So the 2018 midterm elections have come and gone the way of Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions the Third (seriously, there were two before him with this name?!) and the touted #BlueWave of Democrats taking government back from a fascist infestation of the white “christian” nationalist variety turned out to be more of a ripple upon breaking against this most resilient #RedHats resistance. And all various the progressive commentators I follow repeat the same refrain (some more despairing than others): how do we reach these people, the Trumpists?
Among these commentators, it is repeatedly agreed that Democrats (and liberals generally) have a messaging problem. And they do. For all the brain smarts that tends to distinguish liberals from conservatives, they just can’t square this circle. And not because they lack the means, but because they lack the moral – or should I say, immoral – fortitude.
In my job as a code monkey, I approach a problem by prodding at it in different ways, observing what gets in, what comes out and forming a solution based on the results.
Trumpists respond to and in turn serve as a conduit for the propagation of lies. Day in and day out. Lies in and lies out. It drives liberals bonkers, who try to debunk these torrents of lies in a futile bid to get ahead of them, who naively believe [the lie they tell themselves is some sort of noble humanitarian ideal] that the misguided souls communicating this truth disease can be reasoned with. And the Trumpists delight in baiting and then wasting away the time of their sworn enemies this way.
Additionally, these fictions serve as a kind of in-group identifier the way that other religious beliefs do. Like a cross necklace, headscarf, swastika tattoo, wink, nod or secret handshake. You’re one of us, not one of them.
But foremost, these falsehoods communicate tone. Much like when I speak to my cat, she doesn’t translate the sounds I’m making into words that describe ideas — she interprets what I must be feeling and how she should respond to those feelings. Whether the arrangement of these lies that Trumpists tell themselves and each other have any internal consistency or are tethered to reality in any way is irrelevant. No one reads the newspaper laid out for a puppy to shit on.
The tone Trumpists signal is one of fear.
Scientific studies bear out that conservatives are physically wired to be more afraid while liberals are wired to be more compassionate. Which might explain, in part, why bleeding heart liberals balk at the notion of treating anyone unfairly (because they don’t want to be treated unfairly) and why hard line conservatives have few if any such reservations, treating others unfairly out of fear that others treat them unfairly.
Did this inborn PTSD serve some sort of evolutionary purpose at some point in our history? Are there or have there ever been prosperous bastions of conservatism? In spite of the rosy golden-age-ism espoused, more liberal U.S. states tend to subsidize more conservative ones. It really seems like a defect that tends to undermine civilization more than anything.
But I digress.
FEAR!!! It’s enthralling. Intoxicating. Pumped out from conservative outlets the world over, entrancing huge, lucrative swaths of the media market. And the more right-wingy it gets, the more frightening it becomes. Trumpists consume more and more of it to get the same rush from it, like junkies building up a tolerance to their drug. And it works because it acknowledges the fear this part of the population is already predisposed to experience and validates that fear by giving it structure. Even if that structure is, in fact, a lie, it feels true because the feeling is, in fact, real.
People respond to fear described by four other f-words: fight, flight, fawn or freeze. Each of these responses can be seen played out when Trumpists are confronted. But the way they want to respond is fight or, better yet, a combination of fawning over someone who they perceive is fighting on their behalf. Any stalwart savior who protects them, provides for them, grants them the security of certitude, ensures vengeance will be theirs and in all other ways assuages their fear will do. Again, it doesn’t matter that any of it’s a lie. It only has to feel real.
The Donald easily trumped Jesus for many evangelicals because, unlike Jesus, he’s tangerine, er … tangible and delivers immediate respite. And his brand naturally lends itself to the tough talk and violent rhetoric of being the persecuted righteous under siege by the forces of evil that’s always been the hallmark of conservative media.
So to write a program that interfaces with Trumpists, I would code for fear in and security out, simultaneously empowering them whilst absolving them of any responsibility. Basically, parenting a child. And while that’s easier to want to do when they’re young and adorable than after they’ve become old, ugly and racist, it’s no less important in this case. They’re attracted to authoritarians (de facto parents) because they need to be looked after and told what to do by someone else to feel special and safe but who make them also feel like they’re actually adults capable of conducting themselves independently.
Pay attention to the tone and delivery of commentators on Fox News, for example, and you may see that this is exactly what they’re doing. The reason liberals don’t get it, why it looks like absolute madness to them, is because they have a perfectly reasonable but in this case completely misguided notion that adults communicate in a mature, measured way that simply does not apply to the parent-child relationship conservative media recognizes in and actively cultivates with their audience.
Liberals need to come to an understanding of, recognize and cultivate that relationship as well. They may well hem and haw about manipulative and disrespectful this is – and it is – but Trumpists are a contagious zombie hoard and unless they are sated it will devour us all. They cannot be reasoned with. The cowboy doesn’t reason with the cattle he’s herding. When all we essentially have to do is read them bedtime stories and tuck them in.
Those narratives should essentially follow this tried and true formula:
Inspire Fear. Find something that the target is existentially afraid of. It doesn’t have to be valid, they just have to be afraid of it.
Offer a Scapegoat or Bogeyman. This is the manifestation of the target’s fear, what we’re attaching it to, that we’re rallying them against. It’s what makes it real and takes the burden off of them.
Provide a Savior or Hero. This is the manifestation of their hope and security that we’re rallying the target to. It defeats the bogeyman, holds the scapegoat accountable, evil is punished, justice is restored and safety of the target preserved.
Repeat! Repeat! Repeat! A steady drumbeat over time is what makes them fall in line.
All of this only needs to superficially check out and the target guided to those elements that do. If they fact-check deeper than that then they aren’t your target audience. Any naysayers can be recast as scapegoats and bogeymen to serve the narrative. Remember, the feeling is fundamental. Not the facts.
These simple narratives should be injected into all forms of conservative media; digital, print, etc. Greed is the defining principle (if it can be called that) of commercial outlets and paying for an ad will see it run and consumed by the target audience.
Some form of telemetry should be implemented as practical in order to determine the efficacy of various narratives. Also, running them past focus groups of children would probably be worthwhile in preemptively determining this quality.
In fact, those of us uncomfortable with producing blatant propaganda like this might try to think of it as composing a fictitious allegory that imparts a moral in a simple, interesting way that a child can more easily understand. It would be irresponsible, even, not to provide and promote proper guidance lest society devolve into a Lord Of The Flies* situation — you know, like what we have going on now.
*BTW, that book gave me nightmares in eighth grade so it’s a perfect metaphor for this entry.