As Maddow aptly concludes, this conversation will be closely studied in the present and future, if not directly shown to journalism students. I really think this is one of the most important dialogues between the US left and right since The Great Divide, we’ll call it, aka. The 2016 Election. If Republicans were thinking a little more clearly, they’d realize how counter Trump is to the world that they’ve claimed to have wanted to create in the past. Now they can’t talk a lot about family values given his very nature, not to mention his overt admittance of sexual predation, nor can they talk about distrust or even a cautious approach towards Russia given his endorsement of Russian espionage, nor can the Republicans stand on a religious platform any longer when their president is not exactly the poster child of the Christian right.
You can understand Trump a lot better once you realize that he is using language a lot differently than most rational people. Every tweet and outrageous statement to his supporters is considered by him and his camp as mere rallying cries. The goal is to simply win at any cost, no matter what his voters are led to believe, say, or do. All of his statements are solely directed to his zealots who are simply meant to buttress him in whatever standing he seeks. It is a pure cult of personality. His supporters are made to think he is actually a populist who became very successful and stands for people with lower income, but he has every intention of thriving off others’ misfortunes, just like elitists like him have been encouraged to do from youth.
This interview is an examination of the different American psyches that are vying with each other for dominance. Maddow portrays the rational and cool-headed side of our nation that is trying to make sense of the bizarre things Trump says, and why he still tweets like he’s running a campaign. Conway is also very cool-headed and calmly engages in either one of three strategies when confronted with Trump’s nonsense:
- Simply deny what he said
- When irrefutable proof of what he said is presented, typically in the form of a video clip of him making the statement at one of his rallies, it is quickly construed as Trump’s general desire for a strong American people who is not afraid to say anything (even blatantly untrue things)
- Otherwise the subject is simply changed to Aleppo or to how Trump won and the Democrats lost.
There is no question that this video warrants a play-by-play analysis, as there are quite a few thick layers of… um, victory to sift through. I am going to pick apart the first video in a way that should make clear the general strategy Trump’s advisors are employing.
What’s the big deal? 0:00 – 6:25
Maddow starts with an excellent example, accompanied by very hilarious graphics indeed, of why US Presidents have to be careful about what they say, even conservative darling Ronald Reagan. It was a brilliant example that had no malicious criticism of Reagan whatsoever, only a non-partisan comment about why political officials are so sensitive to how their words can be construed. Other audiences, especially in other countries, can easily take your words and manipulate them for a variety of purposes, and this tendency was most prominent during the Cold War when propaganda and misinformation ran amok, much like it does today. Her choice of subject may be a bit heavy-handed, but appropriately so given the gravity of the situation. If a President wants to make jokes, it looks like they’ll have to wait until the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, a venue at which Obama has slain many an audience.
Unfortunately, we are living in the era of the Presidential Off-Hand Twitter Comment and Trump’s camp has no problem switching between attributing great significance to their leader’s comments or asking us to ignore them and mocking anyone who takes them seriously. If you are only present-of-mind in the brief moments that a Trump campaigner insults you, then you miss the glaring inconsistencies in their whole story. Fortunately, Maddow is not so easily distracted and valiantly focuses on this point at the start despite Conway’s obsession over the election. Maddow summarizes her main point brilliantly: “Presidents talking about nuclear weapons is nothing to mess around with, not even if you are obviously joking.”
Take note of the highlighted text in Trump’s tweet. There is no doubt that is the most troubling part of that sentence for its sheer lunacy. It is also one of the most fascinating things he has said for its pure irony. Not only do we have a very irrational man telling the world about coming to its senses, but the insertion of that part alone renders the entire sentence nonsensical. If he had simply stopped after the word “capability”, there would still be much objection but you could have a much more reasonable conversation about what kind of augmentation he has in mind. This is just more evidence that this man uses rhetoric in such a vapid way that it shows how low the conservatives of the US have gone and it’s hard to see them making us forget about all of this too easily.
The President’s Counselor 6:25 – 6:48
The Trump camp, in pure Charlie Sheen fashion mind you, has developed an obsession with winning. This doesn’t just mean defeating your opponent, but crushing and humiliating your opponent so as to constantly keep them down. Expect this in the midst of empty words about reconciliation, uniting America, reaching across the aisle, and so many other buzzwords said in one interview and then constant campaign rhetoric to supporters.
This deliberate division is seen when Conway immediately asks Maddow “Do you agree he’s your president, too?” As you have already noticed, Trump’s supporters consider him to be analogous to Obama, and in fact he is but in every ironically opposite and dark way you can imagine. Obama’s supposed lack of executive experience, even though he had much political experience, was advertised as a weakness of his from the right whereas for Trump his lack of experience is an asset. Obama had trouble with appointees who did not have clean tax records whereas now the right labels those who point out similar problems with Trump’s picks as complainers. Note the bizarre re-emergence of the birther issue, not directly towards Trump but towards former conservative darling Ted Cruz of all people and his supposed Mexican birth. Suddenly the birth certificate doesn’t matter at all. It could not be more exposed as a manufactured problem from Republicans if you had found RNC papers specifically detailing that smear tactic. Yet an idea so powerful against Obama for whom the idea that he is not one of us is mysteriously more convincing simply fizzles away when applied by Trump against conservatives. This is one of the most important times to keep record of what has been said and done in the past so that what is happening now doesn’t seem so new.
Proliferation 6:48 – 14:43
In the first part of their conversation, Maddow hopelessly tried to inspire Conway to recognize the gravity of Trump’s rhetoric and also attempts to clarify what he may have meant. Conway has every opportunity to spin what Trump said in a much more sane and cool-headed fashion, but sadly that does not occur. It seems that Conway’s role is to simply re-word the… dare I say it… President’s electoral-focused jargon and make it sound not as crazy, but not all too successfully.
Conway’s initial defense of Trump is rather telling of the frantic position and thought-shifting that must go own up there. When Maddow asks if Trump’s “greatly strengthen and expand” rhetoric is referring to classic nuclear proliferation in a way that Obama, or any other non-Trump official, has to be accountable for, her first defense of Trump is to say that he has to answer a lot of questions, specifically he is “asked constantly what his position is on X, Y or Z“. Why would you start with that? How is that a strong argument for… anything? We should cut him some slack because he is asked a lot of questions?
So Conway clarifies that Trump is talking about “nuclear proliferation in a very dangerous world”. She then tries to demean Maddow’s perspective of the world by reminding her that it’s not a safe world Ms. Maddow no, as you know it is a very dangerous world. And how does she counter? She simply asks what does Conway mean by “proliferation”…
Do you not see the beauty there? Let me break it down for you again:
So the main subject of their argument is about Trump’s lack of understanding of the world and how he doesn’t understand how he should conduct himself and say things, nor is he doing a good job of explaining what he means at all. Conway feels the very perception of her as defending an aloof, out of touch, rhetoric spouting winner of an election, and her counter is to portray Maddow as out of touch. Conway wants to remind you that Trump is indeed part of the international leadership community and even when he says something as vague as the silliness to be found his tweets, he is actually talking about big grownup concepts like “nuclear proliferation”. And so, Maddow brilliantly takes her to task and meets her with her own flagrantly irresponsible use of such talk about expanding nuclear capabilities so that Conway can explain why they are going there.
Conway no longer wants to go down the “proliferation” route and so she then tries to explain that he didn’t really mean “proliferation” as in expanding our nuclear capabilities, he just wants other people to stop building up theirs.
The ever vigilant Maddow simply employs the same tactic that we have all heard and that indeed Trevor Noah explained rather clearly: The key is to ask them to elaborate. Or “logic is the downfall of every toddler” as he more succinctly put it. Mr. Noah is rather astute in his observation that facts mean nothing to Trump.
And so, to the layman, it could seem like a loss when Conway fires back that Trump just wants other people to stop building up their massive arsenals. Sounds reasonable, right? So Maddow asks, “Who is he talking about?”
Oh yeah… Conway is surely thinking at this point… there must be “someone” to have said this “something”… As you might imagine, Conway struggles to name a single political entity that Trump could possibly be referring to.
As Conway continues to defend what on the surface sounds like an innocently patriotic “tough guy” stance on nuclear weapons, Maddow does not hesitate to provide her zealous interviewee a basic civics lesson, in reminding her that the US is “trying to lead in reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world”. Conway then scrambles to clarify that Trump isn’t talking about increasing the number of nuclear weapons we have, but he was talking about expanding “our nuclear readiness”…
Now imagine if our dear friend Conway took this opportunity to provide some examples of how the President’s comments are to be understood solely as “readiness” rather than quantifying any amount of arsenal. But oh no… instead this seems to be a perfect opportunity to insult the previous administration and claim that they lied about “defeating al-Qaeda”, as though we were assured that not a single one of them exists now or something.
When Maddow very appropriately asks “What does this have to do with nuclear weapons?”, Conway assures us that this was merely the setup to an analogy. And the moral of the story is: “Just saying something doesn’t make it true”.
What? How does that help her argument in this scenario where she is defending something that Trump said? Words are the very things she would actually want to defend in this case, in that she’s trying to show that Trump’s words are stronger or more meaningful than the previous administration’s. Yet in a blind effort to swipe at people, she denigrates the very act of saying something as opposed to the more respected action, completely forgetting that she meant to defend things that Trump said that he wants to convince to people are true, by virtue of broadcasting these special, powerful, truth-bearing words through Twitter. You have surely noticed her tendency to sporadically praise/denigrate the President’s tweets in many other interviews.
Maddow fruitlessly continues to try to get a specific explanation from Conway on what Trump may have meant, running through the the entire history of nuclear diplomacy. You’ll also see this common trend among many anchors where quite a few journalists rather necessarily demonstrate their superior knowledge of world politics compared to the leaders of the executive branch they are speaking to, as perhaps most amusingly exhibited in this Chris Wallace interview.
After quite a few more dodges to be specific, Conway does give the enlightening concession that others have construed what Trump said in a way he did not intend, which was exactly Maddow’s point about Trump needing to be careful: “The President making policy happens whenever the President speaks on a national security matter.”
Conflicts of Interest 14:43 – 18:20
Maddow moves on to a handful of issues regarding Trump’s bizarre cabinet picks. She talks about how retired Gen. Michael Flynn, who has been up for National Security Advisor, wrote an op-ed advocating for the extradition of someone for whom the Turkish government wanted back in their country, in let us hope not too extraordinary of renditions. It was later revealed Mr. Flynn’s has a company that was being payed by the Turkish government. Of course Conway has no knowledge of any of this, nor does she seem to think that, if she thought it were true, such a thing would be disqualifying. “Obviously that decision only lies with one person, the President-Elect.”
Anyone following the news would know that this is the least damning and strange thing about Mr. Flynn. Believe it or not, he is the very gentleman who spearheaded Pizzagate, wittingly or otherwise. This was the very strange and would-be amusing scandal if people could not potentially be lethally hurt, where Flynn tweeted about a crazy news article or op-ed or something accusing the Clintons of harboring a secret child sex ring. Flynn tweeted this as though he really thought the story had merit. As a result, many a Trump supporter called and threatened the pizza place that was thought to have supposedly maybe had this sex ring in the basement, yet the building in question has no basement.
As Maddow describes Flynn’s tweet, Conway asks if she’s referring to a fake news story. Ah, very interesting tactic in that she attempts to shift blame onto Trump’s worst enemy “The Media”, so that the fact that this false story came from a “news outlet” somehow makes MSNBC responsible, despite the fact that Trump’s own prospective National Security Advisor was the one who insisted that others treat this like real legitimate news and which Maddow and other real news outlets have immediately debunked after doing just a bit of research.
So, Maddow courageously reminds Conway that this was no retweet, that Flynn directly broadcast this to the world in earnest and that this should exhibit to any reasonable person that Flynn has poor judgement. When Maddow flat out says that Flynn’s judgement led him to publicly accuse the Clintons of being child rapists, Conway’s defense is “That’s a little hyperbolic”.
Very interesting… yes that is a true statement, that Flynn vomited quite a bit of harsh and blatantly untrue hyperbole about Trump’s political opponents. Apparently, Conway simply uttering a true statement that Maddow agrees with somehow helps her point. I think the undertext Conway wanted was “That’s hyperbolic and hard to believe”, but those of us who lived through Pizzagate remember it vividly, and there are news articles galore.
When Maddow asks wouldn’t we want a National Security Advisor with “rock-solid instincts and judgement” rather than all of this nonsense, Conway employs yet another intriguing tactic worth hours of study. Her response is “You’re conflating two things. You’re telling your audience, frankly, one negative thing about him and we’re not looking at his overall credentials and his years in the national security community…”
So much to dissect there…
Let’s start with “You’re conflating two things”. So, Conway begins by trying to convince us that Maddow has committed a logical fallacy, as though she has confused two categories. Is that really so? Let’s find out…
The two things Conway accuses Maddow of confusing are “one negative thing” that Flynn did versus all of the positive things he has done. Okay…
I wouldn’t quite call that a category confusion. I would just call that plain confusion on Conway’s part. The hilarious irony here is that Maddow is actually very appropriately separating these two things whereas it is Conway who is actually wanting them to be confused and somehow inseparable. Conway is the one who wants you to conflate Flynn’s achievements with anything he has done that is perceived negatively so that you will only see Flynn positively. Maddow on the other hand wants to distinguish Flynn’s negative tendencies from his positive ones so you can make a more informed decision about what kind of judgement he has.
Conway would like us to forget about any bad things we may have heard about him, especially if they came from a mere tweet. I mean who the heck cares about tweets? In fact, let’s ignore them. Especially the ones from the most annoying and hard to control people who seems to keep saying things that are misconstrued by world leaders, eh?
Aleppo 18:20 – 19:07
Maddow attempts to corner her guest and demands that she “comment on the judgement that it takes to say something like that and never apologize for it”. Conway, would absolutely love to comment on a certain judgement, just not the judgement currently under discussion. In pure and unabashed emotional manipulation, Conway reminds us that she’s the only bleeding heart in this conversation that is actually thinking about Aleppo right now. Her heart cries out and she’s doing all she can to beat back a stream of tears. She goes through the litany of the Aleppo talking points circulating among her peers and details the terror there in order to make us think this is Obama’s fault and Trump is going to clean up his mess. There’s no telling why she brought all this up now, probably because of how national security was a topic that was (kind of) under discussion, although they were more talking about how to choose an advisor fit for the job.
As Conway keeps hammering away at the previous administration’s “failure” to prevent the destabilization of the middle east kickstarted by our previous neoconservative binge with famous cheerleader George W Bush she very humorously and feebly assures us that “This is not me changing the subject“. Comedy!
Experience 19:07 – 19:58
Those whose were conscious during Obama’s first election remember all the hoopla from the right, especially Mr. Hannity, about how bad it was that Obama had so little political experience, even though he had been a state and US senator. Suddenly a man with zero political experience and clearly no idea what he is doing is the perfect politician for conservatives, far more impressive than an unimpressive inexperienced politician. Yeah… It’s obvious that conservatives think that Trump is Obama, but Trump is in fact everything that Obama is not.
Monica Crowley 19:58 – End
You have probably heard the name because she was recently found to have plagiarized substantial portions of some of her work, namely her doctoral thesis and some book she was famous for having written. Maddow simply mentions a weird comment Crowley made about Obama claiming the he was “secretly not black“. Conway, quite rightly responds “I don’t know what that means”. Yes that’s the point, that your cabinet people are talking nonsense. The thing you really need to pay attention to here about Conway’s response is that she is essentially trying to make Maddow responsible for what Crowley said. Conway only acknowledges that quote as something that Maddow presented and simply refuses to associate it with Crowley, who to Conway could only produce the words and text of a PhD-wielding genius. Conway tells us she’s never heard this comment and it looks like she won’t have an opportunity to ask Crowley about it in that she will not be joining them.
This should give you a lot to think about. I hope to leave you with some useful methods of making sense of all the madness you are about to be drowning in. I’m talking beyond crowd-sizes, beyond faux pas in Mexican-American diplomacy. Trump’s supporters will happily bend reality and even time at every corner and second. You will be wise to adopt reliable methods of determining the truth.