We have a cultural tendency to assume that words are reflections of reality, when very often they are not.
FROM THE GUARDIAN | JUNE 4, 2017
There’s an emerging consensus that the presidency of Donald Trump has radically altered the warp and woof of American life. His supporters – which make up at least a third of all Americans – believe that he has accomplished great things in the past four months. His detractors, who are legion, see more harm than good in his record thus far.
What remains striking about Trump, however, is how much of the push back against him is provoked by his words, and how Americans are prone to ascribe weight to those words. This is not a Trump phenomenon. It is a very American one, stretching back many years, and starkly evident during Obama’s tenure just as much as it is during Trump’s early months in the White House.
In short, we pay too much attention to words and not enough to action. We have a cultural tendency to assume that words, political words, are reflections of reality, when very often they are not.
The decision to withdraw from the Paris accords is a case in point. That was immediately lauded by the Trump base and decried by most everyone else as a dramatic action. In terms of the symbolism of US global leadership, it is, but in terms of consequences for the environment it is not.
American soft-power may be damaged by Trump’s rhetoric, but progress toward a less carbon intensive future will likely not be dented by that decision. The Paris accords are voluntary and non-binding, and much of the movement in the United States towards reducing emissions has come from and will continue to come from major states such as California, large multinational companies such as GE and small businesses that see the economic advantages of using renewables.
Trump’s words suggest major changes in American policies toward emissions, when even if the US does end up withdrawing from the accord in 2020, which is how long it will take to withdraw, the reality is that forces other than the federal government are driving us toward a lower carbon future.
Then take immigration. By most accounts, the first months of the Trump administration have created a widespread climate of fear among the millions of undocumented immigrants who live in the United States. That fear stems from the harsh rhetoric from multiple voices in the Trump administration, including from the president himself and the Attorney General Jeff Sessions, combined with numerous stories of deportation raids conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice).
The shift in tone is undeniable. What is also undeniable is that the first months of deportation policy under the Trump administration don’t differ greatly from the deportation policies in place during Barack Obama’s first term.
Between 2009 and 2013, there were more deportations than at any other
point in American history, close to 3 million people. Many have noted that, under Obama, authorities made a point of de-emphasizing non-violent undocumented immigrants and allowing them a degree of protection from deportation. But according to Ice records, about half of all deportations in those years were for non-violent immigrants.
It is true that immigration policy changed during Obama’s second term, with much greater emphasis on criminal immigrants. But it is equally true that the actions of his first term should have created widespread panic that deportation was a clear and present threat.
Yet while many Hispanics, who tended to be more directly affected by these harsh immigration policies, were critical of Obama’s immigration approach in his first term, they remained supportive of him and positive about his administration overall. Unlike Trump, Obama’s soaring and inclusive words created a culture of hope that served to offset the way his actions were perceived.
Deportations under Obama were rarely emphasized; Obama didn’t brag about them or draw attention to them. He emphasized instead the country’s healing from the Great Recession and its move away from the military entanglements of the Bush years. He spoke in uplifting tones about America and an inclusive vision for the future.
Deportations weren’t the only disjuncture between words and deeds. Between 2006 and 2011, fencing and barriers were constructed along nearly 700 miles of the US-Mexican border; some of that began in 2006 under a law passed by Congress that then-Senator Obama voted for. It was not the big, beautiful fence touted by candidate Donald Trump, but it was wire, and fence, and concrete and cameras and it did cost billions. Here again, Obama did not trumpet its construction, or point to it as an example of America first. But it was built nonetheless.
Words can calm or agitate; they can uplift or depress; they can motivate or enervate. But in politics, they are not tantamount to action. The fact is that the immigration actions during Obama’s first term should have produced a climate of fear, while the actions during Trump first few months have arguably generated more fear than the actions themselves warrant. In both cases, words are driving our collective sense of reality out of proportion to the actions taken.
Under Obama, supporters listened to the words and discounted the actions, while opponents often discounted the words and focused on the actions. Under Trump, the only difference is that both opponents and supporters take his words as indicative of far more action than is actually the case.
This isn’t just an Obama-Trump phenomenon. For much of the 1950s, the explicit story Americans told themselves was that the country was charging ahead, enriching the middle-class with shiny new bedroom communities like Levittown and millions of entering college for the first time. Politicians and the press touted the success of the American experiment, and optimism about how capitalism and technology combined with American liberty and democracy would lead to a glorious future for America and the world.
Yet, in the mid-1960s, Americans seemingly shook off their Pollyannaish haze and discovered that tens of millions of African-Americans were not sharing in that glorious dream, nor were tens of millions of poor white Americans. Hence Lyndon Johnson’s speech launching the Great Society in 1964 calling for an end to racial injustice and poverty.
By the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, public rhetoric and private attitudes had turned considerably grimmer. The soaring words of the 1950s elided the reality of millions; official words painted a reality that lightly glossed over real problems.
By the 1970s, public attitudes and words started to characterize the country as mired in crisis, losing its way, locked in a “malaise” as Jimmy Carter famously quipped. Yet, those words universalized problems that were not universally shared, hence the ability of Ronald Reagan to change the language back to the uplifting patois of the 1950s, with equally distorting results.
And so here we go again. Trump’s words are a dog whistle to both liberals and conservatives, as were Obama’s. Perhaps the only segment of society that appears to be ignoring Trump’s words are financial markets, which have been chugging along with very little volatility. They are waiting for actions on healthcare, infrastructure and tax reform rather than buying and selling based on hollow promises, exaggerated fears and false hopes.
Words can predicate action, but not necessarily. That isn’t a prescription for ignoring objectionable or ominous language, but it is a reminder to maintain a healthy distinction between words and actions. Some Trump supporters routinely discount what he says in the anticipation that he will enact policies that restore jobs and income and some amorphous sense of security. They will judge him soon enough based on what he does, not by what he says.
Detractors might be wise to do the same, in the recognition that words, even outrageous ones may presage outrageous action, or they may not. And comforting, unifying, and uplifting words can hide grim actions just as easily as they can motivate noble ones.
Reacting to words as if they are one-to-one reflections of action can lead to a hall of mirrors, where the line between utterances and action blurs to the point where we lose sight of what is actually happening. Trump is a challenge in part because of the wide gap between what he says and what his administration has or ever could do.
But he did not invent that gap, and Americans seems unusually prone to be caught in it.
Unless we wish to spend the next years hurtling to its endless bottom, we’d be well served by more carefully distinguishing between what is said and what is done, and paying more attention the latter than the former.