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“Donald Trump’s Ignorant Honesty”: The Donald Never Learned What He Is And Isn’t Supposed To Say

For a guy so eager to tell you about the majestic size and quality of his brain, Donald Trump has a way of displaying his ignorance and getting into trouble whenever he gets asked detailed questions about a policy issue. And something has changed: Now it’s actually doing him some harm. The latest controversy, on abortion, shows us how some of what has served Trump so well in the primaries is coming back to bite him as he moves toward the general election.

For months, we all marvelled at how Trump could say almost anything, no matter how offensive or stupid, without suffering any damage in the polls. But that was possible because of the particular polls that mattered at the time: polls of Republican primary voters. And for Trump voters told for years that “political correctness” was oppressing them and ruining the country, the spectacle of someone so willing to offend and insult the people they never liked was intoxicating.

Today, with the nomination within his grasp, those primary polls don’t matter so much, and everyone is finally realizing that the things that so cheered his supporters were indications not just of how different a candidate he is, but of how the things about ordinary politicians that he rejects—the caution, the care taken not to offend, the carefully crafted talking points—serve an important purpose.

We’ll be seeing this cycle again: Trump gets pressed for details about an issue by an interviewer, he says something outside the expected or acceptable (or sane) range of opinions, without even realizing which norms and beliefs he has violated, and then he tries multiple times to refine and revise his comments after the unsurprising freak-out. In the abortion case, it took Trump a few tries—no doubt after huddled conferences with his advisers—to circle around the issue enough times that he could anger almost everyone. He was asked whether, if abortion becomes illegal as he and most Republicans support, women should be prosecuted for getting abortions. He responded that there should be “some form of punishment” for women, then said there shouldn’t be any punishment for them, then said we should leave the laws the way they are now, then said through a campaign aide that he’ll change the laws to outlaw abortion (here’s a wrap-up).

If Trump had come up through the Republican ranks like other candidates, none of this would be necessary, because he’d have learned what he is and isn’t supposed to say. On longstanding, contentious issues, each party has an entire structure of positions, ideas, and rhetoric that has been refined over years of thinking and arguing. That structure reflects their shared values and the policies they would like to implement. On an issue like abortion, which has moral, legal, and policy components, the structure is rather intricate. If you haven’t spent a long time within the places and among the people who use that structure to guide the way they think and talk about the issue, then you’re bound to make mistakes when you weigh in.

This incident is also a reminder that for all the time we spend on candidates’ “gaffes,” most of the time the people who run for president are executing a complex, demanding, and delicate rhetorical performance. They have to talk every day in public, covering a wide variety of complicated issues, and do it in a way that not only might persuade the undecided, but that won’t alienate large numbers of people at the same time. Except in the most unusual circumstances, you don’t get to the major leagues of a presidential run without spending years developing the knowledge and skill to pull it off.

But of course, there have seldom been more unusual circumstances than the one we’re witnessing right now, in the person of Donald Trump. And the irony in this incident is that Trump, unlike the rest of his party, kicked off the controversy by expressing a logically coherent opinion. If you believe that a day-old zygote is a fully human person and that abortion is murder, then how can you think that the person who planned that person’s murder shouldn’t be held legally culpable once you’ve outlawed abortion completely? After all, if a woman hired a hit man to murder her five-year-old she’d go to jail, and as far as conservatives are concerned there should be no moral or legal difference between a fetus and a child. Their answer to this problem is that “she’s a victim too,” because when it comes to anything involving the operation of their ladyparts, women must themselves be treated like children, or at the very least as though they were so mentally incapacitated that someone else has to make decisions for them.

It’s obvious that Trump was not sufficiently schooled in this intricate rhetorical dance, for the simple reason that he’s not a politician. But these kind of complicated positions aren’t constructed at random. They’re built to serve a set of sometimes contradictory purposes: allow us to pursue the outcome we prefer, give us a way to justify it in public, provide a rationale judges can build rulings on, and do it all while minimizing the number of voters it pisses off.

It doesn’t really work—the “gender gap,” where more women vote Democratic, is no accident. But Republican rhetoric is designed to, at the very least, minimize the damage by assuring women that the GOP really has their best interests at heart. If Donald Trump is the nominee, however, that’s going to be impossible. If nothing else, there’s something more honest about his fumbling around on issues like this. He may have no idea what he’s talking about, but that means he hasn’t learned how to skillfully wield the apparatus of deception Republicans have spent so much time crafting.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect, April 4, 2016

April 6, 2016 - Posted by | Abortion, Donald Trump, General Election 2016, GOP Voters | , , , , ,

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