Who Framed Donald Dingbat?

`Trump and the power of priming.

"How could Trump possibly think this makes him look good?" is the question.

The subject could be just about anything: the White House-edited call transcript, the picture of Nancy Pelosi standing up to him while his advisers hang their heads in shame, the childish letter he sent to Erdogan. In some of those cases -- I'm thinking in particular of the transcript -- he really does think it shows nothing wrong, but even with that being the case there is a tactical decision here:

Get out in front of it.

I'm going to say something that could be contentious about the now famous Renaissance-ready photo of Nancy Pelosi's stand:

It is not objectively a good picture for the speaker or a bad picture for Donald.

It is not objectively a bad picture for her or a good picture for him, either.

Please hold off on the comments about the reasons you think it is better for her or worse for him. The posture, the facial expressions, the optics of gender, the obvious embarrassment of the men closest to Trump... I'm not ignorant of or oblivious to these things.

I mean, I am not especially so. I am a bit, though. We all are. The visual details in that picture -- in a single human face -- are too much for any of us to process, and so we latch onto things that jump out to us as specific cues and use them to evaluate what we're seeing. 

Visual artists of every stripe know this, most especially directors and cinematographers who routinely have to fool audiences.


Stage magicians and street illusionists know it, too. They can't keep you from seeing a trick happening right in front of you, necessarily, but they can sure keep you from noticing it.

Hucksters and hoaxers of every stripe and description make use of a technique called priming, which can be as simple as telling someone "Here's what I'm going to show you."

Believing is seeing. Or in some cases, hearing.

If a paranormal researcher plays a recording they made in an empty house, you might hear anything or nothing in the white noise. But if they tell you, "I captured a voice on audio saying 'Free me!'" then your brain, trying to make sense of the random information, will incorporate this context and go, "Oh, yes. There it is." You're primed to hear what the ghost hunter wants you to hear, needs you to hear.

If a right-wing pundit tells you he has audio of a Democratic governor calmly discussing infanticide, and then plays a recording of the man discussing parents of a newborn having a difficult conversation with a doctor about options... you might just swear up and down that you heard him talk about killing babies.

Priming is putting something into a desired context for your audience before you show it to them. It's an example of something the right is very good at, which is controlling the framing around something. The right uses framing to set the parameters of debate around things, by calling themselves the Moral Majority or establishing their side as the patriotic and religious one, or complaining about liberal bias in the media or on social media. 

They frame things up to their advantage in order to get as much of the Mild Moderate Middle on their side as possible, and to get their enemies to self-sabotage by trying to head off the framing by negotiating with it in advance. "Oh, they think we're biased? We'll roll out the red carpet to prove them wrong, then their claims will look silly and they'll have to stop making them. Oh, they haven't stopped? We'd better not taking any action, they'll just say that proves them right."

Donald's projection is not a psychological defense mechanism but a conscious strategy to muddy the waters, to cast himself in the eyes of the previously uninterested as being innocent and his accusers (potential and actual) as guilty so that ideally they will sound like the desperate and guilty ones and failing that it might seem like the situation is unclear and no one's hands are clean. 

Usually he prefers to do this upfront, well in advance of any accusation. When he has to play catch-up, the urgency makes the whole thing seem like wild flailing.

By the time Donald released the photo, Nancy Pelosi had already spoken on the meeting and given her characterization of events, in which Donald had a very worrying meltdown. As the speaker's daughter noted, the wording of one of his tweets borrowed a lot from hers:

If you know the order of events or you're skeptical enough to check timestamps, it's apparent that Donald is reacting here. But if you're on his side, or you heard his side first courtesy of his giant social media microphone and big media amps, it's easy to think that Pelosi is the one pulling a third grade level attempt at turnabout by copying him.

So he puts out the picture. Does he look good in it? I mean, that's in the eye of the beholder, really. If you somehow came into this with no prior knowledge and thus no specific preconception regarding Donald J. Trump, what you'd have is that the president of the United States tweeted this picture of himself in a seat of power surrounded by generals and other high-ranking officials and the opposition leader is out of her chair and looks angry.

Is it good? Is it bad? A man who occupies a very important office clearly thinks it makes him look good, so that's the starting point as your brain starts putting things together. Are the men ashamed of themselves and him, or embarrassed for her? Is the look on his face a petulant sneer or is it disappointment? Is she stern or shrill?

If you're on his side to begin with, the answers are as obvious to you as other answers are to people who are sensibly against him. 

And if you somehow had a completely neutral view on the whole thing, the fact that he tweeted it out is a powerful suggestion that it's good for him.

Think this technique doesn't work?

Maybe you remember this tweet.


Sexton was talking about the infamous Trump Tower meeting. That was the day that Donald, Jr., released the entire email chain that laid the whole thing out bare. It was a mind-boggling move that left investigators and commentators stunned.

In MAGA Country, though, Sexton's tweet was read as an admission of defeat. They believed that the release of the emails was a masterstroke and that Young Master Trump had outfoxed them all with a single move, leaving Sexton both "owned" and "rekt" in the process.

The same technique was used in Gamergate over and over again. Every single "smoking gun" that they circulated on Twitter was a link to a screenshot or archive that showed something completely innocuous or even the exact opposite of what they said, but the tweets where it was shared would say "proof of journalistic collusion!" or "another journalist saying gamers are dead!" Prime the reader, show them something that has, you know, words in it, which if the right ones jump out at you and you ignore the rest of them, they seem to support the desired conclusion, and let the extremely fallible human brain do the rest.

For that matter, think of how often the right held up Kavanaugh's calendars as evidence of his innocence. Why would he offer them, if they didn't exonerate him? The fact that he offered them up was taken as a strong suggestion that they were important and that they were exculpatory.

Sure, releasing the photo or the letter or the transcript opens Trump up to both ridicule and in at least two of those three cases potential legal liability, but from his point of view it's not likely to lose him support. His followers will accept his framing. Anyone undecided now has two frames to contend with.

And ridicule is something he can work with. He doesn't like it, but he knows what to do with it: use it. Turn it around and push it onto his followers. "They're making fun of you. They think you're stupid and deplorable. They are laughing at the forgotten man. I alone love you. I alone can save you from the mockery of the elites."

He understands possibly more so than anyone in politics right now how much perception is fluid and subjective. His working theory is that it doesn't matter what crimes he pins on himself or blunders he reveals, so long as he can control how they're framed.

So far? So far it's worked for him, at least well enough for him to keep doing it.

Only time will tell how long he can keep it up.

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