Archive for February, 2017|Monthly archive page

The Nonlinear Narrative: A Rhetoric of Donald Trump’s Mind

In Politics on February 21, 2017 at 10:28 am


Here’s what you need to realize about Donald Trump’s speaking style; and why it is both revealing and dangerous.

All of us experience reality in a non-linear way.

Each new thought, each new response to the constant barrage of stimuli is disconnected from the last thought or response until we make the connection intellectually.  Because the universe is not selective, we have to be.  We cannot respond equally to every new stimulus because there is simply too much information coming into contact with our senses all the time.  So we filter out some information, paying attention to whatever our brain in the moment considers most important.  Every stimulus except the one we have chosen to focus on is noise. 

What happens next is that we make a higher level selection that allows us to string certain stimuli together into a coherent, linear experience.  In effect, we create a story that allows us to understand and create meaning out of the experience.  The longer we can continue to string together stimuli in this way, the more coherent our experience becomes and the better able we are to articulate that experience.  Often, however, the rapid pace of life keeps us from focusing very long on any one string, any one story, while we are having the experience.  As a result, we have to create the narrative of our experience through memory at a later time.  We sort through all the stimuli, select those that seem connected, create meaning, and develop a linear narrative that expresses that meaning.  When we can’t do that, or choose not to, the result is stream of consciousness, non-sequitur, incoherence and inarticulateness.

That’s where Donald Trump lives.  He is unable or unwilling to string his thoughts together in a selective, coherent, linear narrative in order to articulate a specific complex meaning.  It would be one thing if this were simply a fault in the moment; that is, if his initial thought process was chaotic and disorganized.  That’s simply the way it is for most of us.  We need to focus, perhaps take some time with our experiences and thoughts, and find the most reasonable narrative to help us understand and express our experiences.  The problem, however, arises when we can’t make those connections in the moment and can’t or won’t do it later, either.  The mind just leaps from thought to thought, unable to maintain a linear narrative for more than a few moments. There is one advantage to this rhetorical style: it allows us to see how Trump’s mind works.

It’s easy to interpret his ravings as simply ego, but it is actually a little more complicated than that.  Everyone has ego needs.  We all want a degree of validation of our self-identity and ego gratification.  But we also have more and less dominant needs that inform that validation.  Some of us focus a significant amount of our ego on altruism; we get ego satisfaction from doing things for others.  Some focus on intellectual validation; we want others to see that we know things, are learned.  Some of us focus on material things; we are constantly telling people about our possessions. 

Trump seems to focus mostly on his social needs; he is constantly referencing what other people have told him, especially about himself.  He wants us to know how many people voted for him, how many of these people or those love him.  He wants us to know that when he claims something is true, it’s because other people, the best people, smart people, have told him they are true.  And it doesn’t really matter who, exactly, these people are, there just has to be a lot of them.

Trump references everything back to himself, of course, but it isn’t simply self-importance.  He simply has no other useful reference points for his experiences, so when he drifts off topic to talk about himself, he is making the only logical connection he can find between his otherwise random thoughts.  Instead of arranging things according to the usual linear logic, Trump creates something more like a thought web, with himself at the center and all things connected through himself.  When you listen to him speak, you can follow what is happening by looking for the rhetorical linkages back to himself.

This rhetorical style is tolerable, though certainly frustrating, in your quirky relative who thinks himself a raconteur, but actually just rambles interminably without ever finishing any particular story.  In the President, however, it is dangerous.

That’s because it means that those who recognize this rhetorical trait can use it to manipulate and control him. If you want him to believe something or act in particular way, you merely need to give him a narrative that connects the parts of the argument you want him to follow back through his self-reference.  The argument doesn’t have to make any kind of logical sense whatsoever on its own.  It only needs to make sense in the filter of that self-reference. 

It also means that you are most likely to be successful if you can make your voice the last one he hears before he has to make his decision.  Because he doesn’t develop a coherent narrative, he has no way of reviewing that narrative later to understand or even accurately remember his own process.  He only knows what his final decision was; and since it was his decision he cannot question or change it.  He can, however, be led to make a new, even contradictory, decision by the next person who can make the appropriate connections through his self-reference between the old decision and the new.

Moreover, the President cannot respond effectively to sudden or unanticipated changes; that is, think on his feet. We can see this in his press encounters and Twitter rants, where he either cycles the unexpected through his self-reference or falls back on tried and true attack lines or dominance strategies.

The danger in this, of course, is that we can neither understand nor predict his actions based on his prior choices or his current rhetoric.  The chaos of his mind leads to chaos, inconsistency, unpredictability, and lack of trust.  This chaos is especially dangerous when applied to decisions affecting domestic policy or international relationships.

For this reason, we need to pay less attention to his rhetoric, which becomes a distraction, and more attention to the rhetoric of those he has appointed as advisors and members of his administration.  We have to assume that his positions and policies will reflect not his reasoning, not his narrative, but those of people like Steve Bannon.  Whoever has his ear at any moment will create the narrative that informs the policy.

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