Decoding the Trump Master Narrative

It’s been another week of bizarre, controversial tweets. Another week of Trump saying something outrageous and almost starting a war somewhere, possibly here in America. Another week of the press, pundits, activists, talk show hosts, and religious leaders expressing this:

“He’s totally out of his mind.”
“He’s really done it this time–he’s gone too far.”
“When will he get impeached?”
“We’ve got to get him out of there before he starts a nuclear war and destroys us all.”
“He’s a madman, a maniac, a lunatic, unhinged…”

Sound familiar? And yet, we’ve been saying these same things since before the election last year.
Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to being president, he doesn’t have a clue. But that’s assuming he’s even trying to be a good president. All he wants to do is not only win, but dominate in every exchange, every contest, every confrontation. And when he’s on this battlefield, he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Trump has succeeded at two things in his life:
1. Selling his own brand.
2. The Apprentice.

Remember the video of Trump as he watched the vote totals and realized he’d won? That is not the face of a happy man. That’s a resting ‘oh fuck’ face. I don’t think Trump really even meant to win. But when thrown into a whole new world, he did what a lot of us would do: he fell back on what he knew.

He strengthened his branding as the alpha male business magnate who could get the job done. He began producing a new reality show, POTUS!, complete with scripted drama and staged events that made him look successful (remember the fake clapping at the CIA and the fake celebration in the rose garden?). Plus, an enemy or two to vanquish every week. He refined his technique of reading what his biggest fans wanted from him and then giving the appearance of delivering.

Aside from an occasional incomprehensible rant or bizarre move that seems to hurt his position, Trump mostly sticks to this script. He even warned us how he operates in The Art of the Deal. See if any of this sounds familiar.

Trump’s Elements of the Deal
1. Aim high, and keep pushing and pushing until you get what you’re after.
Trump translater: Shoot for the moon and throw a tantrum until you get it.
2. Keep a lot of balls in the air and give yourself options.
Trump translater: Always have several fronts going at once so you can use them as distractions when you get stuck.
3. Know your market: do your own surveys and crunch your own numbers.
Trump translater: Trust your own instincts over all else.
4. Use your leverage. Leverage is having something the other guy wants. Never seem desperate to make a deal.
Trump translater: Toy with people as a way of maintaining control at all times.
5. Enhance your location.
Trump translater: Make your product seem better than it is using hyperbole, marketing and psychology. In other words, lie if need be.
6. Get the word out.
“One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story… if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.”
7. Here’s where he admits he loves this routine.
“Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score. The real excitement is playing the game.”

To really understand the Trump narrative and how his seemingly random acts and comments tie together, you have to see how it plays on right wing media. Much of what Trump does is aimed at his remaining staunch supporters. He promised them he’d build a wall. Lock Hillary up. Save Christianity. Keep fighting the culture war. Keep out the Muslims. Clean up Washington. Get stuff done. Make America white again.

Hence the Muslim travel ban and the atrocity propaganda on right wing media showing all the bad things immigrants have done. Rolling back gains for transgendered people. Making Jerusalem the embassy site. Attacking the LatinX mayor of San Juan when she asked for help for her people. Pretending to sign a bill for the cameras. Refusing to denounce neo-nazis and the Klan. Returning to blaming Hillary for everything. The seven words you can’t say at the CDC.

He said the press was the enemy, that his story was the only one that was true.

It all reinforces the story Trump told his supporters in those big, scary rallies: I understand your pain. I’m the big boss who can take back your country. I’ll protect you from the forces of liberalism and progress, those brown people who want to replace you. I’ll tell you the truth. I’ll punish the sinners. I’m the Man.

How you do anything is how you do everything, and Trump has been running this program most of his life. Why would he change? He’s POTUS. It’s hard to argue that it’s worked for him so far.

So even though it might seem impossible, try not to be so outraged by Trump’s hateful rhetoric that you miss its strategic value. We’ve underestimated Trump every step of the way. It’s time to accept that in the media wars, Trump is the master framer.

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“Our Guys Aren’t as Rapey as Their Guys” -Irrational Thinking In The Era of Accusation

Identify the accused male subject of the following sentiments:

  • Accused is not the same thing as guilty.
  • I don’t like what he did but we need him in the Senate to represent our values.
  • His accusers are being paid.
  • It’s a set-up.
  • I’m a victim and what happened to her wasn’t so bad.
  • I blame her.
  • Why come forward now, when it was so long ago?

If you guessed Al Franken, you’d be right. If you guessed Roy Moore, you’d also be right. It’s impossible to tell from these statements alone who is being defended from what.

Though we see ourselves as being very different from the other group–progressives from conservatives and vice versa–our psychology is actually pretty much the same. The same irrational thought processes are kicking in on all sides as we hunker down in our bunkers with those we share voting habits with.

What’s happening in the rationalizations above is that people are searching their brains for justifications to explain why they’re still supporting a person accused of behavior they would normally find abhorrent.

[Full disclosure: I find the accusations against Roy Moore to be much worse than the accusations against Al Franken. Specifically because of the 14-year-old girl. We all have our lines in the sand and that’s one of mine. The point is not to go case by case and grope by grope to find who’s the worst sexual violator. The point is to examine the underlying psychology behind why we rally behind our guys regardless.]

Cognitive distortions
Here are some of the distortions that could lead an objective listener (someone from another planet, maybe) to conclude your thought patterns are making the kind of sense that’s not.

On losing Al in the Senate:
The Democrats have lost the only one of them who really took on Trump. This is a disaster for the Democrats. Now we’ll lose in 2018 for sure.

1. The Democrats have lost the only one of them who really took on Trump.
This is filtering, as in eliminating information that doesn’t support the severity of your feelings. There are many Democrats who have spoken out against and stood up to Trump.
2. This is a disaster for the Democrats.
Catastrophizing: This is the worst thing that could possibly have happened. This is also a conclusion meant to support how sad or angry you feel.
3. Now we’ll lose in 2018 for sure.
Fortune telling or future casting; there’s no way to actually know what will happen in the future.

What Roy Moore did was 38 years ago. I believe, if he did it, he has been forgiven by God so I should forgive him too. This man has more integrity than anyone else in Congress right now.

1. What Roy Moore did was 38 years ago.
Filtering and minimizing–you’re ignoring the other 8 allegations against him which extended into the 1990s.
2. I believe, if he did it, he has been forgiven by God so I should forgive him too.
Appeal to authority, in this case, a higher authority.
3. This man has more integrity than anyone else in Congress right now.
Magnification: exaggerating for effect–there are over 500 members of Congress and it would take some doing to analyze each one of them and compare their integrity to Moore’s.

Most of these cases of rationalization involve one common distortion: emotional reasoning. This is where we believe our emotions are the same as facts. We feel something strongly and therefore we distort facts to fit the truth of our feelings. Of course, this makes sensible discourse impossible–my feelings are more true than your feelings!

There are some things we can do to make this better. The first is to be honest with ourselves. Go back and check the facts and make sure you’re not distorting them in your mind in order to justify the fever pitch of your emotions.

The second strategy is to try and identify what you’re actually feeling. When you’re raging at the person on your Facebook feed who generally shares your values, stop and consider. Why is what this person saying making me so angry? You might hear a little voice saying, “Because I just can’t take any more losses.”
Anger is often covering for feelings of sadness and fear. It feels stronger to be filled with righteous fury than to accept vulnerable feelings of grief and despair.

Thirdly, go back to your core values and see if those are being represented in what you’re saying.  Ask yourself if the behavior you’re defending would upset you if you found out the other group was doing it.

At the end of it all, we’re all only human. And you’re either working with human psychology, or it’s working against you.

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March on Colorado Presents Women’s Summit in Denver Oct. 28

I’m honored to have been asked by the Women’s Summit to give a presentation on progressive messaging. Please join me and hundreds of others connected to the Women’s March for a day of activism and connection.

WHAT: Women’s Summit Event info and tickets
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 28 – 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
WHERE: Mile Hi Church
9077 W. Alameda Avenue
Lakewood, CO, 80226
TICKETS: Tickets are on sale for $25 at

March on Colorado, the network that led more than 150,000 local citizens in a march through downtown Denver on January 21 for the advancement of human rights for women and other marginalized communities, will present the inaugural Women’s Summit at Mile Hi Church.

The Summit, a sister event to The Women’s Convention in Detroit presented by the Women’s March, will bring women and men of all races, ethnicities, ages, abilities, sexual identities, religions, and backgrounds together in Denver for inspiring forums and intersectional movement building to continue the preparation going into the 2018 midterm elections.

The Women’s Summit will unite first-time activists and movement leaders, current and rising political stars, and women from throughout the Rocky Mountain region to gain concrete insight, instruction, and inspiration on activism and organizing as a grassroots force for change. Summit sessions and speakers will include:

Colorado Democratic Party State Chair Morgan Carroll and State Senator and Minority Leader Lucia Guzman: “Translating Activism into Political Action”
Writer and Activist Chris Devlin: “Taking Charge of the Narrative: Messaging for Progressives”
Communications Experts Hilary Blair of ARTiculate: Real and Clear: “Engaging Your Powerful Voice”
President of Colorado Black Women for Political Action Halisi Vinson:
“Beyond Diversity and Inclusion: Whose liberation is it?”
Licensed psychotherapist and certified life coach Nancy Harris, LCSW: “Self-Care Strategies for Managing Tough Times”

About March On Colorado
On January 21, 2017, the Women’s March on Denver harnessed the power of nearly 150,000 voices and we do not intend slow down or to be silenced. We will continue to speak out through March On to support social justice, human rights and equality through four pillars of action – educate, empower, connect and engage – to demonstrate that we will be vigilant in protecting these rights for our community moving forward. We are all relevant, we are all valued, and we are more powerful together. For more information, visit March On Colorado.

Media Contact:
Lisa Cutter
(303) 525-3602

Posted in democracy activism, Moral Framing, resistance, Strategy, women | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Punching Nazis and the Constitution: It’s Complicated

So you’re thinking about punching a nazi and you’re pretty sure it’s okay because they’re inciting you to violence with their nazi ways and you’re protected under the Constitution.
Quick question: Who gets to decide what is and what is not constitutionally protected speech?
There are only nine people in the world who get to say…Image result for the constitution image public domain

Did you guess the Supreme Court?
Ding ding ding! Yep, in fact, that’s all they do all day is sit around interpreting the Constitution. And, as I understand it, they take a much more careful view of what constitutes incitement to violence.

Hate speech is constitutionally protected in a city park or public space. Do it at work and you might be in big trouble, though.

Speaking vaguely about wiping out all the Albanians because they’re evil and they took your country is constitutionally protected. Saying ‘I hate Albanians and there are some that live at 420 Mockingbird Lane who get home in about an hour–I’ve got a gun,’ could be considered incitement to violence because of its specificity. You could be charged with a crime even if the violence doesn’t happen.

Wearing the insignia or carrying the flag of hideous historical murderers is not specific enough, or direct enough. And just because what they’re saying about Jews and black people really pisses you off doesn’t count as incitement from a legal perspective.

So, instead of punching a nazi, don’t punch one and take the money you’d spend on bail to buy the book ‘Deliberate Intent’ by Rod Smolla. He’s a first amendment scholar who talks about these very issues, so much so that you’ll be full of accurate information about the realities of constitutionally protected speech.

Then take the rest of the bail money and donate it to The Southern Poverty Law Center, The Anti-Defamation League and The Color of Change. Apply the money where it might actually do some good for the people you’re purporting to defend.

Whatever you do, don’t punch a nazi with a weapon in your hands and injure them so much you commit a felony. If you’re serving time or on probation for a felony, you won’t get to vote. In some states, you’ll never get to vote again. And guess which population is the most likely to get disenfranchised by these unjust voter suppression tactics? Black Americans. Voting out nazis and nazi enablers is the best possible way to protect those vulnerable populations you’re so worried about. Definitely stay enfranchised long enough to vote out of power those GOP politicians who pass laws to keep people convicted of a felony from voting.

In short, how about you don’t punch a nazi and instead do something about hate and injustice that might have longer-lasting results.

Posted in Constitution, democracy activism, First Amendment rights, Freedom of Speech, hate speech, politics, resistance, Strategy | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Democrats Must Become the Pro-Choice Party Again–Here’s How

In the midst of an anti-climactic roll-out of a wan new ‘economic’ message, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Ben Ray Lujan dropped a bombshell on supporters. He announced the Democratic Party was spreading out the welcome mat to anti-choice candidates, betraying its committment to a woman’s right to reproductive freedom. This is not the message progressives were waiting for. Here’s what they should say instead.

We the Democratic Party of America would like to apologize for this flagrant display of ethically-challenged stupidity. We suddenly seem to vaguely recall there was a march back in January, the biggest in history, that represented millions of American women and men who are looking for strong moral leadership on progressive values. Our bone-headed attempt to court the anti-choice minority at the expense of our core supporters was obviously a mistake and we hereby rescind all talk of financial backing for those who don’t honor a woman’s rights over her own body.

Clearly, we still don’t understand why we keep losing elections and think the answer is for us to move to the center or to the right. But we’ve considered how the GOP keeps winning elections even though they’re horrible at governing and we realize it has something to do with always playing to their base and sticking to their core values.

Given the rampant misogyny of the Republican Party, it also occurred to us that slapping half of the human race in the face might not be our best tack. We know that we have to court the young generation in order to secure lifelong loyalties, and we know that most millennials have embraced the Obama-era freedoms and equality they grew up with. Young women are already having a hard enough time generating enthusiasm for our aging, unsexy party. We would never want to alienate them and send them running to start their own party, to which we won’t be invited. If the resistance has taught us anything, it’s that we need them more than they need us.

[Bernie Sanders steps up. “Uh, me too. What they said. When I said we just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue, I wasn’t thinking how this ‘one issue’ was one of the left’s core values, as important as economic equality. But now I realize how old and male and privileged this makes me sound, and I take it back.”]

So while we’re out touting our new, wan ‘economic’ message, we’ll bear in mind that you can’t separate a woman’s right to reproductive freedom from her economic opportunities, or her children’s. And we want to make it clear we would never say to progressive women, as had been said to them many times in the past, “Support us now on the important work we’re doing courting white men, and we’ll get to your stuff later–what was your issue-thingy again? And, oh yeah, get me some coffee while you type up this memo, would you?”

Here’s how we’ll address this issue instead. If you want fewer abortions, you should vote Democrat. Abortions go way down when Democrats are in charge because we ensure access to birth control and pregnancy prevention information. We also make it easier for women to continue with unplanned pregnancies because of access to health care, education and the social safety net.

Most of all, we want to reassure our despairing supporters that we understand why they’re upset. It’s because we keep acting like we have no idea what we’re doing, as though we’re a bunch of quivering, spineless jellyfish stumbling over each other in the dark. We’d like to course-correct and step into the role of moral leadership that the left so desperately craves right now. We promise not to do anything this short-sighted, anti-woman, and morally cowardly again.

Yours in progressive values,
The Democrats #TheBestDeal

(Oh, and we also realize trumpeting a slogan that isn’t even a superlative is bad messaging so now it’s #TheBestDeal, or something even better if you can think of it. We’re completely unable to read a book on moral messaging. Send help.)

Mother Jones: People are really mad at the Democrats

Of Course Abortion Should Be a Litmus Test for Democrats

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The Reluctant Patriot, or How I Learned to Love the Flag

In a February article in The Atlantic, conservative David Frum gave some advice to the Resistance, an example of the strange alliances that have sprung up since Trump. Frum is a Never Trump-er and he wanted to let left-wing activists in on his observations from years of seeing our protests from the other side.

Photo credit Kristen L. Will

Some of his advice was easily dismissed, too much of a departure from progressive core values. But one suggestion struck me as completely sensible–start carrying flags. Frum writes:

“Remember Trump’s tweet about stripping citizenship from flag burners? It’s beyond audacious that a candidate who publicly requested help from Russian espionage services against his opponent would claim the flag as his own. But Trump is trying. Don’t let him get away with it. Carry the flag… Trump’s presidency is itself one long flag-burning, an attack on the principles and institutions of the American republic. That republic’s symbols are your symbols. You should cherish them and brandish them.”

As much as this perspective makes sense, it is also profoundly challenging. I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with traditional symbols of patriotism. Starting in junior high school, I refused to stand for the flag at assemblies even though my classmates gave me a hard time. The way I saw it then, I was forced to go to school, forced to listen to teachers, forced to give certain answers on tests about America and democracy. Yet I was expected to praise the symbol of the very government that was oppressing me (by making me go to school, sort of the ideology of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall.) I was also completely outraged by America’s abuses of Native Americans, black people, women, gays and radical activists.

I grew up during the Vietnam War. No American war since I’ve been alive has been an unqualified ‘good war’ as WWII was for that generation. U.S. military actions have been fraught with controversy and moral ambiguity, a sense that America was only involved for greed and power, not for defending the values of the constitution.

Rather than symbolizing the love of liberty, flags were like a warning sign that the people carrying them were not my people. Flags meant Republicanism, jingoism, being pro-war and anti-gay and anti-choice, believing in a police state, being racist. Flag wavers were also bible-thumpers who didn’t believe in the separation of church and state.

However, concepts once familiar and long-held have been put through a blender since Trump. Like many Americans, I’ve had to challenge my own biases and re-examine my comfort zone. For me, patriotism began to take on a whole new meaning when Trump attacked the Gold Star Khan family, whose son had died for America. Trump was running to be Commander in Chief, surely the most profound and important duty of the president, and here he was trying to hurt these loyal Americans as much as he could. I thought his chances to win were over then, because people who vote Republican are usually the ones who are for law and order and to always support the military no matter what.

But the flag-waving “patriots” were able to overlook this supremely vicious behavior by candidate Trump and they made him president and Commander in Chief anyway. Though many of them might feel his highlighting of a perished soldier at his State of the Union speech absolved him of this sin, I don’t. That was a white Christian American. Trump has never apologized to the Khan family, nor acknowledged their Muslim son’s sacrifice for America’s values.

I now feel the right-wing is not the holder of patriotic values anymore. If left to Trump and his supporters, the rights and liberties symbolized by the Stars and Stripes could be obliterated–are being obliterated already. It’s the democracy activists and the progressive blue voters who are holding down traditional American values, like how America is a nation of immigrants and we have equal rights under the law. The Republican party is working furiously to curtail voting rights and take over democratic processes and principles crucial to a functioning democracy. It’s up to the left to assume the mantel of defending traditional American values.

Like a lot of formerly disenfranchised lefties, I didn’t come to patriotism naturally or easily. But this reluctant patriot will now join the folks waving flags and not feel like an outsider. It’s not only our right but our duty to make the symbol of America match the reality of America.

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Change Hearts First to Change Minds on Climate Crisis

David Leonhardt of the New York Times asked his readers what I believe is the most important question about America’s resistance to the threat of climate change: What would a more persuasive message about climate change sound like?

I would go further and ask: How have the GOP won the hearts and minds of much of America on this and many other issues? And how do progressives win them back?

Cognitive scientist George Lakoff has answers to these urgent questions. Lakoff, a retired professor of linguistics, has been politely knocking on the doors of Democrats and liberal policy makers for years, encouraging them to use moral framing in their messaging, like the Republicans do.

Frames are subconscious mental structures that guide how we view the world. Tapping into language to activate those frames is the underlying strategy of persuasive politics. It was conservative Frank Luntz who reframed ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ in a deliberate attempt to make it sound less frightening.

Deliberate attempt? Isn’t that kind of paranoid?

Not at all. The conservatives have been working on how to communicate their values and their policies using moral framing for decades. That’s what all those heavily funded think tanks are about. They define their goals–how do we keep our coal-and-oil businesses afloat? How do we get the government regulatory agencies off our backs? Then they use language that evokes emotions and they talk in terms of values.

Conservative messaging speaks in metaphors of nature and the Earth as a resource, as property, as an enemy to be conquered. The GOP also won over the heartland on ‘climate change’ by appealing to cultural issues. Coal country is not just about jobs but about identity, tradition, a way of life. Government protections for the environment are cast as the Washington elite choking off businesses with over-regulation. Nowhere in the GOP messaging is environmental impact mentioned. They never talk about issues using liberal framing.

So how to communicate about climate crisis in a more persuasive way? How to take back our planet from the oil and gas barons who have usurped the public discourse by using the language of capitalism and marketing?

Start by describing the issue as what it is. Don’t accept a conservative euphemism. It’s climate crisis. #ClimateCrisis. Spread this subtle but profound shift in wording far and wide. Climate disasters. Climate action.

Instead of trying to argue facts, use the language of emotion and metaphor. In an Alternet article from 2015,, Lakoff suggests we conceptualize nature as ‘the giver of all life, as sustainer and provider, as having inherent value, imposing responsibility, and deserving gratitude, love, adoration and commitment.’ He suggested using metaphors of nature as mother, as a divine being, as a living organism, as a home. These words feel completely different than the conservative concept of Earth as a resource to be exploited for money and power.

Lakoff also applauds Pope Francis and how he framed the perils of Climate Crisis starting with the title of his encyclical on ecology, “On Care for our Common Home.” This is the most important concept for progressives to communicate. The Earth is our home where we live together as a family unit. What you do to harm our common home harms all of us.

“The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all,” writes Pope Francis. This is a progressive moral belief that we feel profoundly but rarely say out loud. But we should begin talking the language of values, of our deeply held beliefs, of nurturance and care, of the common good and the common responsibility to each other and our shared home.

Climate Crisis is a human rights concern. Our shared environment is under threat from pollution and neglect. Our children’s future depends on us to act now. Without a stable climate, our children can’t be healthy and free.

Avoid divisive language. The environment belongs to everyone and so does the responsibility to keep it healthy. Stripped down to its core, liberal progressivism is about empathy for self and others, for the planet we call our home, for animals and all living things. Lead from this empathy and not from the wounds inflicted on us all by disaster capitalism and Trump’s ‘American carnage’ propaganda.

Using fear can be an effective method; conservatives have been using fear effectively on every issue. However, I feel it’s better for progressives to use the language of hope, of innovation and of the American can-do spirit. Imagine you’re talking to your grandson or your niece. Millenials will inherit this crisis so how can you empower them to tackle it without scaring them to death?

Talk about renewable energy and the promise of careers in this field. Mention innovation and alternatives to the status quo. The future belongs to those who can harness the wind and the sun. All humans will share our home in peace and prosperity with healthier bodies and no fear of climate disasters.

Don’t despair over Trump pulling out of the Paris accords. What’s happening is what always happens when the GOP is put in charge of seeing to our common good. They see to their own self interests instead. Look on the bright side of this development–progressives and moderate conservatives all over the world are waking up to the dangers of treating our earthly home as a resource to be exploited. We’re so offended because we know, deep in our hearts, that something precious that belongs to all of us is being degraded and despoiled.

We just have to take this deep knowing and turn it into language that most people will respond to. The GOP did it, and they did it even though what they were selling was the poisoning of our planet. Offer a real alternative message to the agitprop of the right. Envision the world you want to live in and speak from the heart.

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