Trump’s Tyranny of the Mind

by Mr. Sheehy

In my AP English composition and language classes, we’re studying They Say, I Say, and my students are responding to a columnist or opinion writer as a way of practicing the skills we’re learning. This is an example I pieced together alongside them.

It is easy to find anti-Trump messages these days, particularly if one is roaming through late night TV comedy. But such left-leaning comedians’ objections to Trump are not surprising—how many of them would admit to supporting anything President George W. Bush did, for example? More surprising—and, to my mind, more significant—is the continued vehement objection to President Donald Trump from more conservative sources, like Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President Bush. In a recent column for the Washington Post (“How Trump Broke Conservatism”), Gerson characterizes President Trump’s manner of arguing as an assault on truth. According to Gerson, Trump’s strategy is to “First, assert and maintain a favorable lie. Second, attack and discredit sources of opposition. Third, declare victory based on power or applause.” In other words, Gerson is saying, Trump chooses not to persuade based on argumentation or truth but on assertion and power. Gerson fills a paragraph with classic examples, including President Trump’s claim during the presidential campaign that President Barak Obama had wiretapped his campaign headquarters and his claim that President Obama is Kenyan.

Gerson’s theory about Trump’s argumentation is extremely useful because it illustrates how the President is not engaging in debates and logic as they are traditionally thought of, but instead using the logic of power. It is a logic we’re familiar with but also one which most people know to be problematic and morally suspect. It reminds me of an old ESPN advertisement for NBA games, where the ESPN announcers are traveling the country in an RV with NBA players. In one clip, two announcers are taking on Shaquille O’Neil at Scrabble. Shaq finishes a move and earns 29 points for “Shaqtastic.” The camera shows us the board, which is full of words built out of Shaq’s name (“Shaqattack,” “Shaqesque”). “How did you get so many Q’s?” Stuart Scott asks, to which Shaq replies with the brusque authority of a 300 pound, seven foot man: “Don’t worry about it.” There is a pause, and then he smiles to say, “My turn again!”

The audience laughs because Shaq’s power, which they had watched him use to move other 7 foot men around a basketball court like they were kindergartners, was completely inappropriate at the Scrabble board. Yet if the situation were real, what could two puny TV announcers have done to prevent it? After all, Gerson reminds us, “The alternative to reasoned discourse is the will to power,” and Shaq’s on-camera (and on-court) persona embodies the will to power.

Gerson’s commentary is light on ideas for how to prevent this “tyranny of the mind,” but his words are themselves a beginning. In the make believe world of that ESPN RV, to call Shaq a bully and a cheat would have brought consequences in the RV—possibly painful ones–but it also would have ended the parody of a Scrabble game. Michael Gerson’s columns have surely lost him prestige in the current Republican party, but he’s decided the consequences are worth exposing the parody.

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