“No, YOU’RE Cherry Picking”: Trump’s Copy Cat Strategy Is Working
A few days ago Kellyanne Conway — aka Donald Trump’s current campaign manager — showed up via jumbotron to do an interview with political comedian Bill Maher on his show “Real Time with Bill Maher.” Her answers to Maher’s questions, or rather her lack of answers, were indicative, I think, of the Trump campaign’s current rhetorical strategy when faced with pointed criticism: the copy cat game. If someone says Trump lacks the temperament to be President, for instance, his campaign’s response is: “YOU lack the temperament!” or, more specifically, “SHE (Hillary Clinton) lacks the temperament!”
I first made note of this strategy a few months ago, and was — to say the least — unimpressed. Imagine a red-faced fifth grade Trump yelling, “I’m rubber, you’re glue; whatever you say bounces of me and sticks to you!” Effective on the playground, but not, I presumed, in the political arena.
The thing is, though, after two months of near constant implementation, the strategy appears to be working. According to most polls, the race is currently a dead heat. And the more I think about it, the more I think that Kellyanne Conway’s “Real Time” interview offers a blueprint for why the copycat strategy has been so effective.
First, a few more examples of this strategy in action:
— Despite launching his campaign by talking about building a wall at the Mexican border; and despite arguing we need the wall because those who cross our border bring drugs, crime, and rape; and despite doubling down on this theory, even though the evidence doesn’t support it, by bringingto the stage individual victims of violent crime committed by individual illegal immigrants; and despite talking about banning all Muslims from the country; despite all this, Trump’s campaign has labeled Clinton’s the divisive one.
— Despite endorsing waterboarding and the killing of terrorists’ families; and despite being reportedly curious about our possible use of nuclear weapons; and despite suggesting that it’s logical to “fight [ISIS] back with a nuke”; despite doing and saying these things, Trump calls Clinton “trigger-happy and very unstable.”
— Despite lying about his original stance on Iraq, his original stance on Libya, his willingness to hand over his tax returns, and countless other things; and despite having an abysmal PolitiFact rating that indicates he lies far more often than he tells the truth; and despite Clinton’s PolitiFact rating being exceptionally high; despite all of the lies Trump’s been telling for years at a pathological rate, he and his campaign describe him as a “truth-teller” and Clinton as the “most dishonest candidate for president . . . since Richard Nixon.”
I could go on. In fact, I will go on shortly.
Before I do, let’s return to the “Real Time” interview with Kellyanne Conway. We see Conway execute this same strategy flawlessly throughout the interview. Notice how quickly Conway steers her “answers” to Maher’s questions away from Trump and onto Clinton, despite Maher’s audible chuckles every time she does so. The most egregious example of this copy catting is when Conway says she “can’t support someone who lies for a living” . . . and she’s referring to Clinton . . . even though Maher has literally just reeled off a list of, as he calls them, Trump’s “provable lies.” It’s an amazing moment — one that Maher is visibly trying to make sense of as he conducts the interview.
The logical question is “What’s the point of this copy catting?”
The obvious answer, of course, is that Conway, Trump and the rest of the campaign are trying to win the election. But this answer doesn’t really clarify why a copy cat strategy helps them accomplish their goal.
Here’s how I see it. Trump has an impressively enthusiastic and loyal following, but it’s not enough for him to win the election. To win, he needs two things to happen: 1) he needs conservatives who find him repugnant to vote for him anyway; 2) he needs liberals who find him repugnant to not vote for Clinton.
The logical solution to both these problems is to make Hillary Clinton at least as repugnant as he is.
That’s why everything gets deflected her way. Anything critical said about Trump needs to also and quickly be said about Clinton.
With Clinton, of course, there’s already a built-in, thirty-year bias against her. And it doesn’t matter that almost none of the so-called scandals from the ’90s hold up; or that most of the more recent ones don’t either. (Here’s the evolution of the Bosnian sniper fire story, for instance. Notice how as more detail is given, she looks more and more exonerated. This is a common theme in Clinton’s “scandal-filled” career.) What matters is that we’ve believed in Clinton’s shady dealings for so long that her culpability is common sense, regardless of the actual evidence.
Because of our uncritical acceptance of Clinton’s shady dealings, Conway can point to public polling to prove Clinton’s mendacity. Maher rightly objects that “that’s what people believe. That’s not what is an actual lie or not.” But this objection is of course futile; what’s relevant, when it comes to an election, IS what people believe.
And so we have a candidate in Trump who has an actual, undeniably shady foundation (to say the least) accusing Clinton of running a shady foundation despite the fact that we have much less evidence that that’s true (and despite the fact that the Clinton Foundation and Clinton herself have, unlike Trump and his foundation, spent astronomical amounts of money doing charitable work). We have a man who almost certainly is the most corrupt person to ever seek the presidency claiming that his opponent “may be the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency.”
None of this is to say that Hillary Clinton is perfect. She’s not. While the email scandal itself is, as is seemingly the case with all her scandals, blown way out of proportion, her answers to questions about the scandal have been legalistic and evasive. She also has an entire career of political decisions that we can — and, as voters, should — pick a part. In other words, she’s a politician with a political history, and it’s our right and duty to analyze this history. But nothing — in this paragraph or in said political history — suggests that she’s corrupt to her core, or evil, or deserving of time in the clink, as some of Trump’s supporters, and Trump himself, like to suggest.
So how does someone make a case that she is a monster? Simple. They fabricate. And they cherry pick. And, if that someone is Donald Trump or a representative of his campaign, he/she responds to criticism that he/she is fabricating and cherry picking by saying, “You’re cherry picking.” That’s precisely what Kellyanne Conway did in her interview with Bill Maher. When Maher asked her, for instance, if she agreed with Trump that Clinton was against the 2nd Amendment and wanted to take everyone’s guns away, she replied, “[Clinton] said she doesn’t like the Heller decision,” which is somewhat true, but doesn’t answer Maher’s question because, if Conway’s being honest, there’s only one answer: no, Hillary isn’t against the 2nd Amendment and she’s not coming for everyone’s guns. When Maher asks her other point-blank questions, she redirects her answers toward Clinton or balks altogether because, once again, she says, Maher is cherry picking.
I can’t stress enough how dangerous — and powerful — this accusation is. Any and all specific examples are, according to Conway, nothing more than cherry picking. The list Maher provides of outright lies Trump has told is brushed aside by Conway as though it’s been compiled in bad faith. As I watched the interview for the first time, I found myself asking, “How many lies are enough? How many lies need to be listed before Conway would concede he’s not cherry picking?” How about 176 lies and/or shameful acts? Would that be enough? Of course, the answer, incredibly, is no. The only way, in the world of the Trump campaign, to avoid being dismissed or criticized is to stop dismissing or criticizing them.
I’m rubber, you’re glue; whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you!
If memory serves, this strategy worked pretty well in elementary school.
It’s working pretty well today, too.