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Date: 2024-05-21 Page is: DBtxt003.php txt00023344
PDA / RALPH NADER ELECTION SUPPORT
7. RHETORIC & DEBATE

Can We Talk? written by Mark Green

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Peter Burgess COMMENTARY

Peter Burgess
7. RHETORIC & DEBATE

Can We Talk?


Written by Mark Green
“Facts don’t cease to exist because they are ignored.” – Aldous Huxley
1. RHETORIC

If you believe that rhetoric and slogans are superficial, you’re in the wrong Webinar and have forgotten:
  • Lincoln for “The Rail Splitter,”
  • Lenin’s “Land, Bread, Peace” in 1917…
  • “I Like Ike” in 1952…
  • Reagan’s “Morning in America,”
  • Hillary’s “Listening Tour” in 2000 and
  • of course MAKE AMERICA GREAT
All provided glossy frames for their target audiences.

It’s hard to rationally explain how Democrats have by far the best policies for average families (not that hard given the competition) yet are being mauled by GOP slogans-without-substance. If you read every speech by DeSantis, Cruz and the others, they essentially rotate loaded words – WOKE, CANCEL, FAKE NEWS, SOCIALIST, TRANS, GROOMING, DEEP STATE, THE GREAT WHITE REPLACEMENT, CRITICAL RACE THEORY …yet have seemed to dominate political conversation because of an old-school BothSides-ism by most of the Mainstream Media and smash mouths at FOX & Talk Radio.

If you’re asked what Democrats have said in reply, anything come to mind? Sorta nothing, at least in the years before Biden’s “Democracy” Speech in Philadelphia in early September. “Democrats Deliver…For the People…BBB” are nice but drowned out by oceans of Far-Right attacks in an era where being vividly against the other tribe is usually enough.

A later speaker in this section has done important work on the counter-narrative of “FREEDOM” given that the Far Fright wants to ban abortion, books, science, Marriage Equality, the Voting Rights Act – and then has the chutzpah to say they’re the party of Freedom. To date they’ve gotten away with it in part because Democrats have avoided engaging on such so-called “culture war” issues for fear of offending any voters – this self-censorship has apparently not unnerved a party condemning pedaphilia among Democrats.

I’m working with Jamie Raskin and Ralph Nader to deploy a phrase that’s not catchy – like “Compassionate Conservative” or “Lock Her Up!” – but has the virtue of applying to nearly ALL the malevolence of 45’s GOP in just two words: they’re DANGEROUS EXTREMISTS.

Not just the word “extremists” since the Republican playbook simply will find some strained or solo example as a sufficient rebuttal – what about AOC! What about that guy who considered killing Justice Kavanaugh! But the numerical reality is that they are dangerous extremists and will be increasingly seen as such since every week there’s more news that corroborates, and never exonerates, their fringy language and threats of violence. (See “Notes” to Raskin’s colloquy.)

Here are the receipts: their titular leader and disciples tried to violently overthrow our constitutional democracy (and endanger the life of the Republican vice president in the process); promised to pardon those convicted of Insurrection-connected crimes; are openly conspiring to rig the next election (see the “Independent State Legislatures” doctrine and local candidates promising to ignore election laws); appear likely to be soon indicted for various crimes; are pursuing state laws to ban and criminalize all abortions; are inflaming MAGA mobs who threaten to harm or kill local officials; and embrace gun nuts who insist on their AR-15s while children are slaughtered.

This. Is. Not. Normal. Separately or together, these are galaxies different than GOP officials and commentators slamming Biden as a dictator because of the two marines at attention and dark red lighting of his Philadelphia speech. (Or their earlier crusades against M&Ms, Dr. Seuss, Disney, and Caravans that never got to America.)

Indeed, there’s so much actual political crime in TrumpLand that perpetrators benefit from scandal fatigue—a volume and variety of corruption that makes it hard to remember specific ones. But we cannot allow frequency to ironically normalize corruption. So should a Trumpie attempt to rebut any particular one, they can always conjure up some excuse for that (“hoax, witch hunt, ‘but Hillary,’ ‘you think Obama was perfect?’, the FBI are leftish thugs, Fake Media, only joking…whatever.) But since MAGA’s whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of- their-parts, it’s important to tie numerous examples of disinformation together thematically so they can’t outrun the truth that there’s no comparison in American history. E.g., “Trump has created a party in his image—they’re Dangerous Extremists.”
DANGEROUS EXTREMISTS ARE STEALING OUR FREEDOMS & LIVELIHOODS
The term also includes the Alito Six, who are indeed plunging in popularity. Especially after the tortured analysis in momentous Dobbs decision, they should always be referred to as “TRUMP’s Court” since three of them just arrived from the Federalist Society pipeline and, based on early performance, don’t deserve the traditional reverence of their “Supreme” predecessors. Good for VP Harris saying a week ago to NBC that she had problems with “the integrity” of the Court.

So at every possibility, Democratic candidates ought to hang a miscreant like Trump around the neck of all GOP opponents. They’ll try to squirm away since “he’s not on the ballot,” except he is the top dog insisting on fealty to a party they chose to run in. Didn’t Democrats taunt Republicans on the 1974 ballot with the disgraced Nixon, winning forty-nine House seats? It would have political malpractice if they hadn’t.

“Mainstream, Not Extreme” is a strong comparison in 2022 – at a fundamental level, nearly all voters know that the party of Donald Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene is not like the party of Joe Biden and Katie Porter. For a longer version: “Right-wing Big Brother is Coming for Our Freedoms, Our Rights, Our Bodies.”

As of September 12, 2022, Republican violence and extremism are starting to offset the usual off-year election jinx of the party in power. Trump and Alito are not only cartoon villains but also help motivate low-turnout midterm Democrats. If the turnout is 38 percent in 2022, as in most midterms, they win; if it’s 50 percent, as in 2018, we win.

Robert Frost once wrote that a liberal is someone so open-minded that he won’t take his own side in a debate. But in our world of Twitter and FOX, squishy words and on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other-hand won’t suffice given the fury of the GOP base and ferocity of Republican language. We need more Elizabeth Warrens slamming corporate crooks and GOP reactionaries and fewer Chris Coons blandly begging for bipartisanship when the other side is acting like Russian foot soldiers. They need to be called out in order to be voted out.

2. DEBATE

Since debates and interviews are the matrix of campaigns, here are a few well rehearsed techniques of Trump that the wannabes you face will likely try to emulate.

* Big Lies:

Whenever a Democrat says “Trump lies,” many voters knee-jerkingly say, “well, they all lie.” Which is true for all adults at some point in their lives and also most presidents. What’s a unicorn is a president who nearly always lies, as Steve Bannon has privately marveled. When it comes to truth and character, Trump is the polar opposite of our two greatest presidents – Washington reportedly said, “I cannot tell a lie” and Lincoln was called “Honest Abe” for reasons other than alliteration.

So there really is a difference between an elephant and a flea on an elephant, although technically they share the status of the animal kingdom. Never before in our history has a president made 34,000 plus lies/falsehoods in one term (or 22 times A DAY in 2020), as the Washington Post has documented …or claimed they won an election that they lost by seven million votes and seventy-four electors. Or pretend “Voter Fraud” cost Trump key states when eighty judges (some appointed by Trump) in sixty separate cases – and his own Attorney General – all concluded that there was no voter fraud that made a difference in any state.

This is a habit that most “MAGA Republicans” will not break since they cannot explain their policies without relying on “alternate facts.” Rudy Giuilani, for example, attacked Democrat “fraud” in the 2020 election twenty-seven times in his infamous Four Seasons Total Landscaping presser…but when he later appeared under oath in a related case, he said that “I’m not alleging fraud here.” And with little to criticize in Biden’s popular “Inflation Reduction Act,” the GOP came up with attacking it for spending $80 billion supposedly for 87,000 armed IRS agents “who may shoot some small business man in your district” (Sen. Charles E. Grassley).

That is not merely a “stretcher,” as Mark Twain would have put it, but a Big Lie, since the money is over a decade, not one year…restores the agency to its 2010 levels…involves 6,700 agents over that time…and mostly goes to reduce paperwork and update technology in order to audit wealthy taxpayers engaged in tax evasion – a crime – saving an estimated one trillion dollars over the decade.

Scholar Sissela Bok. in her classic Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, explained what happens if too many people tell too many lies: “”Imagine a society where word and gesture could never be counted on. Answers given, information exchanged – all would be worthless.” A Democracy presumes a certain minimum of trust, which cannot survive a critical mass of big or small lies.

* Rhetorical Questions:

Tucker Carlson asks, “Why should I hate Putin?” and “why do we allow foreign born billionaires to control America?” – as he flashes a picture on screen of George Soros.

This device nearly always works on low-education/five second voters who lazily embrace the premise (“yeah, why?”) when the best answer in any debate is either a) to show quickly how nearly all rhetorical questions are built on a hidden falsehood or b) to immediately decode the trick with a blunt truth – e.g., “because he’s a fascist murderer who invaded a sovereign nation” about Putin or “how come you only mention a Jewish billionaire?” about Soros. Both retorts, however, probably require Buttigieg-level quickness.

So also be prepared to flick the question away with a brief reply on the merits – anything longer than a sentence or two will seem defensive – and then hit him/her with a real question: “Do you agree with Trump and a majority of your party who think that those who attacked the Capitol on January 6 were ‘patriots,’ not ‘insurrectionists’? Might you support Trump if he runs and is the GOP nominee? [any hedge or answer longer than ‘no’ must be construed as a ‘yes’]? Do you think women & doctors should be prosecuted for murder after an abortion, as many states now permit?”

And be sure to prepare a sur-rebuttal for when your opponent resorts to B.S. talking points or serves up a word salad. “Answer the question!” would be a rare but fair interruption.

* Assertions & Adjectives.

Closely related to “Big Lies” are assertions without evidence since there are none. This probably started in the Adams-Jefferson contest but the modern iteration was Speaker Newt Gingrich who urged his House Caucus to attack all Democrats with words like “weak, pathetic, treasonous, stupid, communist, leftist, abomination, treachery”…again and again and again. Fact-based arguments can be hard. But simply, indignantly and declaratively saying something stupid – like Trump calling FBI agents “vicious monsters” – isn’t very difficult to say at a rally but provides an inviting target in a debate.

This year, we hear his progeny call the FBI “thugs and leftists” or Sen. Rick Scott say “liberals are the true book-burners.” If something like this comes up in a debate (which is probable) rather than wrestle with such tar babies, it’s best to either ignore or laugh it off in a phrase. Also fine to add that “repeating a falsehood three times doesn’t make it true. You know that, right?”

* The Black Swan & Projection.

This is standard cherry-picking that exaggerates some lonely example or conspiracy into some sweeping critique. Goebbels got this ball rolling when he explained the importance of “attacking your enemies for what you’re doing.”

So, for an example, if a Republican is credibly called a “racist,” a FOX host knows to reach back one hundred years to when Robert Byrd – who went on to become a constitutional scholar and Senate icon – was once in the Klan as a young man in the late 1920s. Which he later apologized for.

More recently, it’s when Donald Trump is shown to have stolen public property (for which he may yet be prosecuted). Time to trot out Hillary Clinton because, as secretary of state, she had government material on her personal server at home and was connecting to other officials with security clearance. Trump’s strenuous effort to turn her into Ethel Rosenberg relied on people not being able to distinguish apples from orangutans. What Trump did post-presidency lying about and hiding over 300 top secret documents from the FBI for eighteen months, including ones about nuclear secrets. That was a first.

* Machine Gun Sentences. If you’re on the receiving end of a string of attacks in a run-on sentence and responding to some smears is too defensive and time-consuming, answer one stupid accusation with a flick of your wrist and then pivot to put your rival on defense:

“I get that my opponent doesn’t care about Trump’s assaults on women, his 34,000 lies, denial that Biden legitimately won, or the racism of GOP state laws taking voting rights away from minorities …what’s hard to believe is that he doesn’t lift a finger to stand up to corporate power when it hurts families like his – on pollution, minimum wage, tax rates for the rich. Whose side is he on?”

Pivot. Pivot. Pivot.

* “Socialist” used as Slander.

If you’re indeed not a card-carrying member of DSA, it’s probably best to smilingly use a version of the following for the S word…or any synonym like “table thumping leftist…Commie…party of AOC and Sanders.”

“My opponent tries to marginalize me by implying that being a strong Democrat is somehow sinful in 2022. But let’s look at the history of social progress from FDR to Biden: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Labor Laws, Affordable Care Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, all Civil Rights laws, environmental and consumer protections and agencies, the new Infrastructure law (not “infrastructure week but Law”). If that’s what you mean by your accusation, count me in! Imagine an America without those progressive advances?”

* Don’t Shoot All Your Arrows/Shoot All Your Arrows.

Let me share two examples of this seeming conflicting advice from my own experience.

If you and your research team have found some killer scandal or gaffe by your opponent, keep it under wraps UNTIL you are facing him/her in your first debate. Then uncork it to see if they can respond to something new in a face-to-face live encounter. In a U.S. Senate state-wide primary in 1986, I asked this: “John, you say you’re pro-Israel. So why did you invest in a company that sided with the Arab States’ Boycott of Israel, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce? Why did you make a profit from anti-semitism?” John was not happy.

Before I’m accused of self-touting, here’s one where I blew it. Before In my general election for New York City mayor against Michael Bloomberg in 2001, Bloomberg wrote a small self-published book of quotes and witticisms for his firm and friends, which included a lot of bawdy humor mocking women. Given my 15 point lead (pre-9/11), I thought it too cheap and unnecessary to mention. Oops. But twenty years later, when my candidate Elizabeth Warren was on a presidential primary debate stage with him, from the get-go she laced into him for his locker-room misogyny. He never recovered.

The lesson: never assume you can’t lose or win – so be sure to unload all accurate criticism sometime before the whistle blows.

The one takeaway of this rhetorical and debate is this – stay on offense even when you’re playing defense.

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