On the most recent episode of Amicus, Dahlia Lithwick spoke with renowned communications researcher and campaign adviser Anat Shenker-Osorio about the messaging of impeachment, how Republicans justify acquittal, and why it’s so dangerous to give Marjorie Taylor Greene a microphone. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dahlia Lithwick: Set the table for us about how you have come to think about language, and messaging, and politics, and all the ways in which progressives just really are generally suck-ish at some of this.
Anat Shenker-Osorio: It’s hard to know where to begin. I guess I will rely upon a trusted canard that I trot out a lot, which is that if the left had written the story of David, it would have been a biography of Goliath. By which I mean, we like to talk a whole lot about our opposition. And frequently, if you look at progressive messaging, one hallmark of it across issues is that we like to begin with some permutation of, “Boy, have I got a problem for you.”
And it turns out, shockingly, that people have got 99 problems and they don’t want ours. They’re generally not shopping for new things to worry about. They have plenty on their plates, especially right now. And so, when we present ourselves as, “Boy, have I got a problem for you.” And when we present ourselves ever and always in the “resistance” in opposition to what the other side is doing, we unwittingly cement their power, cement their ideas, cement this sense that doing anything about it is an exercise in futility. And while that may engender a fight response among our hardcore and dedicated activists, among a broader base—people who agree with us ideologically but are not politically motivated or not active—it invokes 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 shutdown response.
This impeachment trial, if you strip away all the insanity around it, is about using words to persuade, and also about interrogating Donald Trump’s words over the course of the past six months—I wonder if there’s a way in which if you take away the notion that language is rooted in truth, it’s really, really hard to do law this way. If we’ve disconnected law from language, does everything you think about just fall apart?
I don’t think that we’ve disconnected law from language. Anybody who has a particular training and an expertise in their domain tends to think that whatever language they’re using is an attempt at accuracy. And it’s built inside of a “rational actor model,” where we think that we will just tell people the facts. We will just tell people the truth. We will just tell people what is going on. And then they will be able to reasonably come to the correct conclusion. But in point of fact, that is not how people reason and come to judgments. That is not how people understand things. And that is true of all people. A better descriptor of the human cognitive processing system would be, I’ll see it when I believe it, not the other way around. This is why people routinely tell us, “I don’t see racism. I don’t see sexism.” Because the instances that occur before their very eyes aren’t categorized as such. And so, they come up with rationalizations to discount them.
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 we’re very good at that as humans.
The thing I’ve been really struggling with impeachment is the absolute factual reality that these Senate Republicans were in the room, right? I always believed at some point rational self-interest ends when you are viscerally afraid for your life. It’s immaterial. That’s what you’re saying?
I don’t know that it’s immaterial. If we look at the place in the narrative where the hole is, for voters the flaw is not, “This happened. This was violent. You could have been killed.” The flaw, the missing piece narratively, is why did this occur? What caused this to happen? And when we look at deeply conservative people, people who are at their core ideologically conservative, there are certain psychological underpinnings to their thought structure that we have to contend with. One is many of them are adherents to a “just world theory.” In short, just world theory says good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. And there needs to be some explanation, some underlying vindication and rightness and order.
So if, for example, people are struggling to make ends meet economically, it needs to be the case that they have somehow done something wrong, because otherwise we’d have to believe in reality. We’d have to believe that we live in a society in which people are systematically barred from well-being based upon their color, based upon their accent, based upon their gender, which is in fact true. But if you believe unconsciously in a just world theory, that can’t be the case, because that would not be a just world. And your material wealth, your material well-being would be nothing more than what it is, which is a product of winning the womb lottery. And it wouldn’t be about you and your goodness.
So, you have these Republican senators. And I hope it’s clear: I have zero excuses for them. I’m also horrified and angry in all of the things. It’s difficult actually as a word person to formulate the words for just how disgusting this is. But if you’re Ted Cruz, or if you’re Mike Lee, or if you’re Josh Hawley, and you’re being asked to believe that the proximate cause of the violence was spreading lies about the election, then you would have to believe that you were part of causing the violence against yourself.
And that’s just simply impossible for you to believe, either cynically, out of self-preservation. Even if you do believe that somewhere in the core of your being, you can’t admit that, because to admit Donald Trump’s guilt is to admit your own. Maybe that’s what’s going on, and it’s all a ruse.
Or maybe, perhaps even more pathologically what’s going on is at a deeper level, they are incapable of internalizing the notion that anything that they said actually had anything to do with the guy shirtless in the face paint, and the guy with the Confederate flag, and the rest of it, because they would have to imagine that at some level they’re fundamentally part of creating, causing, fomenting evil. And they refuse to believe that about themselves.
I’ve heard you say over and over again, “Stop centering Trump, stop saying coup, stop saying hoax, stop saying stolen election.” Going forward, your guidance is going to be “Stop talking about Marjorie Taylor Greene, you idiots, because you are just yet again, being powerless and reactive. And instead of saying what you’re for, pushing her crazy to the top of the heap.” Right? That’s what you’re going to say.
It is pretty depressing to watch us have metaphorically beheaded Trump, only to recast him in a younger female version.
Nuttier version, right?
I don’t know. Jury is out. It’s hard to say. It depends which things you’re comparing. We need to condemn this person. We need to condemn Josh Hawley. We needed to condemn Ted Cruz. The issue is the way that Democrats, and the way that the left more broadly, is making her a superstar. First of all, it’s literally minting her a fortune. She is making money off of this. That is a fact.
And what concerns me is the Todd Akin effect. For those of you who do not remember, Todd Akin was a famous Missouri representative who liked to play amateur OB-GYN and informed us with his nonmedical degree that if it’s “legitimate rape,” a woman won’t get pregnant because the body has a way of shutting these things down. Thank you, Dr. Akin. What happened with that is that he was soundly condemned. However, it had the effect of making the rest of his party, who believed that people should be forced to stay pregnant and to give birth, regardless of the circumstances of getting pregnant, including rape, incest, including whatever is happening with the fetus and whatever endangerment that poses to the pregnant person—they suddenly look like Alan Alda. They’re suddenly a bastion of right thinking and empathy because they actually credit the notion that a person could not want to have sex with someone and become pregnant.
And what happens with Marjorie Taylor Greene, and we see this already in our polling—I mean, I hope that Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are feeding her checks, because she is doing them a massive favor, right? She is shifting what is considered to be beyond the pale, what is considered to be too naughty, what is considered to be too extreme, where suddenly they’re now looking like Mitt Romney. And that’s the danger in focusing on her extremity and her nuttiness. It’s actually letting the other folks off the hook.
There are ways to condemn these people. We need to condemn them as a category for feeding and spreading lies, for attempting to suppress the will of the people, for attempting to subvert our democracy, and for issuing death threats. If you issue death threats against your co-workers, you get fired at the end.
To hear their entire discussion, as well as Dahlia’s conversation with former White House counsel Bob Bauer, listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.