Presidential Language and the Media: Trump’s Immigration Rhetoric, Pt. 2

This is part 2 of a series about Trump’s rhetoric on immi­gra­tion. See part 1 here, part 3 here, and part 4 here.

In nor­mal eras, pres­i­dents tend to speak pub­licly in a man­ner that is broad­ly in line with pub­lic opin­ion. Bran­don Rot­ting­haus, in a 2006 study, mapped the rela­tion­ship between Pres­i­den­tial state­ments of pub­lic pol­i­cy and pub­lic opin­ion from pres­i­dents Eisen­how­er to Clin­ton. He found that these pres­i­dents tend­ed to remain most­ly “con­gru­ent” with pub­lic opin­ion. In oth­er words, the post-World War II pres­i­dents rarely stray very far from the main­stream as expressed by pub­lic opin­ion polls.

Of course, that is for a nor­mal pres­i­dent. Start­ing with the elec­tion of George W. Bush on the back of an unprece­dent­ed par­ti­san inter­ven­tion by the Supreme Court into the elec­toral process, one could argue that pres­i­den­cies in the 21st cen­tu­ry have been abnor­mal com­pared to the post-WWII norm (at least for Repub­li­cans, who haven’t won the pop­u­lar vote for the White House since 1988). There is sig­nif­i­cant evi­dence that the Bush White House under­took a wide­spread cam­paign to manip­u­late media cov­er­age in his first term dur­ing the run up to the inva­sion of Iraq. Just as impor­tant­ly, the polit­i­cal media corps relied pri­mar­i­ly on sources loy­al to the White House in order to pro­duce cov­er­age of the run-up to the war. The end result was a gen­er­al­ly false por­trait of the stakes, issues, and ear­ly out­comes. In oth­er words, the pres­i­dent suc­cess­ful­ly whipped up war mania.

Under Bar­rack Oba­ma, this con­tin­ued though in a less per­ni­cious man­ner. Dur­ing his admin­is­tra­tion, Ben Rhodes, a for­mer speech­writer whose moth­er got him a job on the 9/11 com­mis­sion before he became a speech­writer for the Pres­i­dent and then, inex­plic­a­bly, the Deputy Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advis­er, was instru­men­tal in shap­ing how the White House relat­ed to the press. In a bru­tal 2016 pro­file, Rhodes voic­es open con­tempt for the jour­nal­ists cov­er­ing the White House and for­eign pol­i­cy in Wash­ing­ton, DC and explained how he inten­tion­al­ly worked to manip­u­late them into giv­ing a pol­i­cy bet­ter cov­er­age (there is a lot more to this process, but that isn’t the point here). While Rhodes tried to walk back his com­ments, the sting they left was real — and revealed a trou­bling rela­tion­ship between even a lib­er­al admin­is­tra­tion and the press.

Don­ald Trump has car­ried Rhode’s con­tempt for the media into a high art form, and has made his dis­taste for the First Amend­ment — espe­cial­ly the media that cov­er his admin­is­tra­tion — a cor­ner­stone of his pres­i­den­cy. Trump’s hatred of, and efforts to manip­u­late, the media mat­ter a lot when it comes to under­stand­ing how he can shape pol­i­cy issues like immi­gra­tion. From the racist way Trump speaks about immi­grants (lit­er­al­ly where brown immi­grants are bad and white immi­grants are good) to the way he has enabled the Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment agency’s bald-faced lying about its poli­cies to active­ly cause phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal harm to migrants here, Trump’s hos­til­i­ty to both the media and to immi­gra­tion makes his admin­is­tra­tion a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to think through how the President’s lan­guage has an effect on the way immi­gra­tion gets cov­ered.

In gen­er­al, media cov­er­age of pres­i­den­tial speech­mak­ing cre­ates a height­ened aware­ness of the words the pres­i­dent uses to dis­cuss pol­i­cy issues. This means that the way Trump choos­es to talk about a top­ic itself cre­ates crit­i­cism — and when he uses or approves of patent­ly racist, fear-mon­ger­ing lan­guage to dis­cuss immi­gra­tion the media ampli­fies that lan­guage to the pub­lic at large. This is despite the fact that over­all media cov­er­age of the White House is in his­toric decline (hur­ried along by the White House opt­ing out of press con­fer­ences to lit­tle out­cry). Even so, pub­lic speech­es and state­ments can still gen­er­ate sub­stan­tial cov­er­age and pub­lic dis­cus­sion – espe­cial­ly when con­tro­ver­sial. And Trump loves con­tro­ver­sy.

The way the media frame pres­i­den­tial remarks can prime the pub­lic to accept or reject pol­i­cy pro­pos­als. Thus, when the press cov­ers Trump ral­lies as if he were a nor­mal aspi­ra­tional fig­ure, and not one who rode a wave of racist xeno­pho­bia to the White House, it mat­ters. The way the media cov­er the pres­i­dent still plays a pow­er­ful shap­ing role for how the pub­lic reacts.

Many jour­nal­ists are famil­iar with the conun­drum of cov­er­ing white suprema­cy and right wing vio­lence — the act of cov­er­age might pro­mote and spread it as a belief sys­tem. It can also go the oth­er way, as well: cov­er­age framed as neg­a­tive (ver­sus neu­tral or pos­i­tive) can fuel pub­lic sen­ti­ment against a pol­i­cy. For immi­gra­tion, the wide­spread, neg­a­tive cov­er­age of the “fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion” pol­i­cy at the south­ern bor­der helped to dri­ve a mas­sive back­lash that led to the policy’s rever­sal. While the fram­ing of the cov­er­age can mat­ter, there is a grow­ing body of evi­dence that divi­sive rhetoric is more effec­tive at shap­ing opin­ion that inclu­sive rhetoric.

There is a gen­er­al prin­ci­ple at work: by def­i­n­i­tion, if the media are cov­er­ing some­thing it is because they think it is impor­tant, so there­fore cov­er­ing an act of abuse or a con­tro­ver­sy can ampli­fy its impor­tance to the pub­lic – cre­at­ing a feed­back loop where­by even men­tion­ing an issue makes it seem more impor­tant to peo­ple. And when the press cov­ers or even ampli­fies divi­sive rhetoric, like what Trump used to ral­ly his base both dur­ing the elec­tion and dur­ing his admin­is­tra­tion, it res­onates more pow­er­ful­ly than inclu­sive rhetoric.

This is where Trump’s rhetoric on immi­gra­tion becomes wor­ri­some. Exper­i­men­tal data sug­gests that it is pos­si­ble for a pres­i­dent to use the lan­guage of moral pan­ic to prime the pub­lic to share his per­cep­tion of a pol­i­cy issue that he and his par­ty “owns.” And pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents, per­haps unin­ten­tion­al­ly, have deployed the lan­guage of moral pan­ic to shape how the pub­lic per­ceives and there­fore reacts to things like the war on drugs, the war on Iraq, the war on crime (see a pat­tern yet?), and even on immi­gra­tion.

So there is a process by which a pres­i­dent enjoys unique space to prime the pub­lic to embrace con­tro­ver­sy by talk­ing about a top­ic he is seen to “own” — and what top­ic does Trump “own” more than immi­gra­tion? — along with a lot of evi­dence that pres­i­dents and their staff can use the lan­guage of moral pan­ic to shape pub­lic opin­ion on that top­ic. Trump inten­tion­al­ly deploys the lan­guage of moral pan­ic to talk about immi­gra­tion (and sad­ly, draws on a long his­to­ry of moral pan­ic about immi­gra­tion in Amer­i­ca).

A jour­nal­ist who wants to cov­er this with­out mak­ing the anti-immi­gra­tion hys­te­ria worse has few mech­a­nisms to coun­ter­act the phe­nom­e­non. In the mod­ern, frac­tured media envi­ron­ment, dem­a­gogues are more eas­i­ly able to insert their ideas into pub­lic opin­ion under the dis­guise of open dis­course. We are all famil­iar with the nasty trolls who antag­o­nize peo­ple with tar­get­ed hate speech then whine that about the right to free speech being sup­pressed when faced with pub­lic oppro­bri­um. Too many jour­nal­ists, whether eager to demon­strate their rad­i­cal cen­trism or sim­ply oper­at­ing in pro­found­ly bad faith because it ben­e­fits them finan­cial­ly, decline to con­front dem­a­goguery and by default end up pro­mot­ing it.

More­over, the process of dem­a­gogues insert­ing extrem­ist ideas into pub­lic dis­course has been exac­er­bat­ed by the rise of social media, whose com­pa­nies are so inept­ly run a major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans think they are bad for human­i­ty, and whose algo­rithms ampli­fy polar­iza­tion and social divi­sion.

From Thomas Patterson's study of media coverage during the 2016 election
From Pat­ter­son­’s study on media cov­er­age of the 2016 elec­tion.

So, what hap­pens when a pres­i­dent inten­tion­al­ly tries “seed” pub­lic opin­ion by say­ing crazy shit to the media and get­ting lots of cov­er­age for it? Dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the prim­ing effects of media cov­er­age played a strong role in foment­ing the rise of Don­ald Trump in a crowd­ed field of Repub­li­can con­tenders. As Thomas Pat­ter­son, a pro­fes­sor at Harvard’s Shoren­stein Cen­ter on Media, Pol­i­tics, and Pub­lic Pol­i­cy not­ed in a detailed analy­sis of how the press cov­ered the elec­tion, even the neg­a­tive cov­er­age of Trump amount­ed to free adver­tis­ing that end­ed up pro­mot­ing his extrem­ist views to the pub­lic — some of whom picked it up and adopt­ed it as their own.

More from Patterson's study
From Pat­ter­son­’s study on media cov­er­age of the 2016 elec­tion.

Because of the long-shot, often unpre­dictable nature of his can­di­da­cy the polit­i­cal press gave him far more cov­er­age than any oth­er can­di­date in the race — and that cov­er­age, espe­cial­ly at first, was large­ly pos­i­tive even from osten­si­bly “lib­er­al” out­lets. Yet, as the race pro­ceed­ed and one can­di­date con­tin­ued to engage in racist speech against immi­grants (and a whole host of oth­er groups) while the oth­er can­di­date did not, the media nev­er­the­less cov­ered Trump and Hillary Clin­ton in almost equal­ly neg­a­tive terms — a dynam­ic Pat­ter­son high­lights as a major fail­ure of polit­i­cal jour­nal­ism:

Ixf every­thing and every­one is por­trayed neg­a­tive­ly, there’s a lev­el­ing effect that opens the door to char­la­tans. The press his­tor­i­cal­ly has helped cit­i­zens rec­og­nize the dif­fer­ence between the earnest politi­cian and the pre­tender. Today’s news cov­er­age blurs the dis­tinc­tion.

Don­ald Trump was that char­la­tan. An analy­sis of word choic­es made in his pub­lic state­ments shows that he adopt­ed a com­bat­ive tone filled with demean­ing lan­guage couched in cat­e­gor­i­cal terms lack­ing nuance – espe­cial­ly toward the media, which guar­an­teed that the media would cov­er it. (After all, the one thing the press like to dis­cuss more than any­thing else is the press.) While Trump was open about his efforts to manip­u­late the media, it was still a nov­el phe­nom­e­non to mod­ern pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics, where the press don’t expect to be attacked as “ene­mies of the peo­ple” by either a cam­paign or an elect­ed offi­cial. They were unpre­pared.

Thus, Trump’s use of shock­ing lan­guage and a com­bat­ive stance “aid­ed his cause as a can­di­date because it sig­naled a rejec­tion of both the sta­tus quo and polit­i­cal con­ven­tion to a con­stituen­cy eager to see those things shak­en up,” accord­ing to aca­d­e­m­ic researchers. In oth­er words, by attack­ing the media as often as he attacked a spe­cif­ic pol­i­cy tar­get, Trump guar­an­teed that his view­point would be wide­ly dis­sem­i­nat­ed and got his tox­ic ideas framed as anti-estab­lish­ment, rather than extrem­ist. As a result, media cov­er­age of Trump’s con­tro­ver­sial state­ments had the para­dox­i­cal effect of enabling more peo­ple to express sim­i­lar ideas.

The main­stream press remains unpre­pared to counter the effects of rad­i­cal right wing par­ti­sans mas­querad­ing as jour­nal­ists. Extrem­ist right wing out­lets like Bri­et­bart, Fox News, and InfoWars deci­sive­ly shaped the broad­er media envi­ron­ment dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion by cre­at­ing echo cham­bers that ampli­fied fringe con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries (like Piz­za­Gate) into the main­stream on the right. Once a fringe idea made it into those out­lets, it received cov­er­age in the tra­di­tion­al media out­lets and spread fur­ther — despite skep­ti­cal cov­er­age.

More wor­ry­ing­ly, both The New York Times and the The Wash­ing­ton Post part­nered in 2015 with Peter Schweiz­er, a Bre­it­bart con­trib­u­tor and pro­tégé of white suprema­cist Repub­li­can oper­a­tive Steve Ban­non, to dis­sem­i­nate por­tions of his anti-Clin­ton book under the guise of news cov­er­age. It didn’t seem to mat­ter to them that many of the claims in the book were unsub­stan­ti­at­ed, that it mis­un­der­stood the basic oper­at­ing of fed­er­al agen­cies and the law, or that it segued into con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries. The blur­ring of the dis­tinc­tion between earnest­ness and char­la­tans that Pat­ter­son described was enact­ed into edi­to­r­i­al pol­i­cy.

When these main­stream out­lets part­nered with a rad­i­cal par­ti­san to direct their cov­er­age of only one can­di­date in the race, they demon­strat­ed how the mod­ern polit­i­cal media is an envi­ron­ment in which dem­a­gog­ic lan­guage can get ampli­fied through alter­na­tive media and seem main­stream much more effec­tive­ly than in pre­vi­ous eras. This means that Pres­i­dent Trump’s untra­di­tion­al use of lan­guage to incite oppo­si­tion to immi­gra­tion has had a deep­er effect on the pub­lic than it would have in pre­vi­ous eras. It is sort of new ter­ri­to­ry for every­one, and there remains a lot of study to be done about how this is going to play out.

How­ev­er, it is not a giv­en — not yet, any­way — that Pres­i­dent Trump is turn­ing the coun­try against immi­grants. Back­lash to harsh poli­cies like fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion and the trav­el ban sug­gest that there are lim­its to how far a pres­i­dent can push the pub­lic at any point in time. But the pub­lic does change over time, and we’ll look into that in part 3 of this series.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.