“Don’t normalize Trump” has been a cautionary mantra chanted to and by the press since the election. From Obama’s gracious meeting with Trump to sloppy reporting on cabinet appointments, Trump critics fear that recent media coverage is whitewashing the threat that the president-elect embodies.
According to George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist and author of Don’t Think Of An Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, the very fundamentals of journalism should be redefined in order to stave off normalizing Trump. Lakoff and Brooke discuss the unconscious effects that Trump’s language, image, and name have on the brain.
Roary's Waltz by John Zorn
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. “Don't normalize Trump” has been a cautionary mantra chanted to and by the press since the election. George Lakoff is an American linguist, a cognitive scientist and author of Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. He says that in order to understand normalizing, or how to prevent it, we need to know how our brains work. So George, sing the body electric or, in other words, expound on our neural circuitry.
GEORGE LAKOFF: Ideas don't float in the air. They’re carried out by neural circuitry. That neural circuitry is not just in your brain, it’s through your whole body, which enables you to get information and understand it, and so on. The main thing about that is it's mostly unconscious, estimates range from anywhere up to 98% unconscious because you don't have conscious access to your neural circuitry. [LAUGHS] It’s that simple. Your unconscious thought has a different structure than your conscious thought. Different parts of ideas are characterized in lots of different parts of your brain.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give me an example of that?
GEORGE LAKOFF: Sure. A great deal of your thought is metaphorical thought. If you say, he's a warm person or a cold person, there is a connection between warmth and affection. Why should you have that? Well, as a child you're held affectionately by your parents and you feel the bodily warmth. Warmth and affection are registered in different parts of the brain. In order to understand that metaphor at all, you have to have neural connections between those parts of the brain.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, keeping that in our mind and getting back to the idea of normalization, there's a famous example that you cite involving the newscaster Lesley Stahl interviewing Ronald Reagan that illustrates how the media might be normalizing Trump now.
GEORGE LAKOFF: Exactly. Lesley Stahl was attacking everything Reagan was doing. The next day, she got a call from Reagan’s chief of staff, saying, thank you for this wonderful interview. And she said, but I was attacking Reagan. He said, it didn't matter, if you turned off the sound he looked wonderful.
He then said, people are going to forget what you said but they’re not going to forget how he looked.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
GEORGE LAKOFF: And this is the same thing with Trump. So if you have a station where people are constantly sitting around analyzing Trump, some attacking him, some defending him, etc., that’s normalization. When you negate something, you're activating it. Think of the title of the book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, it makes you think of an elephant.
Let me give you an example from NPR. There was a report from a charter school in Memphis where the new secretary of education had gone to show how wonderful charter schools were. And it was like one of the few charter schools in the country that actually worked. And the NPR reporter simply reported what they were told, without mentioning that most charter schools are failing, no discussion of the context.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But even if you include the context, many cognitive scientists have noted that even if you negate something –
GEORGE LAKOFF: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - you activate a neural connection that makes that connection easier and easier to fire. So if you say, “Hillary is not a crook,” you’ve already linked the connection to “Hillary” and “crook” and the negation just falls away when it comes to your circuitry.
GEORGE LAKOFF: Exactly, whereas, if you had focused on Hillary's trustworthiness, on her doing what she says, if the – you know, the Democrats had said that over and over, instead of the Republicans getting their ideas out there, that is very different. That’s the positive thing. If you're going to deal with this, you have to deal with the positive alternative. And so, the question is, what is the positive alternative? And the fact about charter schools, for example, is that they destroy public education.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. That’s the positive thing? [LAUGHS]
GEORGE LAKOFF: Well, the positive thing is, is that public education is crucial, that it’s much better than charter schools. And then, once you say that, that the charter schools destroy it, it’s not a good thing. The question is, what comes first? What is the frame in which you’re having that discussion?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You noted that the media mocked Trump’s name calling and hyperbolic repetitive language. You title one section of your paper, “Clever Trump,” echoing his epithets, like “crooked Hillary,” “lying Ted Cruz,” “failing New York Times,” and so on. You think that worked.
GEORGE LAKOFF: Yes. What he was doing was using your brain to his advantage. If you repeat, what happens? First, language is meaningful. If the language activates certain neural circuits, every time a neural circuit is activated it gets stronger. The more you repeat it, the stronger it gets, in whoever hears it. So you’re going to get, you know, “crooked Hillary, crooked Hillary.” At the same time, you're framing her as dishonest. And if you're dishonest, then you should be locked up. So “lock her up, lock her up” over and over and over.
You’re going to be using certain mechanisms of thought. For example, when a DC-10 took off from O'Hare Airport in a storm, turned in a way it shouldn't have and crashed, that was shown on TV for days, and then people stopped flying DC-10's, when DC-10's were, on the whole, the safest plane in the air. Why did that happen? It happened because people really think in terms of frames, metaphors, narratives, emotions, and so on. They’re not thinking just in terms of logic and the facts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You actually believe that the name, the sound of the word “Trump” helped him build his brand and project political strength. How?
GEORGE LAKOFF: Well, first, I point out that if you changed a couple of letters and made it “Twimp” it wouldn't work as well.
Imagine voting for President Twimp?
Why? It turns out that certain sounds have meaning. Take ip words like drip, clip, snip, it’s a short path in your mouth to a sudden stop. This has meaning. It doesn't give you the whole meaning of the word. It structures the meaning of the word.
If you look at TR words, they’re forceful. You trample on things. You have a train, a truck. There are just dozens of examples of this, where the TR words exert force. Look at ump words, dump, lump, no force there. It is like the absence of force. It’s just doing nothing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It sounds like something falling down the stairs.
GEORGE LAKOFF: You got it. So what you have is a sequence of force followed by non-force. The sequence of whatever is first is seen as a cause of, you know, beating up other people, getting them to, to not be able to function.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the “tru” beats the “ump” and, therefore, embodied in his name is triumph.
GEORGE LAKOFF: Got it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The first part of his name wins over the second part of his name. He trumped whatever the opposition was and maybe that's why those words have the meanings that they have.
GEORGE LAKOFF: And if you change it to Twimp, nobody would have voted for Twimp.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Getting back to his language though, Hillary Clinton and journalists repeatedly took apart Trump’s phrases to demonstrate how many things he said are outlandish or based on no reasoning at all. So you say the first thing that should be taught about political language is not to repeat the language of the other side or negate their framing of the issue. What you need to do is not talk about someone and what they're doing and, as you said earlier, not even show Trump’s face, right?
GEORGE LAKOFF: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So essentially, you're saying that the fundamentals of journalism, fairness, objectivity, they’re inherently flawed. And yet, it's the journalist's duty to show the public what the Trump administration is doing or plans to do. So how can we cover Trump without covering him?
GEORGE LAKOFF: Well, this is an interesting question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For the next four years, what would your advice to working journalists be?
GEORGE LAKOFF: If you're reporting, you’re reporting on what he says. Now, however, when you report on what he says and it's a lie, you can give a positive background. For example, he says, you know, he’s saved a thousand jobs – not exactly. Carrier Air Conditioning is going to send to Mexico 1,300 jobs of their 2,000, so two-thirds of the jobs are going to Mexico. That could be your lead. He got Mike Pence to pay $700,000 a year from the Indiana state budget directly to Carrier, part of the deal. So the taxpayers are paying the owners of Carrier to keep some of those jobs, one-third of them, when two-thirds of them are going. Now, that’s very, very different from the reporting that says he saved a thousand jobs. And The New York, Times, in their reporting, started by pointing out that all the companies near Carrier, even within a mile, are going to Mexico and nothing is being saved. So that part of the truth isn't being reported, if you report just on what he says.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You made a point of, you know, you can report on what Trump means, but you don't have to use his language, as in “Trump wants to get rid of regulations.”
GEORGE LAKOFF: Right. Very important, what is a regulation? A regulation is a protection from corporations doing things that would harm the public, for example, putting poisons in the environment. But if you said, Trump is getting rid of protections and he said for every one protection, we’re gonna get rid of two protections -
- very different.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You also have said that Trump’s lost the popular vote, so he is a loser, a minority president. Are you suggesting that, like “crooked Hillary,” we should say “Loser President Trump” or “Minority President Trump”?
GEORGE LAKOFF: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you advocate for the press to brazenly advocate for progressive values and condemn those who oppose them in the harshest possible terms, won’t you just push news consumers deeper into their echo chambers where they can tune us out altogether, leaving us, as always, as we have been, preaching to the converted?
GEORGE LAKOFF: Well, the alternative to that is normalization.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There must be a middle ground!
GEORGE LAKOFF: There isn't. And not only that, it’s true. Hillary now has two and a half-million votes over Trump. The person who the majority of Americans wanted to be president isn’t president. If you're in the media, why are you there? You’re there for the public good. You’re there to tell the truth. You're there to make sure that the truth is always told and not hidden. That’s your job. It’s not being progressive or democratic or anything like that. It’s your job!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: George, thank you very much.
GEORGE LAKOFF: You’re very welcome. Every question you asked is crucial about the media, and they have to be answered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and the author of many books, including, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, now out in a new edition.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Paige Cowett. We had more help from Micah Loewinger, Sara Qari and Leah Feder. And our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Casey Holford.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schacter is WNYC’s vice-president for news. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.