Following the belated death of Charles Manson, Newsweek published an article comparing the rhetorical style of the late cult leader and murderer to that of the current American president. Based primarily on the opinion of psychoanalyst Mark Smaller, the Newsweek piece notes similarities in how both Manson and Trump were “able to speak in a way that engaged those who felt marginalized or alienated.” Per Smaller, “Our current president speaks in an emotional or affective way to large numbers of people in our country who feel a kind of alienation or disconnection from the government.” Meanwhile, “cult followers … are so seduced by feelings of acceptance and understanding that they accept their leaders’ ideologies regardless of how destructive or dangerous they may be.”
Evaluations of Trump’s communication style are nothing new. Evan Puschak, more commonly known as the Nerdwriter, has done at least two video essays on the topic. One focuses on how Trump answers questions, using an example from an interview with Jimmy Kimmel in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting, while the other takes a look at how he composes tweets. Studies have shown that Trump communicates on a fourth-grade level, using disproportionately simple, monosyllabic language, a “volley of jabs” as Puschak puts it, and ending his sentences with strong, punchy words. Likewise, Trump charges his tweets with emotion by taking advantage of the fact that we perceive Tweets (and texts and other screen-oriented communication) to be more akin to speech than to writing. “Where his opponents and other politicians write through Twitter, Trump speaks through it,” says Puschak. “Instead of asking us to read, he forces us to hear.”
While one might draw similar ideas from the Newsweek piece and the Nerdwriter videos, one is left with the feeling that putting Manson and Trump side by side was a little bit fanciful. While Newsweek does take pains to note that they are not trying to draw a direct comparison between Trump and Manson — “Smaller is clear that he does not believe President Donald Trump is similar to the convicted killer, or that their followers have any shared beliefs or characteristics” — it’s reasonable to wonder if such bases covering is a little bit disingenuous. It’s perfectly valid, I think, to draw comparisons to the way different leaders might use language to apprehend the devotion of impressionable minds; it’s also perfectly valid to point out that such comparisons could be made without such objectionable insinuations. Newsweek might not have been trying to say that Charles Manson and Donald Trump are similar in other ways, but they certainly didn’t seem to mind if we came away with that idea on our own.
These comparisons may be true while not being fair. If this example doesn’t strike you as particularly egregious, ask yourself what your reaction would be if Fox News compared Obama to Hitler because they both love dogs or if Breitbart likened Hilary Clinton to the serial killer Ted Bundy because they were both in favor of suicide prevention.
In the age of Internet memes, political talk shows, and political propaganda television dressed up as educational comedy, fairness is a dying virtue. We increasingly prefer to anger ourselves over things other people don’t actually think than to actively engage with what they do. In “The Reason for God,” Tim Keller notes that if you can’t formulate your opponent’s argument in a way that he or she would agree with, you can’t actually claim that you disagree with them. At this point, few of us seem at all tainted by exposure to our opponents, much less the strongest form of their ideas. Those witches might have had us in mind when they chimed, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve previously argued that most popular political positions can be framed as a positive (i.e., “Because I care about….”). In another of Evan Puschak’s video essays, he examines the pernicious effects of combining schadenfreude, the process taking delight in someone else’s misfortune, with politics, and how it’s helped create a more toxic political atmosphere. While it used to be that, “on some level, we believe our opponent group is genuinely trying to help, just going about it the wrong way,” we’ve slowly come to see each other as evil incarnate, and deserving of whatever bad things that come each other’s way. This truth is sad and demoralizing, but also self-apparent… and possible to stop. I think it’s on each of us to help create the world we want to live in.
If that’s not enough reason to give fairness another shot, think of the way that ignoring basic fairness distracts us from more important issues. The more time we spend discussing the nonexistent similarities between Donald Trump and Charles Manson, the less attention we can give to Trump’s record as president, or to the still lingering, unanswered accusations of sexual assault that have been leveled against him.