Two Years in, Trump Can Still Count on News Media to Do His Bidding

“During the year preceding the Nov 8, 2016 election, Donald Trump bypassed paid advertising to bask in the attention and validation of an unpaid 24-hour news cycle. Trump’s free media segments comprised  $5 billion in media value  from the preceding 12-month period.


by George Lakoff Oct 28, 2018

Two years in, Trump and his right wing extremists still count on the mainstream news media to do their bidding. Constant repetition of their lies and language help it spread far and wide. They know the constant repetition of lies – even to debunk them – only makes them more sticky.

Here are their tactics in use:

1. Frame first, meaning get your understanding of the situation out there.

2. Divert attention from things you don’t want people to pay attention to, for example, attack somebody else.

3. Attack the messenger or assign blame to someone else, thus deflect it away from you, for example, the press.

4. Launch a trial balloon: say something outrageous, an extreme version of what you believe, just to see what the reaction is. If it isn’t too bad, you are in the clear.

Sound familiar?

Each of Trump’s statements is a tactic. These are the four tactics he uses, and he uses one or more of them every time he tweets. All tweets fall under these categories.

Every time the media breathlessly cover every word of the lies and frames, Trump and his minions win. It’s way past time for journalists to stop parroting Trump’s lies. Instead, focus on the real truth he is trying to drown out because he doesn’t want people to hear it or remember it.



Don’t repeat Donald Trump on social media and don’t use his language in news stories.

While Donald Trump’s verbal diarrhea is routinely attacked as false, this repetition only helps to spread his message, says cognitive linguist George Lakoff. So DW asked how best to respond to Donald Trump’s monosyllabic messages.

DW: You argue many well-meaning people – especially journalists – completely ignore the latest findings in the field of cognitive and brain science when they try to refute the falsehoods routinely tweeted or uttered by Donald Trump. Can you explain what you mean?

George Lakoff: Language activates an idea and a circuitry in your brain. The result is every time a circuit is activated, its synapses get stronger. So the more you hear certain things, even if you just hear and understand them rather than believe or agree with them, the circuitry gets stronger.


“Don’t think of an elephant” — saying this phrase makes you think of an elephant. Or when Nixon said, “I am not a crook!” of course, everybody thought of him as a crook.

Why? Because in order to negate something you have to activate it in your brain first which makes it stronger. So every time you deny something overtly using the language of the person you are trying to contradict, you are actually helping that person.

This was shown on research about the way Russia and “Islamic State” (IS) do their communications. Their basic principles are:

Repetition. The reason repeating works is it activates your brain circuits more and strengthens them. This is the illusory truth effect.

Secondly, frame the idea. Russia and IS know if they say this is how the world is and it goes into your brain, then this version has to be overturned before you tell yourself another version. This is the framing effect.

Thirdly, induce attacks, which means get other people to attack you. Which, of course, strengthens you. Because you again, have to activate what they said first in your brain before you can negate it. This is a general idea Trump uses all the time.

DW: Are you then suggesting we should not try and refute Trump’s falsehoods if it only helps him?

GL: No, I am not saying don’t refute his lies. I am saying you don’t refute them by repeating his language and repeating his claims. You refute them by undermining them. You refute them by understanding what you are doing and saying the opposite in positive terms, not in negative terms.

DW: So how should we react when Trump sends out one of his many agenda-setting tweets?

GL: What you do first is understand what the tweet is doing, and what he does not want you to hear. Often there is some actual real news, real truths he doesn’t want you to hear. He wants to control the media. The media should not let him control them. You are not puppets — cut the strings.


DW: You are saying people should not retweet Trump’s tweets and not use his language?

GL: Yes, don’t retweet him and don’t use the language he uses. Use the language that conveys the truth. Truths are complicated. And seasoned reporters in every news outlet know truths have the following structure:

Truths have a history, a certain structure, and if it is an important truth, there is a moral reason why it is important. You need to tell what that moral reason is, with all its moral consequences. That is what a truth is. Reporters have to say those truths. And then if he says something false or is trying to deflect from it, you report it in a sentence or two and then you go back to the truth.

You might report the tweet – or not – in a very short sentence, and then you go back to the real news. State what Trump wanted to do was get you to not think about the real news. And here it is. Speak the real truth – what he doesn’t want people to hear – before you report any tweet.

DW: Looking beyond Trump’s Twitter feed, you are a big proponent of the importance of framing political issues as you mentioned earlier. Can you briefly explain the concept and why it is essential for political discourse?

GL: Let me give you a simple example of framing not from Trump, but from George W. Bush. The first day Bush was in office he used the term “tax relief.” And every day thereafter he used the term.

How do you understand relief? It is some kind of affliction, something is harming you and you want it stopped because it’s painful. And if someone stops it, they are a hero to you, and if someone wants it to continue, they are a villain. You add “tax” to it and it says taxes are afflictions, they are things that cause you pain. As opposed to taxes being investments in public resources for society, which is a totally different understanding of what taxes are.

The Republican view was taxes are afflictions, and Bush said “tax relief” over and over again, and very soon you had the New York Times using the words “tax relief” on its front page. And soon the Democrats were talking about middle class “tax relief,” and so what they did was adopt subconsciously  the conservative idea.

And the thing to understand about this is we know from neuroscience most thought is subconscious, because it is carried by neural circuits, and you have no conscious access to that neurocircuitry. So your subconscious is learning things which go against what you may believe consciously. But it is there, and it changes how you understand the world.



DW: You talked a lot about how the media should or should not deal with Trump’s tweets and other rhetoric. How should regular people deal with this?

GL: Exactly the same way. What you need to understand is what is he trying to cover up, and you need to protect the truth. You have to learn what the truth is, and very often you have to learn it from the media, because there is real news you need to learn. So you need to learn the truth and protect it from the way hyperbolic rhetoric is covered in the media, and from things like repeating (retweeting) lies.

And if you are outraged and you want to attack, don’t negate, don’t use his language, say the opposite of what he says. Don’t let him choose the terms. If you are outraged by what he says, think, ‘what important moral truth is this hiding?’ and say that important moral truth in your own language — not his.

George Lakoff is distinguished professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of numerous books, among them “Don’t think of an Elephant” (2004) and “The Political Mind” (2008).


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