very sad. Very very sad.” …this one speaks for itself.
One might think that folks would see past such a thinly disguised gambit. Elliot is working with third graders. Surely, adults would know better!
In the end, this may not be a question of what people actually think. It’s a question of what narratives they circulate. We keep hearing that Steve Bannon isn’t really an antisemite or even that Donald Trump isn’t personally against homosexuals, Mexicans, women, etc., but the Trump camp and its supporters keeps producing stories denigrating to these groups and anyone who gets in their way. Like Elliot, they may know better, but like Elliot, they do it anyway.
Except for one thing.
There will be no debriefing at the end of Trump’s Presidency. There will be no great learning moment, no sudden transformation of the whole situation into a great learning lesson. Whatever cynical reasons he and his supporters may have for throwing the rest of humanity under the bus, there is little reason to believe it will stop any time soon. The only credible promise this man ever made is that he would hurt people in their name, and for whatever reason, that was reason enough for a number of people last November. We can only hope that enough people come to their senses, and that if and when they do, something can be done about it.
In the interim, the Trump administration continues its own experiment in social control. The continue teaching us to humor this man’s fantasies, and to think of ourselves as better for doing so.
Let us hope the nation as a whole can respond a little more appropriately than Jane Elliot’s third graders!