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The new rhetoric of television politics

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 31, 2017

Politics happens in (at least) three places:

These categories all bleed into each other and still leave a whole lot out, but for a quick and dirty chop-job of the universe, well, I’ve seen worse. (And done worse.)

It helps to focus on one but not forget about the others. Keep your head on a swivel, like my football coach used to say. And each sphere has its own grammar, its invisible rules.

Some of the best writing about the Trump regime has been on the second, imaginary sphere, by TV critics on the politics of media. You might think this is the easiest of the three to tell stories about, but the degree of difficulty is absurdly high if you aim to do more than just summarize or react to the thing we’ve all just seen. Help me see. Change my vocabulary. Show me how it works. Show me why it works.

Lili Loofbourow’s glossary of Kellyanne Conway’s rhetorical moves helps you see.

Concept scrabble

“Most Americans are very focused on what their tax returns will look like while President Trump is in office, not what his look like.”

Conway frequently takes the words from the question — tax returns, Trump, Americans — and recombines them. It gives the impression of straightforwardness. The question, you’ll recall, was how Trump will respond to a petition signed by 200,000 Americans demanding that he release his tax returns. Conway takes those concepts — “the people,” “tax return” — and reshuffles them in a way that a) denies the premise (the 200,000 Americans who signed that petition fall out of her framing — let me tell you what the people care about, she says), and b) removes Trump from the sentence as an agent called upon to respond.

Besides “concept scrabble,” there’s “faux frankness,” “impatience signaling,” “Cool girling,” “Agenda Mad Libs,” and more, all illustrated with examples.

Emily Nussbaum’s “How Jokes Won the Election” helps you see — in this case, how many of Trump’s outrageous statements during the campaign had the structure of jokes. A lot of people have made a lot hay out of the “seriously”/”literally” dichotomy breaking down, but Nussbaum focuses instead on how it limits your ability to react, especially when you’re the subject of the “joke”:

The political journalist Rebecca Traister described this phenomenon to me as “the finger trap.” You are placed loosely within the joke, which is so playful, so light—why protest? It’s only when you pull back—show that you’re hurt, or get angry, or try to argue that the joke is a lie, or, worse, deny that the joke is funny—that the joke tightens. If you object, you’re a censor. If you show pain, you’re a weakling. It’s a dynamic that goes back to the rude, rule-breaking Groucho Marx—destroyer of elites!—and Margaret Dumont, pop culture’s primal pearl-clutcher.

When Hillary described half of Trump’s followers as “deplorables,” she wasn’t wrong. But she’d walked right into the finger trap. Trump was the hot comic; Obama the cool one. Hillary had the skill to be hard-funny, too, when it was called for: she killed at the Al Smith charity dinner, in New York, while Trump bombed. It didn’t matter, though, because that was not the role she fit in the popular imagination. Trump might be thin-skinned and easily offended, a grifter C.E.O. on a literal golden throne. But Hillary matched the look and the feel of Margaret Dumont: the rich bitch, Nurse Ratched, the buzzkill, the no-fun mom, the one who shut the joke down.

Conway can float in and out of different modes than Clinton can, partly because she has different political talents, but partly because she’s under different rhetorical constraints. These things are all imaginary, yes — but they work.

Still, Conway can be wrongfooted, too — here’s Loofbourow again:

In thinking about how to transcend the Conway effect, it’s instructive to study the people who’ve effectively interviewed her. Seth Meyers turned out to be a master at it: Comedians have a lot of experience quickly analyzing and calling out behaviors and tricks in ways that scan as funny rather than aggressive…

Meyers took Conway’s statement — meant to discredit a press report — and took its interpretation away from her. In his hands, her statement became the terrifying story of a president-elect who couldn’t be bothered to read his own intelligence briefs, even when they were about him. And he did it by using a more complex version of Conway’s multifactorial rhetoric.

There are limits to what we can learn about politics from comedians and comedy tropes — most of the time, the battles over laws and bodies exceed anybody’s ability to turn a phrase. But this imaginative sphere, too, is all part of the bigger combat, and there are still so many things we can learn about how the fight is fought.

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