The Dissembling Manner
April 18, 2011
I watched Paul Ryan on Face the Nation yesterday. Virtually everything he said was absurd. But his manner of saying it was the essence of sweet reason. He smiled. He projected deep sincerity. He appeared to be a model of earnest concern. If you simply looked at his face and paid little attention to what he said, your response would probably be, "What a pleasant man!"
The problem is, that's what most people do in responding to politicians. They take in the manner and ignore the substance.
Politicians know this. They're acutely aware that their mode of projection makes a bigger impression than what they say. In truth, devising a manner which differs from one's intent is the most basic skill a politician needs to develop.
We can castigate them for it and call them a bunch of phonies. But they can legitimately come back with, "Whatever works."
Why it works is the more serious question. Almost everyone must have had the experience of being snookered by a smooth salesman. He's so ingratiating you find yourself persuaded, step by step, toward financial stupidity. I had it happen to me a few years ago when I was led to believe I really a needed a fancy, glass-topped stove with a convection oven that cost more than twelve hundred dollars. The truth was I needed no such thing. I could have bought a stove that served me not only as well, but better, for five hundred dollars less. I let my gullibility cost me money I could ill afford, and I got nothing for it. The salesman doubtless went away chuckling over fleecing another sucker. But he was so nice.
I keep that salesman in mind now when I think about politicians. I wish I could persuade my fellow citizens to be similarly skeptical.
I've reached the point now that I take a near opposite tack to the way the average person responds: if a politician is smooth, beguiling, charming, I don't trust him. I would oppose Mitt Romney no matter what he said, knowing that sooner or later he'll come round to saying something I like after having denounced it vociferously the previous month.
We do a lot better with politicians who aren't smooth at all -- Barney Frank, Dennis Kucinich, Bernie Sanders. You can't be smooth and tell the truth at the same time.
Paul Ryan is simply the latest star in a long line of American snake oil salesmen. They all try to model themselves on Ronald Reagan who, perhaps, can't be surpassed. If you pay fewer taxes, the government gets more money. It's magic, but it's true, they tell us with that deep, commanding presence hashed up in the teaching salons of political consultants. If we paid no taxes at all, the government would have unlimited funds to provide us all the services we want. Just wait; you'll have some Republican telling you that sooner or later. And he'll say it with such obvious sincerity you can't help but be won over, that is if you're the kind of voter he's going after in the first place.
Bob Schieffer made about as good an effort as a mainstream journalist dares to smoke Ryan out yesterday. But the GOP wonder boy has been well trained. We say that Republicans stay on point. But what they really do is stay on manner. They keep on smiling as they pump out nonsense. And as long as we keep lapping it up, they'll keep dishing it out.
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