Linguist George Lakoff Explains How the Democrats Helped Elect Trump
George Lakoff didn’t start off in the world of politics. He was a founding father of cognitive linguistics, starting with his 1980 book, “Metaphors We Live By“ (co-authored with philosopher Mark Johnson). The book showed how immediate, concrete experience — bodily orientation, physical movement, and so on — structures our understanding of more complex and abstract experiences via “conceptual metaphors” such as “Consciousness Is Up,” “Love Is a Journey,” etc.
Facing the rise of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s and bewildered by how he and other liberals could not make logical sense of conservative ideology (what do gun rights, low taxes and banning abortion have in common?), Lakoff found an answer in conceptual metaphors derived form two contrasting family models explicated by Diana Baumrind as authoritarian (“strict father” in Lakoff’s terms) and authoritative (“nurturant parent”), as described in his 1996 book, “Moral Politics.” His 2004 book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate,” drew on a wider range of cognitive science and gained a mass audience, but failed to fundamentally change how liberals and Democrats approach politics, as was richly illustrated by the recent election of Donald Trump.
But Lakoff is nothing if not persistent, and has penned an election postmortem like no other, “A Minority President: Why the Polls Failed, and What the Majority Can Do.” It rearticulates the arguments of his earlier books — including others like “The Political Mind,” Whose Freedom?“ and Philosophy in the Flesh — along with fresh analysis and new insights that push hard for opening up a new realm of possibilities, instead of retrenching, retreating or repeating strategies and tactics that have failed in the past. In it, Lakoff displays both an intimate familiarity with detailed examples and a broad-based visionary outlook.
Salon spoke with him to explore both, with an eye toward expanding the horizon of the possible on one hand, and avoiding potholes on the other. He’s talking with Chelsea Green about expanding the essay into a book, but the ideas in it really can’t wait. The Democratic establishment needs to be shaken up, and the rest of us need to be stirred.
Q: You’ve been writing about politics from a cognitive science perspective for more than 20 years. A lot of people have listened to you, but the Democratic political establishment as a whole has not, and that was reflected in the election of Donald Trump. As you note in your article, “The polls, the media, and the Democratic Party all failed to understand conservative values and their importance. They failed to understand unconscious thought and moral worldviews. While hailing science in the case of climate change, they ignored science when it came to their own minds.” So let’s start there. What do you mean by that, and how did it happen?
A: If you’re a conservative going into politics, there’s a good chance you’ll study cognitive science, that is, how people really think and how to market things by advertising. So they know people think using frames and metaphors and narratives and images and emotions and so on. That’s second nature to anybody who’s taken a marketing course. Many of the people who have gone into conservative communications have done that, and know very well how to market their ideas.
Now, if instead you are a progressive, and you go to college and you’re interested in politics, what are you going to study? Well, you’ll study political science, law, public policy, economic theory and so on, but you’re not going to wind up studying marketing, most likely, and you’re not going to study either cognitive science or neuroscience.
What you’ll learn in those courses is what is called Enlightenment reason, from 1650, from Descartes. And here’s what that reasoning says: What makes us human beings is that we are rational animals and rationality is defined in terms of logic. Recall that Descartes was a mathematician and logician. He argued that reasoning is like seeing a logical proof. Secondly, he argued that our ideas can fit the world because, as he said, “God would not lie to us.” The assumption is that ideas directly fit the world.
They’re also, Descartes argued, disembodied. He said that if ideas were embodied, were part of the body, then physical laws would apply to them, and we would not have free will. And in fact, they are embodied, physical laws do apply to them, and we do not have absolute free will. We’re trapped by what the neural systems of our brains have accumulated. We can only see what our brains allow us to understand, and that’s an important thing.
So what he said, basically, was that there are no frames, no embodiment, no metaphor — none of the things people really use to reason. Moreover if we think logically and we all have the same reasoning, if you just tell people the facts, they should reason to the same correct conclusion. And that just isn’t true. And that keeps not being true, and liberals keep making the same mistake year after year after year. So that’s a very important thing.
Q: After “Don’t Think of an Elephant” was published, you got a lot of attention but your message really didn’t sink in. I think it was largely because of what you said above — what you were saying simply didn’t fit into the Enlightenment worldview that Democratic elites took for granted from their education.
A: When I started teaching framing the first thing I would tell the class is “Don’t think of an elephant,” and of course, they think of an elephant. I wrote a book on it because the point is, if you negate a frame, you have to activate the frame, because you have to know what you’re negating. If you use logic against something, you’re strengthening it. And that lesson was not understood. So if people think in terms of logic — it’s a mistake that’s made every day on MSNBC — you go on there and you’ll get people saying, “Well, you know, Trump said this, and some Republicans said that and Jeff Sessions said this and here are the facts that show they’re wrong.” You just keep repeating the things that you’re negating. And that just strengthens them.
Did that happen in Hillary Clinton’s campaign?
That showed up there. The Clinton campaign decided that the best way to defeat Trump was to use his own words against him. So they showed these clips of Trump saying outrageous things. Now what Trump was doing in those clips was saying out loud things that upset liberals, and that’s exactly what his followers liked about him. So of course they were showing what actually was helping Trump with his supporters.
I tried to convince people in the Clinton campaign — early on, I wrote a piece called “Understanding Trump,” in March 2016, and it was sent to everybody in the Clinton campaign. Everybody at the PAC, for example, got a copy of it. It didn’t matter; they were doing what they were told to do.
Another problem was the assumption that all you have to do is look at issues, and give the facts about issues, and the facts about the issues supposedly show up in polls, and then they apply demographics. So there was this assumption, for example, that educated women in the Philadelphia suburbs were naturally going to vote for Hillary, because they were highly educated. They turned out also to be Republican, and what made them Republican was Republican views, like Republican views about the Supreme Court, abortion, things like that. So they didn’t all go out and vote for Hillary.
Or the campaign assumed that since Trump attacked Latinos, and Latino leaders didn’t like Trump, that the Latinos would all vote for Hillary, and many Latinos voted for Trump. Why? Because “strict father” morality is big in Latino culture. The campaign was not looking at values. They were looking at demographics, and they missed the role of values.
Q: Which you’ve been pounding on for a long time now.
A: Well over a decade. During the Bush administration, I talked to the Democratic caucus. I was invited by Nancy Pelosi, and I talked to them about “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” and the strict father/nurturant parent distinction, and I pointed out that one thing strict fathers can’t do is betray trust. It turned out that the Southerners in the caucus agreed strongly, and they wanted to have me work with them on talking about Bush betraying trust. But Nancy said, “Well, we should check with the polls first,” and she checked with one of the major pollsters who said, “Oh no, my polls show that people trust Bush, therefore we can’t use it.” And the idea is to follow the polls, rather than change them. And this is a big difference between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans try to change the polls, whereas Democrats try to follow the polls.
Q: There are other problems with polling you point out as well.
A: Yes. The next problem has to do with going issue by issue. This is happening right now. Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer went onto the Rachel Maddow show on the same day, and they said, “The American people agree with us, issue by issue, each case and we’re going to press Trump issue by issue, and we’re going to start with health care and go on to other things.” What they’re missing is values.
They’re missing the idea that many Americans who depend on health care, affordable health care, for example, have strict-father positions and voted for Trump against their interests. And this is something has been known for ages, that a lot of poor conservatives vote against their material interests, because they’re voting for their worldview. And the reason for it is that their moral worldview defines who they are. They are not going to vote against their own definition of who they are.
This is missed by the unions as well. Unions don’t really understand their function. Unions are instruments of freedom. Unions free people from corporate servitude. From corporations saying what hours they can work, what wages are possible, and so on. The argument against unions that has come in so-called “right-to-work” laws misses the fact that unions are instruments of freedom, and instead suggests that unions go against freedom. They go against your rights. And the unions don’t know how to argue against right-to-work laws. So that’s a problem with liberals working in unions.
There’s something more basic underlying all this, isn’t there? From “Moral Politics” on you’ve been hammering on liberals’ failure to claim and proclaim their own values.
All progressives and liberals have a moral worldview, what I described as the nurturant-parent worldview. When applied to politics it goes like this: Citizens care about other citizens, they have empathy for other citizens, and the work of the government is to provide public resources for everybody. Public resources, from the very beginning of our country, not only apply to each private citizen, but they also apply to business. From the very beginning we had public roads and bridges and public education, we had a national bank, and the patent office for businesses, and interstate commerce laws for business, and so on. And a judicial system that’s mostly used for business.
Since then the government has supported business even more, especially through the promotion of scientific research, the development of pharmaceuticals, computer science, support of public research and public universities. The Internet began as ARPANET, is in the Defense Department. Think about satellite communication — that was made possible by NASA and NOAA. Very important things we did. What about things like GPS systems and cell phones? Our government is maintaining not just our cell phones, but the world economic system which all uses GPS systems and cell phones.
People don’t see the role of public resources, which are there to run the world economy, to help you in your everyday life, to give you communications, like this interview right now. This is just something that’s never said. When I say this to progressives, they say, “Well, of course that’s true, isn’t that obvious?” The answer is no. It is not obvious, because the next question I ask is, “Have you ever said it?” And the answer is no. The question after that is, “Will you go out from now on and say it?” And I don’t get enthusiastic “Yes!” answers.
People need to know this and it needs to be said all the time. It needs to be said about every single business. The person who has done best at it has been Elizabeth Warren. When Obama tried to use the same message he got it wrong, he said if you have a business you didn’t build that, and then he got attacked and he dropped it. But in fact this is something that does need to be out there.
There are other things that need to be said that progressives don’t say because they don’t really understand how framing works. Framing is not obvious. People read “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” they got some of the ideas, but when they tried to apply it, it turned out it’s not so easy to apply. You need some training to do it, and you need some ideas.
For example. Trump said we’re going to get rid of regulation, when there’s a new regulation we’re going to get rid of two for every new one that comes in. But what are regulations? Why do people have them? They’re there for protection of the public in every place. Why do you have environmental regulations? To protect against pollution and global warming and so on. Things that are harmful. Why do you have an SEC regulation? To protect investors, and protect people who have mortgages. Why do you have food and drug regulations? To protect against poisons. This is important. You’re protecting against corporate malfeasance. Corporate harm to the public. When they say, “We’re getting rid of these regulations, no one reports in the media, “They have gotten rid of protections, and they’re going to get rid of more protections!”
Q: You’ve pointed out how Trump has actually been clever in ways that liberals, Democrats and the media didn’t understand. You laid out a number of mechanisms. So can we go through a few of those?
A: First, let’s talk about how Trump’s tweets work. Trump’s tweets have at least three functions. The first function is what I call preemptive framing. Getting framing out there before reporters can frame it differently. So for example, on the Russian hacking, he tweeted that the evidence showed that it had no effect on the election. Which is a lie, it didn’t say that at all. But the idea was to get it out there to 31 million people looking at his tweets, legitimizing the elections: The Russian hacks didn’t mean anything. He does that a lot, constantly preempting.
The second use of tweets is diversion. When something important is coming up, like the question of whether he is going to use a blind trust, the conflicts of interest. So what does he do instead? He attacks Meryl Streep. And then they talk about Meryl Streep for a couple of days. That’s a diversion.
The third one is that he sends out trial balloons. For example, the stuff about nuclear weapons, he said we need to pay more attention to nukes. If there’s no big outcry and reaction, then he can go on and do the rest. These are ways of disrupting the news cycle, getting the real issues out of the news cycle and turning it to his advantage.
Trump is very, very smart. Trump for 50 years has learned how to use people’s brains against them. That’s what master salesmen do. There’s a certain set of things they do. The first is repeat. Advertisers know this. You turn on your TV, and the same ad comes on over and over and over. The effect on the brain of repetition is that when you hear something it’s understood through the neural circuitry in your brain; it has to become activated. The more it’s repeated, the more that circuitry is activated, and every time it’s activated the synaptic connections become stronger. What that means when they become stronger is two things happen. One, they’re more likely to fire — it’s easier to get those ideas out there if they’re firing — and two, if you hear them often enough they become part of what’s fixed in your brain. They become part of what you naturally understand, and you can only understand what your brain allows you to understand.
Repetition is a way of changing people’s brains. What Trump was doing all through the nomination campaign was that every day he managed to get on TV, and he would repeat different things that activated the same moral framework, and it really worked. In addition you have particular frames that were repeated: “Crooked Hillary,” “crooked Hillary,” “crooked Hillary,” over and over. There wasn’t anything Hillary did that was crooked. But he kept saying it until people believed it. And they believed it because it was heard enough times to strengthen the neural circuitry in their brains. It wasn’t just stupidity. It’s simply the way brains work.
Another thing he used was grammar, as in “radical Islamic terrorism.” What does “radical” mean? Radical means not part of what is normal and healthy and so on, but something on the fringe, number one. Two, terrorists – people who are out to get you, right? If you modify terrorists, there are two ways in which you can do it. There are two forms of applying adjectives to nouns, and the classic example is “the industrious Japanese,” which assumes either that all Japanese are industrious, or that there are some and I’m picking out those. But the idea that they’re all industrious is activated.
In this case, the idea that all people who are Islamic are terrorists is activated. And they’re radical. If you say that, it’s not like you’re picking out the tiny proportion who happened to be terrorists and radical. You’re saying it about everybody. That’s part of grammar. He is using grammar to get his point across, to get his worldview across, and then criticizing Clinton and Obama for not doing it, as if not saying it is not recognizing the threat.
Q: What about metaphor, which is something you’ve written and talked about for years?
A: “Brexit” was an excellent example of that. It had to do with exiting, which is a general metaphor. Throughout the world, states of mind are understood in terms of locations. You go into your cafÃ©, you get a cup of coffee, you go out of the cafÃ© — you’re in the same location you were in before. Now apply that to states: You go into a state, and when you go out of it you should be in the same state you were in before. But that doesn’t work. It’s not true. With Brexit, the metaphor was that if you entered the EU at a certain point in time — with a certain state being true of England at that time — and then you exit, you should be in the same state you were in before. Absolutely false. Brexit was based on the false assumption that England could go back to some ideal state it was in before.
The same thing is true with “Make America great again.” The assumption is: This has been a great country before, and now we can go back to what it was before, as if electing Trump would not change it in the worst way, and as if you could go back to some idealized past. Which you can’t, for many reasons, like a technological revolution that’s gotten rid of lots of jobs, and international trade, and so on. The world is not the same as it was before. So you’re using that universal metaphor to convince people. And that’s important.
Q: Together, all you’ve just said makes a strong case that Trump’s success stems from approaching politics like a salesman, which ties back to your original point about how Republicans approach politics versus Democrats. In that sense, Trump is very much a realization of what Republicans have been moving towards for a long time. But there’s another sense in which he represents a culmination: his authoritarianism, rooted in strict-father morality.
A: Exactly. Except for gay marriage — he has friends who are gay — he has the whole strict-father thing, moral hierarchy. If you have strict-father morality what that says is it’s your concern alone that matters, reteaching individual responsibility. That means responsibility for yourself, not social responsibility. Not caring about other citizens; that’s weak. You should care about yourself; that’s strong. That is how he sees that the world naturally works. There is a hierarchy of morality because the strict father in a family gets his position of strength because he supposedly knows right from wrong, and in that there is an assumption that those who are most moral should rule.
So how do you tell who’s most moral? You look at who has come out on top. You have God above man, man above nature, conquering nature, so nature is there for us to use. Then you would have the rich above the poor — they deserve it, because they are disciplined. And the powerful above the non-powerful — they deserve it, they’ve become powerful. And you have adults above children. So in 21 states children in classes and on teams can be beaten by the teachers and coaches if they don’t show proper respect and obedience.
Western culture above non-Western culture, and so you get all the stuff on Breitbart about white Western culture. Of course Islamists are not in Western culture, Mexicans are not in Western culture, Asians are not in Western culture, etc. America above other nations: We should be great again, we should rule everybody, we should be able to intimidate everybody. And then other ones follow. You have men above women, whites above nonwhites, Christians above non-Christians, and straights above gays.
So you have this moral hierarchy in Republican thought for a long time; it’s not like this is new. Here it is bold, right out there, as strong as you can get, and you have the ultimate “strict father,” who wants to be the dictator of the country, if not the world.
Q: At the very end of the article you get into what people can do in response, how people can fight back, and I wanted to give you some time to talk about that. There is a very real potential there that you talk about: It can be harder to break through to elites, but easier to reach ordinary people whose lives are directly affected. You have talked about the importance of reaching out to people you call “bi-conceptuals,” including conservatives.
A: There is within conservatism this idea of in-group nurturance, taking care of your own. This happens in churches; you go to a bigger evangelical church and they have the free babysitting and investment advice and will help you if you’re down on your luck and so on. If you go to the military, which is a strict -father thing, but also in a military base you’re going to get free schooling for your kids, a place to live, cheap goods at the PX, etc. In the military you never leave a wounded brother behind; they’re a band of brothers. See, you have in-group nurturance there. You also have it in conservatism as an institution. One, of the major think tanks in Washington built a large state-of-the-art media center, but also put in a hundred apartments for interns who couldn’t afford Washington prices. So they live together, get to know each other, become friends and they’re taken care of.
A lot of conservatives see their in-group as their local community or their neighbors, and then they will do all sorts of things. If there’s a flood they’ll be out there swinging the sandbags, if there’s a fire they’ll be out there on the lines with the hoses to protect their neighbors’ homes. That is the powerful community version of in-group nurturance, and that is real nurturance, it’s real care.
That can be appealed to, and we need to find ways of talking about that in terms of regulation and protection. What protections are being taken away from the people in your community? That needs to be said over and over again. Are we going to get bad drinking water? Are you going to get poisoned foods? Are you going to get drugs that haven’t been adequately tested that could make you terribly ill?
And many other things: Are you going to lose your health care, but not have something else to replace it? Are you going to lose your Medicare? If you look at those red states and ask, “What about those small towns in those red states?”, a lot of them are like that.
Q: What else needs to be done?
A: Well two things. First, a citizens’ communication network. We have social media networks now, but people need to have feeds on their Facebook and Twitter pages, of things to say on particular days, and let’s do it from the point of view of the American majority. We’re the majority; here are our values. Let’s make our values clear, let’s have a little handbook about what our values are, and why those things are recommended, and the rationale for putting it out there. We need a website that can be used as a basis for a citizens’ communication network, and I’m going to be involved in starting something to do that.
The other thing is serious training of the NGOs — the foundations and other groups that are there for the public good — in how to talk about these things, how to frame their message and not make mistakes and not help the other side, and to do it always from the point of view of what’s positive. Not attacking Trump implicitly, but by saying what’s good for the public and why it’s good and then, by the way, this goes against everything that Trump is doing. But the main thing is to frame it in terms of public good.