Or die waiting for a narrative to save you.
That’s What You Said
Adopting the opposition's words against them
Perhaps the most famous catch phrase of Donald Trump’s presidency was his use of the term “fake news.” Entertaining, effective, and infuriating to its targets as it was, it also provided a road map for conservatives to stack up future victories in the national debate. But have they picked up on it? Not yet.
The movement to frame censorship as a battle against “fake news” supposedly dished out by conservative sources, as initially reported by independent journalist Sharyl Attkisson, coalesced in September 2016 when a nonprofit called First Draft used the term in an article, claiming, “Today, malicious hoaxes and fake news reports are published in increasingly convincing and sophisticated ways.” In October, then-president Barack Obama gave a speech in Pittsburgh where he decried the current media climate that allowed anyone a voice on digital platforms: “We are going to have to rebuild within this wild, wild west of information flow some sort of curating function that people agree to.”
Seemingly spontaneously, the media blasted out stories about the myriad problems with “fake news.” “Fake news,” we were told, was a threat to “our sacred democracy.” The campaign was on.
In politics, however, nothing like this emerges naturally. It’s almost always a contrived and calculated campaign to achieve a goal its perpetrators won’t admit. After Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the presidential election that November, the term was weaponized to undermine the incoming administration’s legitimacy.
On December 8, 2016, Clinton delivered a speech where she talked about “the epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year.”
“It’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences,” she added. “This isn’t about politics or partisanship. Lives are at risk.”
The news media, the pundits, and the academy now knew the expected narrative, and they complied.
It all would have gone as planned had leftist strategists not underestimated Donald Trump.
He quickly co-opted the term, using his own bully pulpit to call the mainstream media “fake news.” In just weeks, the term was more closely identified with the mainstream media than the conservatives it was originally intended to target. By January 8, 2017, the Washington Post decided it was “time to retire the tainted term ‘fake news.’”
For the Left, this was a rare admission of defeat, but for Trump, it was just the beginning. He continued to characterize the media as fake news—so much so that most people now think he invented the term. Whether it was instinct or strategy, Trump had halted the Left’s momentum by co-opting its key phrase.
“Fake News” Was a One Off
Curiously, neither Trump himself, nor anyone on the Right with enough clout, has repeated the tactic.
To be sure, it’s rare for conservatives to speak in unison and on message the way the Left does, with its signature discipline. Though when conservatives can manage this, they do it well. The best example is their use of the term “pro-life.” Conservatives never gave up using the term, the consistent messaging that flowed from it, or the foundational philosophies for which it stood. When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year, it was due in no small part to the Right’s adherence to core “pro-life” messaging that spanned decades.
More recently, as the Left has moved to trans children, conservatives discovered another simple term that shocked the Left into paralysis: “groomer.”
Calling out the Left as groomers has been so effective that Big Tech and the mainstream media began censoring its usage. The Left made uttering the term “groomer” a thought crime in order to divert attention from the real crimes involved: the grooming and mutilation of children.
That’s how conservatives know we’re winning on an issue—when the Left reacts to a word or a phrase as a vampire reacts to the sun. Still, neither of these cases involved effective co-opting of a leftist term.
Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit
Right now, the Left is using three terms to some effect, and the Right has yet to create a systemic response mechanism to these distortions of language.
“Misinformation” has come to mean any information of which the Left doesn’t approve.
“Our democracy” appears to be a focus-grouped term the Left is using to appeal to a public unaware that the way they hear it and the way the Left means it are two different things. When the uninitiated hear the term, they think Democrats are talking about the altruistic concept of democracy in America. But when Democrats use the term, “democracy” means one-party rule.
“Gender affirmation” means the opposite of what it describes. If you are a school administrator or a parent and you take steps to help a child change their sex, that’s “gender affirmation.” But if you’re a parent and you take steps to affirm the child’s biological sex, you’re guilty of “conversion therapy.” Already in Canada, that will get you into legal trouble.
Everything is the opposite of reality, and conservatives have not shown the ability to systemically challenge the Left’s propaganda. While conservatives may take issue with the bastardization of language through logic and traditional argumentation techniques, they’re always a step or two behind. Outside of Trump’s example, by the time the Right musters a good-faith response to each new weaponized term, the Left is already attacking anyone who disagrees as a hate-monger who is putting other peoples’ physical safety at risk.
What the Left is not prepared for, however, is a response that acknowledges the seriousness of the term but reverts it to its original meaning.
Instituting a Co-opting Strategy
To fight back against the Left, conservatives must identify the terms, phrases, and words the Left is using to carry out their goals. Then, they must devise a way to use those very same terms in their own messaging. All conservative media outlets, pundits, and organizations—including the Republican Party—need to be on board.
“Misinformation” should be viewed as the stepchild of “fake news.” Any time conservatives talk about the mainstream media, they should use the term “misinformation” interchangeably with words like “media” and “news,” branding every Left-leaning news organization as misinformation. Every corporate media network is a “misinformation network,” and the mainstream media is now the “misinformation media.”
As for the term “our democracy,” there is no reason Republicans and conservatives can’t start using the term itself. Why cede the use of the term to the Left? Some might say, the Left already owns the term; right now they may. But conservatives have one advantage the Left almost never has: the truth. When the Left calls something a “threat to our democracy,” in actuality, it’s really a threat to their attempts to destroy our true democracy.
Don’t waste the energy to try discredit their use of the term. Just take it back by using it the right way, purposely and persistently.
Conservatives could use a term like “our true democracy” when making a point about preserving the republic that our Founding Fathers envisioned. Again, beat the drum on this term relentlessly at every chance. It’s the only way to take ownership of the term and return it to its real meaning.
Finally, on the term “gender affirmation,” once again the truth is on conservatives’ side. True gender affirmation is affirming a child’s biological sex. So, when taking on issues around transitioning, make sure to use the term “gender affirmation” along with the explainer that “real gender affirmation” is affirming who the child was when he or she was born.
These are just three words and terms. Every day, the Left weaponizes a familiar term or phrase, usually well-tested and researched, to undermine American society.
It’s time for conservatives to formalize a counter-strategy and co-opt every term the Left uses. It’s time to organize across organizational and media channels to establish formal mechanisms, and perhaps dedicated groups and rapid response teams, designed to identify those words and terms. It’s time to develop appropriate counter-messaging and an attack strategy to turn the narrative around and use the Left’s negative momentum against it.
Trump showed conservatives how it can be done going forward. They should take his lead.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.