“Witch hunt!” “Fake News!” “Crooked Hillary!” “It’s a Disgrace!” Few people can sling around incendiary phrases like the current President of the United States. He engages in what seems to be crazy behavior, eventually wresting control of any situation through surprise, redefinition, name-calling, and denial, at least for a time. This shocks the opposition into disarray while he pushes through his political agenda, always skirting the law. The lag time between his language and legislative response is a principal source of upheaval and change.
Unexpected but legal…maybe
President Trump provides a perfect example of what I call “buffering,” which is the strategic use of an idea to dance in the areas between socially recognized categories in ways that are unusual and unexpected, but not clearly illegal…at least not yet.
He has fired the head of the FBI, attempted to fire the special prosecutor, claimed the power to pardon himself, appointed his children to sensitive government advisory roles, opened a hotel right near the White House that makes money from foreign diplomats and corporate executives, and used the attorney general as his personal lawyer. For the most part other presidents have hewn to political convention, whether or not that convention is also law. This president, on the other hand, routinely mocks precedent while being called adolescent, boorish, a pathological liar, and even downright crazy. Nevertheless, he continues to be “crazy like a fox,” taking his support of deregulation and extreme right-wing causes to the bank.
At first people simply laughed at Trump, but as one, and then another long-held dream of the most conservative Americans became reality, moderate voices fell silent, more and more politicians and citizens jumped on his bandwagon, and ordinary people suffered one social and economic loss after the other. In a little over two years he successfully introduced additional tax breaks for the domestic or foreign wealthiest few, the privatization of education, an onslaught of anti-immigration measures including the separation of parents from their minor children, the end of the separation of church and state, the stacking of appellate and federal courts and the Supreme Court with conservative judges, the end or curtailment of women’s and minority civil rights, increased construction and privatization of prisons and immigrant detention camps, reduction of healthcare benefits, the denial of climate change and rollback of emissions standards, increased mercenary intervention in selected foreign countries, the privatization and shrinking of the most important natural parks in the service of large corporations, the end of international alliances formed after World Wars I and II, the end of robust support for the United Nations, European Union and NATO, and the end of many statutes regarding conflicts of interest and banking regulations. All of these efforts are in play on many fronts simultaneously with significant headway towards realization. Other presidents have made advances in one arena or the other incrementally, but none has successfully removed or limited most protections for ordinary folks all at once. How does he do it???
An Idea Put to Use
President Trump does what he does by “buffering.” Currently we hear the term associated with information technology, especially when streaming data are taking a long time to load on our laptops and smartphones. But when I introduced this concept in the late 1970s, buffering was primarily associated with chemistry.
The sociological version of buffering that is relevant to Trump’s behavior permits anyone, including people with limited material resources, to use an idea to wrest control of social situations by dancing in the spaces between recognized and largely accepted social categories through the strategic use of leeway. The categories get interpreted in new ways that are partially recognizable but altogether unexpected, and also not clearly illegal.
One example from a very different moment in American history by a dramatically different leader – Huey P. Newton – can help understand how buffering works in contemporary politics. On the surface Newton and Trump appear to be polar opposites. The way Black Panthers protested in the 1960s and early 70s would certainly be considered the opposite of how an American president would act. I hope to show that they were not as different as one might imagine.
Huey Newton didn’t have much going for him when he co-founded the Black Panther Party (BPP) in Oakland, California in 1967. He was African American, certainly not wealthy, and almost totally powerless. In addition to his signature black beret and matching leather jacket, all he had was an idea — an idea that the real criminals in American society were not the people in jails but the people who put them there: law enforcement officers and a corrupt legal system. Newton claimed that government officials were not worthy of the respect demanded and given them; and that “The MAN,” a slang word for the police at the time, was not really a man at all but entirely corrupt. He called the police “pigs” undeserving of respect.
Interestingly enough, President Trump came to a similar conclusion when he declared the press to be “an enemy of the state,” the Washington political arena to be “the swamp” he was going to drain, and the FBI and Justice Departments inept and corrupt. Both Newton and Trump were convinced that if enough people would accept their idea – their redefinition of the situation – then the so-called criminals could put the real criminals in jail or otherwise divest them of their power and respect.
In my own life I have used buffering to explain and manage situations of external disadvantage based on race and gender. Born during the Second World War, long before the desegregation of schools and the military, encountering the racial divide was commonplace. Under normal circumstances I might have accepted that I was inferior. Somehow, though, I exhibited a healthy sense of self that led me to excel in school and ultimately to develop an explanation for my unusual calm in the racial storms that swirled around me.
As a young child I considered myself a “good Christian” and labeled those who would oppress me or consider me inferior as “unchristian.” That was my particular form of buffering, of name-calling, of using an acceptable social construct for my personal benefit. An Army chaplain’s daughter, I could not use bad words or swear, but I could call those who excluded me unchristian with a certain confidence and smugness. I rejected the dominant definition of the situation that attempted to make me feel inferior as a black girl by resorting to God who, in my mind, was a “higher authority.” Instead of feeling bad I felt quite fine, found all sorts of things to do to occupy my time while my schoolmates attended segregated events away from the military post in Kentucky where my dad was stationed, and occasionally even got to spend special one-on-one time with my favorite teacher while I sat alone in an empty classroom. This is a simple and personal example of putting a social category – an idea – to individual use based my unique and largely unknown life experience. When I later found ways to use that buffering ability as an adult in entirely different situations, no one needed to know my idiosyncratic history, that I was a chaplain’s daughter who used God to outmaneuver racist behavior. I just did it. My very personal definition of the situation permitted me to do well in school, feel confident and competent, and explain away reasons I was excluded.
Eventually, I wrote a doctoral thesis on this subject. I called the process “buffering” and applied it to a black power leader in the 1960s. Recently I began to see they same dynamic playing out once again in the presidency of Donald Trump.
Like Newton, even like me, Donald Trump is an expert at putting ideas to use to control the political climate and to do the unexpected over and over again. He routinely uses slogans like “Drain the Swamp!” “It’s a disgrace!” and “Fake news!” to deflect attention from his actions and to rally his base. For both Newton and Trump their base is comprised primarily of hard-working, largely blue-collar people who feel left out of the political process and the economic benefits of citizenship. Newton’s base was comprised of Afro-Americans and his declared adversaries were the police at a local level who criminalize good people on the basis of race. Trump’s base is primarily white, hard-working, largely blue-collar men and his enemies are the police at the Federal level: The FBI, Department of Justice, and the Special Counsel who threaten good white people (Trump himself) on the basis of race by enforcing inclusive laws for inferior people, and who threaten to expose what he considers normal business practice as wrongdoing. For Trump, the enemy is the Washington elite from both Republican and Democratic parties who hinder his ability to do whatever he wants and believes he deserves. For Newton, the enemy was Oakland police officers and courts that used a variety of bureaucratic and questionably legal measures to keep black people “in their place.”
Name-calling is a powerful tool of the buffering process, and if there is no current name that works, buffering allows us to simply make one up! Most often this involves putting an existing term to a new use or interpreting existing laws in new ways until questions about interpretation eventually get settled once and for all, usually in the courts and other legislative bodies. Settlement takes time and creates leeway, carving out lots of room to maneuver.
The president is a master at name-calling and labeling his adversaries. Huey Newton was too, and he became famous for calling the Oakland police “Pigs.” This was shocking at the time! The FBI was no slouch at name-calling either, labeling the Black Panther Party “Communist” or “Communist-infiltrated.” The communist label gave the FBI an excuse to incite fear, conduct raids, kill, and otherwise violate the civil rights of citizens, since communism was believed to pose a threat to national security. Trump uses “crisis at the border” language, labeling immigrants rapists and thugs in much the same way as the FBI labeled Panthers communists, whether or not they were. Suddenly the routine immigration process becomes a threat to national security in the contemporary context.
Government documents released years later showed that while the FBI constantly labeled the BPP Communists, the agency actually knew at the time that there was no evidence of outside control of the Party, just as our current government knows that Al Qaeda does not enter the country through the border with Mexico. The government simply “made stuff up” and disseminated it, a tactic labeled “disinformation.” This is indeed a very old tactic, one used by various despotic leaders throughout the world as Madeleine Albright explains in her book Fascism. In Trump’s case, he would latch onto anticipated bad news that might threaten to expose him as a liar, for example, jump out ahead of the story and immediately call his adversaries liars; if the question had to do with obstruction of justice or even treason, he would send out a tweet and call those investigating or reporting on him obstructionists and traitors. This is name-calling ping pong; this is buffering.
In the 1960s disinformation was part of a larger strategy to discredit Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party. What Newton was doing was not illegal; in fact, there is evidence he actually went to great lengths to ensure that party behavior was meticulously legal during the years he was in control. The government then resorted to charges that the party must be communist-controlled or infiltrated, tossing it into a category that could be labeled as clearly illegal or as a threat to national security.
Eventually, the California legislature passed what was known as the Mulford Bill, specifically targeting the Black Panthers. One component of that legislation restricted gun behavior and another declared the public gathering of more than three people a “riot.” In response, the Panthers had to adapt and change their tactics to meet the specifications of the new law, including limitations on their right to carry guns or to gather in public. While the bill specifically targeted the Black Panther Party, other groups would also be impacted, so differential enforcement became key and created new leeway for people to conform to the new regulations or not. The National Rifle Association, for example, is an extremely powerful lobby, and California legislators and police were mindful of their duty to protect gun ownership for conservative whites while keeping guns out of the hands of blacks, who were never intended to be beneficiaries of the “right to bear arms.”
The very same technique is now being used both to aid and to stop President Trump. Unlike Newton’s leadership of the BPP in the 60s, or the Communist scares under Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, there appears to be clear evidence of Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election. In this instance, however, it seems to be the president himself who is making things up and then accusing the press of reporting fake news. In both historical examples, it was the use of buffering that allowed an individual or group or even the government itself to control the political situation by putting certain ideas to use.
Count the number of times a day the president proclaims, “No collusion, no obstruction!” He is repeatedly denying the mountains of evidence in Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s Report on potential collusion and obstruction of justice. If he repeats that denial often and loudly enough, perhaps he will convince the public to accept his interpretation and disbelieve their own eyes.
In order to effectively redefine a particular situation, the validity of the prior definition must first be denied, sometimes without sufficient evidence. This denial is often supported by subscription to a set of different or higher laws. In calling on God’s law, I denied the power of human law even while obeying it – in this case segregation. I did not insist on going with my team even though I was team captain, but I did not feel at all the lesser for having to acquiesce.
Refusal to Conform
All of us find ways to conform or resist conforming on a daily basis, regardless of station in life.
In his refusal to make his tax returns public, Trump has avoided traps set to catch public officials who collude with a foreign power or who reap financial gain personally through what is perceived to be a conflict of interest: the “emoluments clause” of the Constitution. While there are laws forbidding conflict of interest and abuse of authority, the law is unclear with regard to when and whether a sitting President is required to make such documentation publicly available. The President and his family have taken advantage of the leeway in social and legal categories to avoid being charged with what would otherwise be declared clearly illegal behavior, at least for a time. He has so far successfully avoided conforming to behavior for which there are clear precedents and conventions but no clear law, even though his actions trigger outrage for some. In so doing he also avoids legal liability by cloaking his actions. He has used this maneuver over and over again to shock, confound, evade, and ultimately to achieve his goals without being held accountable legally. He also relies on the legal presumption that a sitting president cannot be indicted for criminal behavior while still in office. Being a sitting president protects him from criminal indictment, but it also puts constraints on his business behavior for personal gain. He is not accustomed to constraint from any source and it seems inevitable that he will get himself in trouble sooner or later.
What we are dealing with is a multi-headed hydra: there are so many laws to watch, precincts to guard, apparently unrelated nefarious deeds to first recognize and then offset that no one can keep up with them all, letting action after action slip through the cracks, weakening and eroding the ideals for which the U.S. became known as the dominant force in the world – the powerhouse that makes others willing to risk their lives trying to protect and trying to land on these shores in search of a better life.
Trump’s approach can only go so far for so long, however, which is a key element of the buffering process. As the laws and categories catch up to and constrain behavior, the leader is forced to shift ground continuously – shift definitions of the situation – so as to continue to surprise. Eventually other provisions of the Constitution will be used to force him to reveal information he has successfully withheld until now, information that would once again place him squarely within the range and purview of existing law, not just convention and expected Presidential behavior.
The President and his administration are being forced to stay on top of existing law and interpretations of the law in order to remain legal – or questionably legal – as the opposition circles and attempts to regain control of the definition of the situation. The only recourse for those who oppose this administration is to act much like a boa constrictor, gradually tightening their grip on their prey – in this case the President of the United States of America – until escape is no longer possible and no evasive maneuvers remain. The President has gone from predator to prey, and each day it becomes a bit more difficult for him to breathe.
Democrats and other members of the opposition have grasped two key concepts, two ideas – “collusion” and “emoluments” – to corner this President. They, too, are using a little buffering of their own to engage in a battle not only of wits, but also of ideas put to use to gain control of the current political situation.
Remaining Adaptable and Flexible
As conditions change, so do the names people call each other and the actions individuals and groups take. A key element in successful buffering involves remaining flexible and adaptive to constantly changing circumstances. If the various parties are not vigilant they could easily get caught in one legal situation or the other as each party maneuvers to entrap the other.
In recent efforts to secure the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, for example, news articles surfaced alleging that attorneys and representatives of the President and the Republican Party attempted to pay women who knew the judge in college to say that he always treated them with respect and did not drink to excess. If proven, such actions would be illegal, but the process was organized in ways to avoid providing opponents access to complete information. Republicans used legal but unexpected ways to circumvent sharing complete information with Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee: they provided only one copy of the document in a single location with individual access of Democratic committee members limited to one hour the night before the vote. Meanwhile the President continuously called the Kavanaugh confirmation proceedings “a disgrace,” earning sympathy for the judge from women as well as from men.
In the buffering process all parties use whatever tools are available to them and even go so far as to make things up when there is insufficient evidence to make the particular case they wish to make. Remember, the efficacy of buffering is that it involves an “idea put to use.” Ideas are ephemeral, invisible, and exceedingly flexible. They can adapt much more quickly than codified laws and institutions. It takes a long time to bring about change, whether the desired change is maintaining the status quo or upsetting it.
Any idea can work
Huey P. Newton made up a name for what he was doing: he called it “shock-a-buku.” This was his personal tactic of catching his opponent off guard with legal but unexpected behavior. He thoroughly enjoyed being thought of as crazy and used that moniker to his advantage to render the local police “apoplectic.” Trump does the same thing when he uses Tweets, berates his own officials publicly, fires by press report, veers off script during public events, and embraces white nationalism in the full light of day.
Again, this may be unprecedented and certainly unexpected behavior, but the burden of proof in declaring his actions illegal rests on the President’s accusers, who comb the news and case law daily looking for loopholes that might catch him in some violation of the law, at last bringing unexpected behavior under expected control and possible criminal punishment.
This is the heart of buffering and of the buffering process, especially when an individual has no significant resources and no institutional authority. Furthermore, when one explanation no longer works the individual can pull a different one out of his or her unique life experience to get through, get by, redefine, and perhaps even ultimately control any given situation. This is what Huey P. Newton did in 1968 and what Donald J. Trump is doing now. While my personal actions using ideas of being Christian or unchristian occurred on a very small scale, theirs occurred and occur on a national and even international level. The process, however, is identical.
Polar opposites at first glance, these two leaders were much more alike in leadership style than one would imagine: they used a series of crazy ideas and flamboyant name-calling to gain control of their respective political situations. Newton’s black beret is matched by Trump’s red Make America Great Again hat. Both men – each in his own way and for very different reasons – sent out the call to “Drain the Swamp!” Both reveled in being thought crazy because it permitted them the element of surprise and the ability to accomplish political goals once thought to be impossible.
What distinguishes Trump from Newton is their respective access to material and legal resources. As President, Trump can now claim control of the government, majority control of the Supreme Court, support of the very rich, and control of the military. He has not yet succeeded in controlling the press, and so he declares it the “enemy of the state” and an “enemy of the people.” In effect, he is attempting to neutralize the fourth estate and the power of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which could offer the greatest threat to his new definition of the situation and trigger a true constitutional crisis. Furthermore he declared the FBI, which has not been entirely controllable, a “cancer in the system,” rather than the protector of democracy.
Newton, on the other hand, possessed a black beret, a black leather jacket, a good education, a legally owned rifle, and a powerful idea. That’s it. In spite of the chasm between them, both leaders managed to turn the nation upside down for a time. I believe they were able to do this by the strategic use of an idea: “Off the Pig!” or “Fake news!” While Newton’s power ended decades ago, it is uncertain how much time the President has left to continue manipulating public awareness by engaging in crazy and unexpected behaviors. In the meantime, using the phrase “It’s a disgrace!” when he is challenged has had a powerful and enduring impact on voters long after the 2016 election.
When one is able to use unknown and idiosyncratic tools that emanate from within the mind of the individual it becomes almost impossible to fully know, understand, predict, and control the behavior of that individual. This is how he does it. As a nation we continue to watch in awe while the president continues to surprise and to evade control, even by his closest advisors, West Wing staff, the media, and even long time friends. People throw their hands up and eventually give up trying to figure out what will come next. Trump is not playing by the rules, by historical convention, nor even by the law.
The Art of the Deal
This is how he does it. Not why, but how he does the implausible and otherwise near impossible. The idea that shapes his definition of the situation is called the “deal” and his is increasingly called a “transactional” presidency. He attempts to shape domestic policy and international accord through deal making that lines the pockets of the President and his immediate circle of family and associates, while excluding others’ participation in his special deals. He has perfected the art of the steal.
Think about the ways the word “deal” has crept into public awareness. Barely an hour goes by when I don’t hear the word crop up in news feeds and in ordinary conversation. Even the most staid news outlets report routinely on deals that are on or off the table as the United States interacts with other countries. The traditional language of international diplomacy – convention, agreement, accord, entente, détente – have all fallen by the wayside and been replaced by the single word, “deal.” The power of this president’s definition of the situation has now permeated not only American culture, but global culture as well.
As I listen to world news in English and French, the deal has taken over. That, in itself, is a stunning example of the power of the buffering process, of putting an idea to use to gain control of a situation. One notable exception: the host of one of the most respected news outlets recently interviewed a South American ambassador to the United States and constantly used “deal” in her questions to him. Interestingly, the ambassador insisted on using the word “accord” and assiduously avoided using the term “deal” during the extended interview.
Nevertheless, and whether or not this president is impeached and brought into submission, I have a hunch that the “deal” word will remain embedded in global language for a very long time.
Donald Trump is in trouble now. People are expecting him to act crazy and are developing strategies to block his unprecedented but possibly legal behavior by rewriting or reinterpreting the law. Whoever uses an idiosyncratic idea to redefine the situation in his or her own terms eventually runs out of options when new laws are passed to curb the legal but unexpected behavior. Therefore it is critical to come up with some new surprise, some different “shock-a-buku” tactic to keep people guessing a while longer. Nevertheless, the proverbial chickens will eventually come home to roost.
In the meantime, President Trump has learned to make the secret sauce of situation control: do the unexpected within the bounds of questionable legality, then do it again to stay ahead of the game and make people think you are crazy. Then change your tactic. Deny what is right there in front of your face. Make up your own terms for things as you go along and change your terms often to keep others off balance and surprised. Never permit yourself to become predictable; that is the kiss of death! The more outrageous your behavior, the more you dominate the definition because there are no words – and most importantly – no laws to contain you. This is not a mark of stupidity but of brilliance, so the leader gets to smirk while others feel self-righteous in their outrage. If you are a misunderstood leader, being underestimated comes as an added benefit and keeps you in control.
What a formula for success! …At least for a time until others figure out what is going on. Buffering is universal, but for Donald J. Trump buffering is indeed a special “deal.”