Enough With the Limp 'Hardball' Questions for Trump - It's Time to Expose His Cheap Tricks

George Bernard Shaw said, “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”  


Trump’s campaign should teach us never to say never. There are times when fighting with pigs is unavoidable. Besides pigs like it when people say never wrestle with them. Better you bite your tongue than that you nip at them.

Pigs are people who will stop at nothing to get their way. Some pigs don’t know any better. They’re blind to their own bullying. Other pigs are so confident that they know better, that they feel justified in getting their own way. They are sure that they have found truth, and if you disagree you’re shamefully wrong by whatever double standard they can pull out their butts.

When you’re stuck wrestling with pigs, you have to pick your battles. And the worst choice you can make is trying to get the pig to admit it’s a pig. Alas, that’s about all we’ve gotten from hardball journalists this election season.

Trump’s laughably losing hand continues to win largely because even the toughest journalists continue to try to corner him on his incorrigibility. Their questions can be summarized as “Sir, aren’t you being self-servingly inconsistent?”

Watching these “hardball” flops is like watching someone try to eat Jello with chopsticks. Pinch as they might, the Jello will always slip away.

The game of gotcha is over, and Trump has won.

Ask any psychiatrist: It’s worst than a waste of time to ask psychopaths and pathological liars questions. You won’t get straight answers, and asking only reinforces the impression that you still naively believe that they care about the truth. No psychiatrist is going to ask a psychopath whether he realizes that he’s behaving badly. Nor would they try to corner pathological liars into admitting that they’re lying.

It’s time for a new line of questions that assumes what has now been fully established. For example:

"Mr. Trump, do you ever worry that your wall-to-wall evasion, while winning you support, won't win you the election?”

"When did you first discover the awesome persuasive power of hypocrisy? Was it when you were a child? Did it work with your parents?"

“You obviously take pride in your ability to lie with a straight face. Do you sometimes regret boasting about it? Or is it not a problem because you can always lie about boasting to cover it up if you need to?”

“Obviously, you knew pretty early on that you had the power to fool a lot of people but when did it first dawn on you that you might just be able to fool a majority and win the presidency?”

“A lot of people wonder whether you know you’re a lying hypocrite or you’re just not bright enough to see it. Which is it?”

It may be too late to ask him these questions in a context where they are likely to land a direct hit. The people most likely to ask such questions no longer have access to him, which puts the burden on the prestigious journalists he can’t escape.

His response, of course would be to take offense and storm off, and then tweet his flailing petulant defensiveness through the night.

But for once, that wouldn’t be the story. Instead it would be about the journalist who for first time in this election, ended an exchange with Trump in something other than a Trump win or an ambiguous draw, the journalist who finally stalled Trump by saying to his face what so many know and say about him elsewhere.

The journalist who finally landed a direct blow with Trump might be fired, but that would be a great career move. The journalists lobbing Trump and his flunkies the limp “hardball” questions are enabling Trump as unconscionably as are the Republicans who have endorsed him. Their fates are as good as sealed. Whether Trump loses or wins, he’s a disaster, and anyone who had a chance to stop him and didn’t will have a lot of explaining to do.

The only way to wrestle pigs down is making their piggishness obvious. There are more direct ways than asking questions. Imagine if Anderson Cooper simply said to his face, “You’re a blowhard.”

Joe McCarthy was finally stopped with a statement in the form of a question. It was Joseph Welsh, Chief Counsel to the US Army, breaking form and putting his career on the line to say to McCarthy’s face what so many people felt.

“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Welsh wasn’t asking “Tell me, Senator McCarthy, do you have a sense of decency?” To the Senator’s face, Welsh expressed his confident conclusion that he hadn’t one. McCarthy flailed and in ensuing months sputtered out. We remember Welsh’s question not McCarthy’s come back.

There’s another way to wrestle pigs down. Applying it here would do the country a lot of long-term good. Expose their MO in front them. Take people on a little “Look what they did there?” tour of the pig’s manipulation.

Christie did it to Rubio: “Marco, the thing is this, when you're president of the United States, or you're governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech where you talk about how great America is at the end of it doesn't solve one problem for one person.”

Reagan did it to Carter: “There you go again.”

Part of the power of this move is talking past the pig. Look at Trump’s body language in interviews. He’s usually half-present. He decides when he’ll give the interviewer his attention, otherwise, he’s either impatient to move on to more important people or he gestures as though he’s laughing with his supporters at the interviewer. This half-presence may just be an expression of Trump’s thimble-sized attention span, but it’s effective. It shows a lack of respect for the person he’s supposedly talking to.

Journalists need to take this page from Trump’s playbook. Asides to the audience would be great. “There he goes again,” and then a quick description of the generic cheap trick that Trump just used. There are only a handful of these tricks (See The Formula).  Don’t even give Trump an opening to say “No I didn’t do that.” Make him fight for attention to defend himself and when he does, expose that cheap trick too. And the next.

If we survive Trump he will have been the best thing to happen to our democracy long term. Lily Tomlin said, “No matter how cynical you get, you just can’t keep up,” Cynical or not, no matter how skeptical we get we can’t keep up.

There’s a co-evolution of cheap con-artist tricks, and the skepticism necessary to not be taken in by them. We can’t keep up, because the tricks accumulate over the years. Once a successful trick is discovered, it’s not forgotten. It spreads to all possible applications.

But people are born gullible. There’s a sucker born every minute. And for each of us it’s a long slow process to learn to spot the cons, which keep evolving accumulating and spreading.

Trump is a boon for helping us speed-learn how to identify pigs. He’s the vaccine this virgin country has long needed, the body politics’ innoculant against the rabid tyranny that all other nations have been exposed to.

Trump uses every trick in the book and he uses them all crudely. He is to con artistry what an elementary school word finder puzzle is to word finding.

Disappointingly, that’s the grade level our acutely naïve citizenry requires if it’s ever going to get good at spotting the tricks. Apparently even his simplistic abuse of the tricks isn’t enough. We need journalists doing the equivalent of an elementary school teacher giving hints.

Trump remains viable because no one yet has once even slowed his stride in public. We need someone credible saying in Trump’s presence “there he goes again,” and then walking the audience through how the cheap tricks work. Or we need someone assuming in Trump’s presence that he’s using them, not asking him whether he is, nor accusing him of using them in ways he can deflect.  

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