The techniques of denial and distraction that politicians use to manage the scandal

The United States House Select Committee investigating the January 6, 2021, insurrection intends to hold another public hearing, likely the last before the release of its official report. The hearing was scheduled for September 28, 2022 but was postponed due to Hurricane Ian.

In earlier hearings last summer, the committee showed how former President Donald Trump and his close aides propagated the “big lie” of a stolen election. The hearings also showed how Trump stoked the rage of protesters who marched towards the US Capitol and then refused to act when they entered the building.

The hearings aired in prime time and dominated news cycles. Yet an August poll from Monmouth University found that about 3 in 10 Americans still believe Trump “did nothing wrong about Jan. 6.”

As a sociologist who studies denial, I analyze how people ignore plain truths and use rhetoric to convince others to deny them as well. Politicians and their media allies have long used this rhetoric to manage scandals. The responses of Trump and his supporters to the Jan. 6 survey are no exception.

The stages of denial

Generally, people think of denial as a state of mind: someone is “in denial” when they reject obvious truths. However, denial also consists of linguistic strategies that people use to minimize their misconduct and avoid responsibility for it.

These strategies are remarkably adaptable. They have been used by the two political parties to handle wildly different scandals. Even so, the strategies tend to be used quite predictably. For this reason, we can often see scandals unfold through clear stages of denial.

In my previous research on denial and torture in the United States, I analyzed how the administration of George W. Bush and his supporters in Congress adjusted the forms of denial they used as new allegations and evidence abuses in the “Global War on Terror” became public.

For example, after photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were published in the spring of 2004, Abu Ghraib was described as a deplorable but isolated incident. At the time, there was no serious public evidence of inmate abuse at other US facilities.

Later revelations about the use of torture at Guantánamo Bay and secret CIA secret sites changed things. The Bush administration could no longer pretend that torture was an isolated incident. Officials have also been accused of directly and knowingly authorizing torture.

A torture exhibit includes a section on waterboarding at the International Spy Museum in Washington in 2019. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Faced with these allegations, Bush and his supporters began to justify and downplay the torture. For many Americans, torture, once deplorable, has been rebranded as an acceptable national security tool: “enhanced interrogation.”

As the torture debate shows, political responses to scandal often begin with outright denials. But they rarely stop there. When politicians are faced with credible evidence of political misconduct, they often try other forms of denial. Instead of saying the allegations are false, they may downplay the seriousness of the allegations, justify their behavior or try to distract themselves from it.

It’s not just Republican administrations that use denial in this way. When the Obama administration could no longer categorically deny civilian casualties from drone strikes, it downplayed them. In a 2013 national security address, President Barack Obama contrasted drone strikes with the use of “air power or conventional missiles”, which he described as “far less accurate”. He also justified the drone strikes, arguing that “doing nothing in the face of terrorist networks would cause many more civilian casualties”.

In-Game Scandal Strategies

Americans watched the January 6 uprising on TV and social media as it unfolded. Given the vivacity of the day, the outright denials of the insurgency are particularly far-fetched and marginal – although they exist. For example, some Trump supporters have claimed that left-leaning “antifa” groups have violated the Capitol — a claim that many rioters themselves have dismissed.

Some of Trump’s supporters in Congress and in the media have repeated the claim that the insurgency was staged to discredit Trump. But given Trump’s vocal support for the insurgents, supporters typically roll out more nuanced denials to downplay the day’s events.

So what happens when outright denial fails? From ordinary citizens to political elites, people often respond to allegations by “condemning the condemners”, accusing their accusers of exaggerating – or doing worse themselves, a strategy called “advantageous comparisons”.

Together, these two strategies portray those who make accusations as untrustworthy or hypocritical. As I show in my new book on denial, these are the standard denials of scandal handlers.

“Convicting the condemners” and “advantageous comparisons” were also central to efforts to downplay the January 6 insurrection. Some committee critics downplay the insurgency by comparing it to Black Lives Matter protests, despite the fact that the vast majority were peaceful.

“For months, our cities have burned, police stations have burned, our businesses have been wiped out. And they didn’t say anything. Or they applauded him. And they raised funds for it. And they allowed this to happen in the greatest country in the world,” Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz said of Trump’s second impeachment. “Now some have cited the metaphor that the president lit the flames. Well, they lit real flames, real fires!

Similar comparisons resurfaced during House Select Committee hearings. An NFL coach called Jan. 6 “dust” over the Black Lives Matter protests.

These forms of denial do several things at once. They divert attention from the initial object of the scandal. They downplay Trump’s role in inciting violence on January 6 by claiming that Democrats are inciting even more destructive forms of violence. And they discredit the inquiry by suggesting that those running it are hypocrites, more interested in scoring political points than reducing political violence.

A small group of protesters in a circle, with a man holding a
Trump supporters and members of the far-right group Proud Boys gather at a ‘Justice for January 6 vigil’ in New York City on January 6, 2022. AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura

Denial by trickle

These denials may not sway a majority of Americans. Yet they are substantial. Denial reverberates by providing ordinary citizens with scenarios to talk about political scandals. Denials also reaffirm beliefs, allowing people to filter out information that contradicts what they believe to be true. Indeed, ordinary Americans adapted “advantageous comparisons” to justify insurrection.

It has happened before. For example, in a study of politically active Americans, sociologists Barbara Sutton and Kari Marie Norgaard found that some Americans adopted rhetoric from pro-torture politicians – such as supporting “enhanced interrogation” and defending practices like waterboarding. as a means of gathering intelligence, even as they condemned “torture”.

For this reason, it’s important to recognize when politicians and the media play the denial playbook. By doing so, observers can better distinguish genuine political disagreements from predictable denials, which shield the most powerful by excusing their misconduct.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. The conversation

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