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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Distract and Attack!: Rhetoric of False Equivalence*

David Frum, former speechwriter to President Bush and columnist for the National Review Online, appeared on Rachel Maddow’s show last night.  Maddow’s intent was to discuss the McCain campaign’s turn toward nasty rhetoric.  Frum, however, turned the tables on her in true Republican false equivalent style, distracting and attacking.


**UPDATED with video from Brave New Films*

ThinkProgress has the story today.

MADDOW: Do you think that my tone on this show is equivalent to people calling Barack Obama somebody who pals around with terrorists, people yelling from the audience at McCain-Palin rallies, Bomb Obama. Kill him. Off with his head. Traitor. Are you accusing me of an equivalence in tone?

FRUM: I don’t think that’s an important question. I think the question is, given the small plate of responsibility that you personally have, how do you manage that responsibility? The fact that other people fail in other ways is not an excuse for you failing in your way.

Frum distracts by saying that the question is not important, and then attacks Maddow as an answer to that very same question.  

Frum’s attack on Maddow is nothing new for Republicans.  The idea of “false equivalence” in this context is that Maddow’s use of sarcasm and wit is equivalent to a McCain/Palin supporter yelling “Bomb Obama!” or “Off with his head!” It is an attempt to neutralize their bad behavior by making their opponents equally guilty.

Such an attack seems laughable, but this strategy is paying dividends in bulk to the Republicans because it is exactly what McCain/Palin are doing when they are using certain words in their speeches.

Rhetoric, in its truest sense, is using language persuasively to influence the thoughts and actions of others.  McCain/Palin have been selecting their words very carefully, like all politicians, so using words like “terrorist” and “radical” while in the same speech asking, “Who is Barack Obama?” will result in Obama being called a radical terrorist.  These words play on a sense of fear and hatred, intentionally so. By allowing speech introductions using “Barack Hussein Obama,” the campaign has completed the circle of “radical Islamic terrorist.”

Maddow’s exchange with Frum hits on the more salient point in all of this racist, inflammatory campaigning.

FRUM: If John McCain were making threats of violence, that would be really bad.

MADDOW: Does a candidate standing at a podium, when someone in the audience at a political rally responds to their rhetoric with “Kill him!”, does a candidate not have the responsibility to stop whatever they are doing and say, “You know what, this is America, and we don’t do it that way.  Where’s the secret service?”

Rhetoric implies responsibility on the part of the speaker.  This type of rhetoric by McCain/Palin does not require genius level thinking or speech writing.  They knew what they were doing and went full speed ahead.  So yes, McCain and Palin, you are BOTH RESPONSIBLE for creating politics of hatred and racism in this 2008 presidential campaign.

Let them reap what they sow.

The commentary on the internet was harsh, as it should be.  But McCain and Palin feel no remorse.  To do so would effectively call into question their entire campaign strategy.  And that’s the rub.

Everytime the McCain/Palin campaign is challenged in a real, thoughtful, appropriate way, they distract using rhetoric to push the media to create false equivalence, either between the two campaigns or between Obama and some other make-believe evil.  If the media fail to do it, they attack by screaming “LIBERAL BIASED MEDIA” in a resounding chorus.

Commentators across the board called McCain out for his nasty, racist rhetoric, and McCain distracted and attacked Obama for attacking his supporters.  Georgia congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis made an appropriate comparison between McCain’s rhetoric and George Wallace’s.  McCain, once again, distracted and attacked Obama for creating divisiveness in the campaign.  McCain’s hope was that the media would create false equivalence between the two campaigns.

But false equivalence doesn’t stop at drawing untenable comparisons between the campaigns. McCain and Palin use false equivalence in their Hate Talk Express.  Bill Ayers is not Osama bin Laden, but for the McCain/Palin base won over by this false equivalence, they might as well be twins.

Distract and Attack!  McCain and Palin do something truly reprehensible, creating false equivalents in the hope of distracting from real issues while attacking Obama.  They are called out on their reprehensible conduct, but they distract by attacking Obama, the media, and everyone else in their scorched earth style on the Hate Talk Express.  

And so on, and so on: Distract, Attack, REPEAT!

In cruder terms…”Shiny things!” PUNCH “Shiny things!” PUNCH…with McCain and Palin asking, “Why do you make me beat you?

More importantly, the McCain campaign style necessitates Obama remaining above the fray as much as possible.  If Obama had attacked more, the false equivalence between campaigns would not be such a stretch, even if it remained ludicrous.  As it is now, they got nuthin.


  1. NavyBlueWife

    It won’t seem credible for the John McCain I know to say his campaign should be respectful, while seeming to look the other way as his campaign employs certain tactics and rhetoric which apparently are intended to appeal to the fears of some Americans.

    That’s the whole point of false equivalence, distracting and attacking.  

  2. sricki

    statements with what has been going on at McCain rallies of late is utterly absurd, and I think anyone can recognize that. Then, of course, there’s the fact that what Maddow has said is, well, true. Unfortunately truth has little value to the Republican party, and Americans are not diligent in seeking it.

    In cruder terms…”Shiny things!” PUNCH “Shiny things!” PUNCH…with McCain and Palin asking, “Why do you make me beat you?”

    Funny, Failin’ likes shiny things too! She also giggles when you jingle your keys at her.

    By the way Navy, were you on MyDD? I like your style and feel like I would remember if you had been.

  3. Seriously. When Frum and his cohorts are kicked out of office, he should take up a chair of Dean of Sophistry at some small Southern college.

    They talk about liberal elites – but this kind of mealy mouthed prevarication doesn’t work with smart folk like you, and I can’t see Joe and Joanna Public buying it either. It’s like grappling with a well oil snake. They might escape. But you don’t want them in your living room again

  4. NavyBlueWife

    Ari Fleischer used all sorts of false equivalence tactics on Stewart who was just not going to fall for it.  It was interesting to watch the logic contortions to try to turn the tables.  He accused Stewart of not covering any of the issues of Obama/Biden on his show.  That attack is precisely what false equivalence is.  Obama/Biden ARE NOT under investigation, nor have they been found guilty of ethics violations by an independent bipartisan committee.  Neither are they raising mob mentality.

    My favorite:  He said that Obama got a free pass from the media on his first several months on the campaign but that the media did not do the same for Palin.  FALSE.

    Here’s the vid:

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