In the most recent episode of Amicus, Dahlia Lithwick spoke to acclaimed communications researcher and campaign advisor Anat Shenker-Osorio about the impeachment message, how Republicans justify the acquittal and why it is so dangerous to give Marjorie Taylor Greene a microphone. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dahlia Lithwick: Set us up on how you came to think about language, messaging, and politics, and all the ways progressives are generally really bad at some of these issues.
Anat Shenker-Osorio: It’s hard to know where to start. Guess I’m going to trust a trusted duck that I trot a lot, that is if the left had written David’s story it would be a biography of Goliath. By that I mean we like to talk a lot about our opposition. And a lot of times, if you look at progressive messaging, a feature of it through the issues is that we like to start with a swap of, boy, do I have a problem for you.
And it turns out, shockingly, that people have 99 problems and they don’t want us. They usually don’t buy new things to fear. They have a lot of it on their plates, especially right now. And so when we introduce ourselves as, boy, I have a problem for you. And when we always and always present ourselves in resistance in opposition to what the other side is doing, we unwittingly cement their power, cement their ideas, cement that feeling that doing anything about it is an exercise in futility. And while this may engender a fighting response among our staunch and dedicated activists, among a larger base of people who agree with us ideologically but are not politically motivated or not active, it calls for a freeze response. Because in a battle of fear against fear, the right will always win. We will never be more terrifying than them. And for most people, fear causes a stopping reaction.
This impeachment trial, if you take out all the madness that surrounds it, is all about using words to persuade, and also questioning Donald Trump’s words over the past six months. I wonder if there is a way So if you take away the idea that the language is rooted in the truth, it’s really, really hard to rule the law that way. If we have disconnected the law of language, does everything you think about collapse?
I don’t think we’ve disconnected the law from language. Anyone with specific training and expertise in their field tends to think of the language used as an attempt at precision. And it’s built inside of a rational actor model, where we think we’re just going to tell people the facts. We will just tell people the truth. We’re just going to tell people what’s going on. And then they can reasonably come to the right conclusion. But in fact, this is not how people reason and come to judgments. This is not how people understand it. And this is true for everyone. A better descriptor of the human cognitive processing system would be, I’ll see when I believe it, and not the other way around. That’s why people regularly tell us that I don’t see racism. I don’t see any sexism. Because the instances that occur before their eyes are not classified as such. And so, they come up with rationalizations to rule them out.
So what happens in this trial is that people have a preformulated idea or judgment. And then whatever facts are presented to them, they find a way to send those facts outside of that frame. And they were very good at it as humans.
The thing that I really struggled with with impeachment was the absolute factual reality that those Senate Republicans were in the room, right? I’ve always believed that at some point rational self-interest ends when you have a visceral fear for your life. Its intangible. It’s what you say?
I don’t know it’s intangible. If we look at the place in the story where the hole is, for the voters the fault is not, it has happened. It was violent. You could have been killed. The flaw, the narratively missing piece, is why did this happen? What caused this? And when we look at deeply conservative people, people who are ideologically conservative at their core, there are certain psychological underpinnings to their structure of thought that we have to struggle with. One is that many of them adhere to a fair world theory. In short, only global theory says that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. And there has to be an explanation, an underlying rationale, correctness and order.
They should imagine that at some level they are fundamentally involved in the creation, cause, and fomenting of evil. And they refuse to believe it on their own. Anat Shenker-Osorio
So if, for example, people are struggling to make ends meet economically, they must have done something wrong somehow, because if not, we have to believe in reality. We have to believe that we live in a society in which people are systematically deprived of well-being because of their color, their accent, their gender, which is in fact true. But if you subconsciously believe in a just world theory, it can’t be because it wouldn’t be a just world. And your material wealth, your material well-being would be nothing more than what it is, which is the product of winning the womb lottery. And it wouldn’t be about you and your kindness.
So you have these Republican senators. And I hope it’s clear: I have no excuse for them. Im also horrified and angry in all things. It’s actually difficult as a word person to phrase words how disgusting it is. But if you are Ted Cruz, or if you are Mike Lee, or if you are Josh Hawley, and you are asked to believe that the immediate cause of the violence was spreading lies about the election, then you should believe that you have contributed violence against yourself.
And it’s just impossible for you to believe, either cynically, out of self-preservation. Even if you believe that somewhere deep in your being you cannot admit it, because to admit Donald Trump’s guilt is to admit your own. Maybe that’s what’s happening, and it’s a trick.
Or maybe, maybe even more pathologically, what’s going on on a deeper level, they’re unable to internalize the notion that everything they said actually had something to do with the shirtless guy. in the face paint, and the guy with the Confederate flag, and the like, because they would have to imagine that on some level, they’re basically a part of the creation and the cause and the fomenting of evil. And they refuse to believe it on their own.
I’ve heard you say over and over again: stop centering Trump, stop saying a coup, stop saying hoaxes, stop saying stolen elections. Going forward, your advice is going to be: Stop talking about Marjorie Taylor Greene, idiots, because you are once again powerless and reactive. And instead of saying what you’re doing, pushing her mad at the top of the heap. Law? This is what you are going to say.
It’s pretty depressing to see us metaphorically beheading Trump, only to recast him into a younger, feminine version.
Nuttier version, right?
I do not know. The jury is out. It’s hard to say. It depends on what you are comparing. We must condemn this person. We must condemn Josh Hawley. We had to condemn Ted Cruz. The problem is how Democrats, and how the left more broadly, make her a superstar. First of all, his literally hits his fortune. She makes money with it. It’s a fact.
And what concerns me is the Todd Akin effect. For those of you who don’t remember, Todd Akin was a famous representative from Missouri who loved playing amateur OB-GYN and informed us with his non-medical degree that if it was legitimate rape, a woman would not get pregnant because the body has a way to shut itself off. these things down. Thanks, Dr Akin. What happened with it was that he was strongly condemned. However, this had the effect of making the rest of her party, who believed that people should be forced to stay pregnant and give birth, regardless of the circumstances of the pregnancy, including rape, incest, including including everything that is going on with the fetus and no matter how dangerous the pregnant person is, they suddenly look like Alan Alda. They are suddenly a bastion of good thinking and empathy because they actually attribute the idea that a person cannot want to have sex with someone and get pregnant.
What if Nikki Haley really doesn’t believe in anything? What’s going on in Texas? Over 60% of Republicans want a third, a huge increase from last year. Why not let people have cell phones in jail?
And what’s up with Marjorie Taylor Greene, and we already see it in our poll, I mean, I hope Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley feed her checks because she’s doing them a huge favor, right? She changes what’s seen as beyond pale, what’s seen as too mean, what’s seen as too extreme, where suddenly they now look like Mitt Romney. And that’s the danger of focusing on its extremity and its insanity. It’s actually leaving others to fend for themselves.
There are ways to convict these people. We must condemn them as a category for nurturing and spreading lies, for attempting to suppress the will of the people, for attempting to overthrow our democracy and for issuing death threats. If you issue death threats against your colleagues, you are fired at the end.
To hear their full chat, plus Dahlias’ conversation with former White House lawyer Bob Bauer, tune in below or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.
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