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Donald Trump’s deadly game of persuasion

This article is part of a new series called “On Persuasion.” We asked thought leaders to consider what persuasion means to them. What works in terms of persuading people? Is it moot in 2020? What is the Jewish value of persuasion? Should we be opening our minds to other points of view, or closing them to dangerous ideas? Read all the pieces here.

Americans are experiencing the ultimate persuasion campaign — someone trying to convince you that a clear threat to your life is acceptable and that deaths all around you are okay.

In this case, the persuader-in-chief is the commander-in-chief, who is using doctors and health officials dispatched to regional TV stations in areas hit hard by the coronavirus to convince the public that the terrifying and rising death toll, which currently stands at more than twice the number of deaths in the Vietnam War, is just fine.

“The goal is to convince Americans that they can live with the virus — that schools should reopen, professional sports should return, a vaccine is likely to arrive by the end of the year and the economy will continue to improve,” The Washington Post reported.

Then came this astonishing paragraph, outlining how the White House is basically selling mass death as something we should accept: “White House officials also hope Americans will grow numb to the escalating death toll and learn to accept tens of thousands of new cases a day, according to three people familiar with the White House’s thinking, who requested anonymity to reveal internal deliberations. Americans will ‘live with the virus being a threat,’ in the words of one of those people, a senior administration official,” according to The Washington Post.

The idea that numbed Americans will “live with the virus being a threat” is being echoed by some college administrators, who are eloquently trying to persuade faculty to risk their lives by returning to the classroom with phrases like “hybrid instruction” or “re-opening training.” Like the President, these “leaders” think that if they make the case for reopening smoothly enough, Americans will agree to play Russian roulette with their lives.

Professors are being told to walk into the classroom at a time when several universities are already reporting outbreaks of more than 100 students from those who were on campus this summer, such as the 112 fraternity residents who recently tested positive at the University of Washington.

And the effort is on to persuade professors to move their heads away from faculty death tolls — like the 38 CUNY faculty and staff who have died so far from the coronavirus.

The same persuasion campaign and “leadership” strategy can be seen in the restaurant industry, and in the city and state leaders who have approved the swift reopening of bars, restaurants, and wineries. Diners need to be convinced to walk inside and sit down, even when numerous epidemiologists and health-care workers not employed by the Trump administration repeatedly say they will not go into an enclosed space at this time themselves.

“I won’t be dining indoors at a restaurant any time soon,” nurse Heather Voss, a program director of epidemiology and infection prevention at Northwestern Medicine told NBC5 Chicago as restaurants there reopened. “It just isn’t worth the risks.”

So if scientific facts and actual health-care expertise won’t move us to have a sit-down dinner with wine at our favorite restaurant, what will? Hot air, or smooth-talking. What the dictionary calls “persuasion,” academics call “argument” or “rhetoric,” and the street calls a “con.”

To “persuade,” according to Merriam-Webster, is “to move by argument, entreaty, or expostulation to a belief, position, or course of action.” That’s the verb. But to understand the whole story, you need to consider the noun.

In a Jewish conversation for Pride Month, Jodi Rudoren, editor-in-chief of The Forward, was joined by a panel of thought leaders to explore how far LGBTQ people have come — and what happens next. Watch here.

There has always been a religious element to persuasion, a closeness between the art of the attempt to convince someone to do something and religious rhetoric. And let’s face it — the iconic story in many religions is the idea of sacrificing life itself for God.

There is the binding of Isaac. There is the crucifixion. The Merriam-Webster dictionary makes that religious connection more obvious in its entry for the noun “persuasion,” in which it notes that a synonym for “persuasion” is “conversion.” The third definition of the word “persuasion” is important not only for its religious undertones but for its emphasis on confidence:

3a: an opinion held with complete assurance
b: a system of religious beliefs also: a group adhering to a particular system of beliefs

We are seeing both elements 3a and 3b — confidence and conversion talk. The president’s minions seem to think that if they state, with complete assurance that everything is fine, meaning massive death tolls are okay, then they will win the election.

Of course, there is a historical precedent for people putting their lives on the line for “an opinion held with complete assurance” and “a system of religious beliefs.” Consider the medieval Crusades or the more recent Islamic State.

But this latest persuasion campaign is not about the zealots, the crazies yelling about the freedom to be unmasked, and screaming about God, freedom, guns, and Trump. It’s about us.

The 2020 Trump reelection campaign is an attempt to get the majority of the population to accept death as an acceptable risk — to look away from the atrocious failure of leadership that led to more than 100,000 dead and instead, have voters agree to take the fall themselves.

That appeal to the unfaithful is moving to unexpected quarters. It’s the persuasion strategy with college faculty, who largely oppose the president, and it’s the strategy with getting liberal-leaning diners in cities to risk their lives to revive restaurants.

We have to recognize what’s happening. It’s not just about the economy, or “saving small business.” It’s about Trump himself, and the dangerous ways his powers of persuasion have seeped into all corners of American society.

We are being persuaded to put our lives on the line to save him. Yes, the prevaricator-in-chief — the Teflon figure who got away with calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, banning travelers from Muslim-majority countries, caging migrant children and making them sleep in tin-foil blankets, and so much else — thinks he can lie his way into getting us to give up our lives. He’s betting that an acceptable death toll and a moderately improved economy, rising a bit from the valley of death, will get him another round at the presidency.

He’s good at this. He has already convinced leaders from various parts of society to follow his cue of accepting mass death instead of demanding sweeping national measures to bring about a dramatic decline in cases before they even dream of reopening.

But we the people better get very good at resisting his ability to persuade, as a verb, and his powers of persuasion, as a noun, if we want to live.

Now is the time to not be moved. To tune out the atrocious request to see what has happened in America as acceptable, and to agree to more of the same.

We can’t let ourselves be converted to the latest incarnation of the cult of human sacrifice, as a con man assures too many of us that everything will be all right.

Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God and the forthcoming Wolf Lamb Bomb. Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner


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