As anyone who’s been following the Chimps knows, we are obsessed with the political narrative; how right-wingers have taken, controlled, and mastered it; and how rational thinkers (progressives) might ever get it back. Part of that project must be a commitment to understanding and appropriating right-wing methodologies as to rhetoric and propaganda – no matter how distasteful, diabolical, or disingenuous we might find those methodologies to be. Conservatives have formulated and executed a plan to control American politics that must be credited even as we decry the vacuity and animus reflected in their policy choices.
To that end, let’s study a statement that “Third Reince” Priebus released on behalf of the Republican National Committee to hock a little Christmas cheer at the masses:
Merry Christmas to all! Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King.
Social media outlets are overtopping with left-leaning outrage. Even Dan Rather (on Facebook) got in on the action:
Many on social media reacted in outrage to what they read as an equation of Donald Trump to Jesus. A few hours later CNN reported “RNC spokesman and incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the reference had nothing to do with Trump. ‘Christ is the King in the Christian faith.'”
I am just not sure how one would explain the word “new” in the quote.
To be sure, Rather is correct, and not only as to the word new. (New means “having recently come into existence.”) The word this also has meaning. In the context of “this Christmas,” what it means is the present one or the one that is happening now or limited to the one that is contemporaneous with the statement being made – you know, THIS one. Oh, and herald means “to signal the approach of.”
The Chimps are big believers in the proposition that words have meaning. In fact, that’s why we use them; were it not so, then it would seem that using grunts would suffice. So when we reconstruct the RNC statement using definitions to represent their corresponding words, here’s what it seems to say:
Just as the three wise men did on that night (2000 years ago), the present Christmas — the one happening now — signals the approach of a King who has recently come into existence.
Nonetheless, when he was busted by grade-school-level linguists for having said what he clearly did say, Priebus and other Republican operatives pushed back, claiming that the the most obvious reading of his words — the one bolded above — was, in fact, preposterous. Obviously, we are told, what Priebus meant (despite his failure to say it) was that this Christmas, like all Christmases, is a celebration of the King who was born two thousand years ago. Of course, that wouldn’t be the event the approach of which was signaled by this Christmas, and a two-thousand-year-old king isn’t exactly new, but hell, says Priebus: you know what I meant.
Priebus’s statement contains two elements that mark much right-wing propaganda and rhetoric, and these elements must be analyzed, taught, and studied by message-makers on the left: 1) Coded language; and 2) Plausible deniability.
Progressives are beset by this unfortunate constraint called a conscience, which directs them to say or represent only that which they actually mean in language that is unambiguous, which is to say capable of no more than one interpretation. But effective political messages aren’t limited to only one meaning that is amenable to only one interpretation. Effective political messages are designed to mean whatever listeners want them to mean, and further to be amenable to enough conflicting interpretations to render their real meanings, when it’s convenient, deniable. (The Chimps have discussed this before: check this out.)
Priebus’s message, as much as it drives liberals and progressives to distraction (which it was surely designed to do), is a brilliant exemplar of effective political rhetoric and propaganda. First, it is coded: it is meant to convey to Trump voters that they were right about Trump and that the time of their greatness is upon them. The cult is embraced and reassured: all their fears will be dashed by Donald Trump; all their anger will be channeled through Donald Trump; and Donald Trump will make them powerful by making them part of a tribal Goliath that has nothing if not wrath and fury. You should believe that Donald Trump is your King, Priebus is saying; and that’s pretty convenient, since Donald Trump thinks of himself the same way.
But this is a chilling thing for anyone to hear if he or she is not beholden to the cult, and so there is deniability built into the confusing and ambiguous construction: oh, don’t be silly, we’re told — don’t you know who the King of Christianity is?
It’s distasteful, it’s diabolical, and it’s disingenuous. And it’s brilliant. And conservatives know how to do it. And progressives don’t.