Corruption: Frames, Metaphors & Stickiness

Money is handed to a charity, and the donor gets a few more minutes to talk with a politician. Money changes hands, and an investigation is called off. Which is the bigger story? Obviously, the one with Hillary Clinton in it. Why? It’s not about bias — this happens even on tv stations where the reporters’ personal biases are in her favor. What’s wrong with the Clinton campaign's messaging on corruption? What are the promises and moral foundations of each campaign, and why does corruption stick to with Clinton’s campaign more?

Corruption: Slippery & Sticky

What makes corruption sticky in a media circus? A new scandal every week leaves listeners with the sense that they are only one-week scandals. But attacks on Clinton are designed to stick. Republicans still talk about Whitewater. The emails, Benghazi, Pay-for-Play. Pay for Play is framing genius: every politician in DC, even the relatively clean ones like Sanders, take donations and “play” more with donors. So Pay-for-Play is a scandal that is nothing more than (what every politician does) + (Hillary Clinton). Can you name Trump’s scandals? I can’t. I’d hope the Clinton campaign could be creative, but if not, why isn’t handing Bondi money to call off an investigation labeled BondiGate? Why not bring up the same old scandal week after week, until people recognize it? With better framing, and a unified and repeated message, the Democrats could make the Trump corruption much stickier.

Conversely, how does a politician make themselves sticky? Trump brushes off scandal, diverting to a new subject. Clinton defends herself when she's done something wrong but not worse than other politicians. I think she believes in her own honesty, which unfortunately leads her to defend herself when she should divert, leads her to give complex defenses that leave people thinking about what she did wrong.

Corrupting a Politician’s Personal Metaphor and Moral Foundations

How does each candidate frame themselves, what values do they attempt to invoke, and how does corruption break their frame?

When I think Hillary Clinton, I think “qualified.” She represents the establishment way of doing things, done quite well, she is at the top of the class and working hard. Qualified: you can imagine Hillary as the student who breaks the curve in your classroom, she deserves the top grade. Qualified evokes the moral foundation of fairness, she deserves the top job. She claims to be a public servant: becoming a millionaire as a public servant, even if no laws are broken, leaves me with a headache.

When I see Trump, I see a strongman. He focuses on two of the moral foundations that liberals generally ignore: authority and in-group loyalty. Go watch The Godfather. Trump wants to be your Godfather. So the Godfather is under investigation and pays off the attorney general. Is this a problem? No, he’s doing his mob-running job.

He's a gang-leader: corruption won't bring him down, viciously slandering his enemies fits his job title. Disloyalty to people working for him is his weak-spot.

Trump is up-front about it: he is running for Godfather in a corrupt system. For that role, bribing a prosecutor is totally in-role. Many people see the system as corrupt, and want a strong man to make deals for them. What’s left to get excited about? Clinton asks us for something else. She says she is not corrupt and is playing by the system’s rules. Accuse her, and she says other politicians do the same thing. I hate other politicians, I hate that corruption is endemic, baked right into the system.

Of course, this is all framing, and all total bullshit.

Clinton's Corruption: What Sticks to Her Frame

Not everything wrong with Clinton is just fluff and false-framing. Hillary Clinton is corrupt in the ways that most lawyers and politicians are corrupt — it’s basically on another, lower, scale, doing the things you do in politics. Donald Trump is corrupt on the criminal and theft scale, taking money from college students and small business contractors, handing cash to divert investigations.

Although Trump’s corruption is personally worse, the widespread legal corruption, the way politicians and lawyers screw us over, is generally more of a problem for the US. Wall Street was crashed by greed within the law, democracy has been subverted by payoffs and bribes within the law.

Hillary Clinton believes that following the rules that politicians have set for themselves counts as integrity. When Clinton is attacked by people mostly more corrupt than her, she — alone among the political class — gets on stage and defends herself as following the rules politicians have written for themselves. Some of the problems when comparing Trump and Clinton are the fault of a media circus — but this one is real, Sanders was right. She has made herself rich on public service, she is a typical politician. If Clinton isn’t going to have an epiphany and change of heart, then she needs to shut up about her integrity being pretty good for a politician. America is right not to like the status quo, and standing up for the status quo is both unethical and an election-season disaster.

Trump's Corruption: What Sticks to His Frame

Jonathan Haidt says that Hillary needs to show that Trump is a con man, who violates "moral intuitions about fairness." I think that we need to divide Trump's voters in two. The core of Trump's support feels aggrieved, treated unfairly, they want their turn, and fairness is not what Trump offers anyway. Mob bosses are all about loyalty. They want him to be a mob boss or a con man, but their con man. You have to show that he turns on people like them, people who trust him. When Trump pays a contractor less than he promised or declares bankruptcy and moves on from a bad investment, he waivers between being the kind of person you want making deals for you and the kind of person who will be disloyal and screw you instead of making deals for you. To defeat Trump, forget corruption, and focus on disloyalty. His supporters have to walk in the shoes of others who who trusted Trump, not just witness unfairness. There is a second group of grudging Trump voters with traditional conservative values: these people can be, they are, both turned off and unsurprised by Trump's crassness and corruption ... but Trumps' corruption still doesn't stick because Trump's self-framing is not a traditional conservative frame.

Making it Stick

Clinton is a well-qualified rich lawyer-politician and is not particularly on your side, but perhaps she is fair -- cheating sticks to her frame. Trump is strongman and is not fair, but is claiming to be on your side -- disloyalty sticks.

Forget calling him corrupt, except occasionally. It's not the opposite of his frame, so it won't stick. Corruption hurts Hillary Clinton because she isn't charismatic and people don't believe she's on their side, but if she was both fair and qualified that would be enough. A mob boss isn't supposed to be fair, but loyal.

Disloyal Donald.

Have a series of “A Man’s Work” and “A Woman’s Work” that goes into his hotels and other properties with contractors and describes a piece of work, the small business that ran it. Run the ads as if they are pro-Trump at the beginning, you walk in the shoes of small businesspeople who work with their hands. “The electrical system needs this many amps, provides lighting for this many people. I installed it with my two sons, we’ve been a family business for x years. Work like this is how I put my kids through college. We contracted for $50,000, from that I have to pay for the parts as well as my labor, installing the wiring on this Trump hotel. This was a good job, I do good work and get paid fair and that puts food on my family’s table. Trump never paid the bill. I thought working for Trump was a good opportunity, it was not.”

Clinton should, purposefully, break minor laws in creating these mini-documentaries. Tape it inside a Trump property without permission. If Trump says anything, it’s easy to make him look stupid the way he does to her: you didn’t pay the people you promised to pay, and now you want to complain that we took a picture? Be tough. Force Trump to attack ordinary people who look like his supporters, or to be pushed around.

People do work for you, you don't pay them. These should be repeated hundreds of times. Have the names of a dozen people Trump hasn't paid, say it over and over with each name. Doing business with Donald is a bad deal for small businesses, painters, plumbers, electricians. Name as many groups as you can.

People lend you money, you don't pay them. xx bankruptcies. Bankrupt Donald. If you really are a billionaire, pay back the people who lend you money, at least the small business people just trying to make a living for themselves.

Offer to hire lawyers for contractors who’ve been stiffed by Trump where the statute of limitations hasn't passed. If a contractor has been silenced as terms of an agreement, have them violate that agreement and pay their fines. Openly mention that Trump has promised to pay the fines for people who punch. You’ll pay the fines for someone who isn’t silenced.

Your dad gave you a fortune, you wasted a lot of your dad's inheritance. I think if you had put your Dad's money in a mutual fund, you'd be richer. Man up and show your tax returns. If you were an investor working for anyone but your dad, they'd say You're Fired.

Students trust you with their college funds. You take their money in a scam. You claim to be rich, you could make a deal for them, but you don't. BondiGate -- you pay off Bondi to hide your guilt, when you could have taken that money and refunded a few students' tuitions. This has to start by putting people in the students' shoes, not just the corruption of buying off Bondi.

Cognitive Politics integrates political communications ideas. This post is inspired by George Lakoff's ideas on framing and Jonathan Haidt's writings on Moral Foundations. See: And Then There Was Trump for interview with Jonathan Haidt.