Alternative Tracks of Syntax
Kelly Ann Conway was prescient with her introduction of “alternative facts” to American political discourse. But what she really was describing was alternative tracks of syntax. In today’s political environment people seek out and embrace news that fits within their pre-existing firmly rooted overarching political narrative. The news is ubiquitous which means seeking specifically tailored news confirming one’s perspective is always just a click away. News that isn’t tailored to fit a worldview is also just a click away, but most people do not choose to access news that undermines their preferred political narrative.
When news or actual facts defy one’s deep-seated vantage point, that information gets marginalized at best and most likely ignored. This is social psychology. For example, one year after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, people who strongly believe that President Trump harbors an affinity for hate groups conveniently forget that after pressure mounted post-Charlottesville, he directly condemned white supremacists and neo-Nazis in a robust statement to reporters. That he said this in unequivocal terms represents one actual track of syntax. However, another track of syntax is that in the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville the president said there were very fine people on both sides. To the people who loath what they describe as the President’s fondness of hate groups, the “very fine people on both sides” defines this President’s embrace of hate groups. To them, this statement is unforgiveable and unforgettable; they choose to memorialize this track of syntax and ignore the alternative track of Trump disavowing hate groups. Two tracks for two discrete groups of people to choose from.
Facts are facts, but if someone says something one minute and says the exact opposite one minute later, whichever statement is in reality closer to the truth, two tracks of syntax exist. As human beings, our short term memory is limited and struggles with contradictory information, so we are forced to choose between alternative statements. In laypersons terms, two contradictory statements in a short time is another way of saying someone is talking out of both sides of their mouth. But in today’s society where attention spans wane and sources of news wax, we end up getting to choose which side of the mouth to embrace.
Two diametrically opposed statements (fine people versus people that are to be condemned) by the same person (Trump) at different times, lets people choose from alternative syntax tracks. The same occurred for disavowing David Duke. White supremacists and those who do not like Trump recollect his lack of immediate disavowal while supporters of the president recollect his eventual rejection of Mr. Duke. Again, offer two tracks of syntax and let people choose which one to accept. Are these two tracks of syntax an accident or some type of mistake? To paraphrase Marco Rubio from a February 2016 Republican debate but vicariously apply it to Trump instead of Barack Obama, “Let’s dispel once and for all with the fiction that Barack Obama Donald Trump doesn’t know what he is doing, he knows exactly what he is doing.” Chris Christie seizing on this line essentially ended Rubio’s campaign for President, but it lives on with the Trump Presidency.
Some say Trump’s mouth works faster than his brain, or that his messaging is incoherent. But something more deliberate is at play here. As a political strategy, the President has messages aimed at his base and messages targeting more moderate-leaning voters. Compare any Trump rally in the summer of 2016 versus his first State of the Union address. Rallies consisted of passionate cries to lock Hillary up, build a wall that Mexico would pay for, and knock the hell out protesters, while a more bi-partisan tone was struck with a significantly wider and more diverse audience at his State of the Union. The key calculating question before each appearance, statement or pronouncement is which track of syntax suitably matches the audience.
Donald Trump is able to say one thing and then say something contradictory without the label “hypocrite” sticking because he knows his audience in this day and age better than any other politician. Provide alternative syntax tracks and voters will assimilate the ones that fit neatly into their long-range thinking.
How could someone say “I don’t see any reason why it would be Russia” one day and then say he meant to say “why it wouldn’t be Russia” the next, and then immediately muddy the waters even more by modifying the modification? Again, alternative tracks of syntax for alternative audiences. The base doesn’t see why it would be Russia and more middle-of-the-road voters believe the President when he said that he meant that he doesn’t see why it wouldn’t be Russia.
Alternative tracks of syntax can be brought to us by alternative people as well. Trump questions LeBron James and casts doubt on his intellect while Melania praises LeBron’s mission. Choose which syntax track you want to go with. Trump rips children apart versus Ivanka softening his stance and projecting a more moderating compassionate image of families. During the campaign, was Trump previously pro-choice or pro-life? Did he support the Iraq war or was he against it? The 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry said he was for it before he was against it, which drew nothing but ridicule and painted Mr. Kerry as a flip-flopper. This was in a pre-alternative syntax tracks society where the presidential aspirants tried to stick with one track.
One of the motivating factors of the Trump campaign was that people could climb aboard the Trump train and be part of something transcendental that had never been done before in American politics. As his presidency unfolds we are clearly seeing that the Trump train is barreling down alternative tracks.