Friday, May 13, 2011

Why the “Birther” Movement is No Joke

(First posted 4/28/11)

     Donald Trump and his so-called “birther” movement radiate absurdity. Most of us blog readers—in fact, probably most folks who read anything at all—agree that the whole issue is silly beyond words. It is, as Whoopie Goldberg said, “the biggest pile of dog mess I’ve seen in ages.”

     And yet.

     Trump’s challenge to President Obama—prove that you really are one of us!—has attracted worldwide attention for reasons beyond the billionaire’s power to buy media time. Inane as his arguments are, they constitute a serious and sinister attempt to manipulate our perceptions. 

     Every time people communicate, we do it within the context of a  frame. A frame is a group activity. It’s what we’re up to when we interact. Some examples of frames:

  • going to a restaurant
  • getting a medical checkup
  • playing poker

Every frame is made of a bunch of interlocking roles, kind of like parts in a play. In the medical checkup frame, for instance, we expect a doctor, a patient, a receptionist, and maybe a nurse or a technician. Expectations, in fact, are what frames are all about. If you show up for your appointment and the doctor asks you to give her a CAT scan, you know something's gone wrong with the frame.

Roles in frames are connected to each other. Pick one up, and a bunch more come along for the ride like paperclips out of a jar. Mention a doctor, and everybody thinks of patients. “Waiter” automatically implies someone being waited on. If I can get you to accept my identity as a teacher, you’re halfway to seeing yourself as a student.

That’s the reason why so much of what Donald Trump says is about himself. He’s trying to sell us an image of himself as a heroic investigator, selflessly dedicated to uncovering “the greatest scam in the history of this country”:

  • “Somebody has to embrace it [the job no one else dares take on].”
  • “I have done a great service for the American people.”
  • “I'm honored. I have accomplished something really, really important.”
  • “I got him to do something nobody else could get him to do.”

If he can persuade us to accept him in that role, then the whole “heroic investigator” frame comes along with it. If there’s a noble sleuth dedicated to the cause of truth, then there must also be a villain trying to get away with fraud. And the person cast in that role is, of course, President Obama.

Yesterday’s events demonstrate how tricky frames can be. Obama chose to respond respectfully to Trump’s attack. He devoted time, attention, and money to defending himself. He published his birth certificate. By doing all that, Mr. Obama tacitly accepted the “villain” role in Donald Trump’s frame.

But surely the certificate clears him of the charge? Didn’t the president just shut down the whole “birther” circus by proving his innocence?


This is the amazingly sneaky power of frames. Merely by engaging with Mr. Trump’s frame, Mr. Obama validated it. In that sense it doesn’t matter whether he produced the certificate or confessed to being a closet Muslim born on Mars. Either way, he would still be accepting Mr. Trump’s right to question him: thus affirming Donald Trump's frame. This is the same mistake Richard Nixon famously made in 1973 when he told the world, “I’m not a crook!” 

Give people a new frame to think with, and you can change their minds. That’s why Mr. Trump’s accusations are not trivial. Yes, the “where-was-he-born” furore is absurd. But what really matters is that Mr. Trump successfully reframed himself in relation to Mr. Obama, and he maneuvered the president into publicly accepting the identity being handed to him. 

Trump won this round. Birth certificate or no, we haven’t heard the last of him yet.
Video: George Lakoff, UC Berkeley Professor of Cognitive Linguistics, talks about frames.

            Deborah Tannen (Ed.), Framing in Discourse (ISBN 978-0195079968)

Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis (ISBN 978-0674316560)
Freya Shipley is a freelance writer with a background in linguistics and history. For a free quote (or just to say hi), visit her at Follow her @freya_221b.

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