Two weeks before Christmas, news audiences were treated to a rare spectacle in the Oval Office: a bickering debate between President Trump and the Democratic leaders in Congress, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. The scuffle received several days of media scrutiny and has become a touchstone throughout news coverage of the recent federal government shutdown. Some commentators hailed Pelosi for championing the resistance in the meeting, while others lauded Trump for sticking by his border wall policy and for having an open, transparent clash with his political opposition. Reporters for The Hill chastised all participants for not being adults and rising above the fray, instead appealing to their respective bases.
None of these commentators are wrong that political discussion should aspire to a higher standard. Yet, we live in an imperfect world that makes ideal discussion difficult. As a communication scholar who studies democratic deliberation, I investigate the possibilities of political talk, and I pay especially close attention to the dynamics of exchanges among citizens and among our political leaders. As Archon Fung might put it, I look for “deliberation before the revolution.” In other words, I study how deliberation works as a practical reality—even when political conditions do not yet allow it to be rational, inclusive, and just. Sometimes this means trying to find the deliberative impulse in an otherwise poor deliberative environment.
One of the big threats to deliberation in contemporary American politics comes from President Trump’s stranglehold on the national conversation. In a broad sense, the media hang on the President’s every Tweet. Even negative coverage is, to some extent, coverage that the President controls, despite multiple commentators pointing out that he tries to redirect the conversation. In a narrower sense, Trump has developed a monologue strategy in his communicative interactions that hinders a true back-and-forth discussion on the merits of policy issues—a strategy rarely commented upon. One of the reasons the Trump-Pelosi-Schumer interaction caught my attention is because Trump’s monologue strategy broke down in this case. It’s worth considering what the strategy entails and how it failed in this rare instance.
The Trump Monologue
Monologuing is a skill that Trump has refined for years, even when he was not a politician. The Trump monologue involves three things: overpowering other people who try to speak, repeating the same lines over and over again, and interrupting his own train of thought to transition to another idea. His monologue gives him several advantages. He can hammer in a few key words or lines, drown out other voices, and change the topic of conversation before what he’s saying can be critically examined.
Trump’s monologue is situational. Usually, he monologues at rallies where he is surrounded by supporters or at meetings with administration officials who are loyal to him. The monologue also works if some need for civility is holding his would-be-interlocutor back. Most reporters have to maintain an air of neutrality, and the President has shown his willingness to accuse them of bias or being “fake news.” Leaders of other nations feel they have to act diplomatically and cannot call him out in front of the press. So they stand there, often visibly cringing, while the President makes a troubling statement or boasts about his 2016 election victory.
Even the consequences for lay citizens in challenging Trump can be terrifying. The President has become famous for kicking people out of rallies and encouraging violence against protesters and reporters. One young woman asked Trump during the 2016 campaign about equal pay for women. Trump accused her on Twitter of being a Jeb Bush plant in the meeting, and she was subsequently harassed online and threatened with rape. Likewise, as rhetoric scholar Jonathan M. Smith wrote for Citizen Critics, Trump has also used the bully pulpit to threaten the careers of private citizens who critique his presidency and policies.
I can only think of a handful of situations where the President’s monologue strategy did not work, and these instances are worth our attention. One critical moment happened when he was being interviewed by Chris Matthews at a town hall meeting during the 2016 election. Trump was asked his position on abortion by someone in the audience, and he said he opposed it with exceptions in the case of rape, incest, or health of the mother. Matthews pushed him on the ramifications of his position. He forced Trump into a dialogue rather than a monologue by consistently interrupting him, by questioning his talking points, and by not allowing him to change the topic, eventually forcing Trump to admit that he thinks there should be punishment for women who obtain abortions (a position he later retracted). As an aggressive male reporter, this strategy may have worked more easily for Matthews than for other media figures. Still, it is instructive to examine moments like this where Trump’s communication strategy breaks down.
Disrupting the Oval Office Monologue
This brings us back to the Oval Office meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. The President’s typical monologue strategy broke down. Pelosi and Schumer began the meeting by allowing Trump to monologue unhindered. It was his turf, and they seemed to be acceding to a turn-taking format. Trump spent the first few minutes with a cooperative tone, discussing the bipartisan farm bill and criminal justice reform legislation. Trump used this unabated time to make multiple claims about his management of border security, his progress toward a border wall, and the military’s response to the so-called “caravan.” PolitiFact rated some of the President’s claims in this part of the meeting as false or uncorroborated, but the two Democratic leaders sat quietly and allowed the President his monologue.
Trump’s monologue only failed after he violated the civil tone his interlocutors had just set. When Nancy Pelosi had her turn to speak, the President interrupted her after a mere twenty seconds and “mansplained” legislative process to a veteran lawmaker. Trump broke decorum at this point, a decorum that was protecting his ability to monologue. In other situations, his power over fellow discussants has prevented him from being called to account for misleading claims. That power did not exist in this scenario. Only a perceived need for civility had kept Pelosi and Schumer at bay, evidenced by Pelosi’s repeated insistence that they shouldn’t “have a debate in front of the press.”
The breakdown of Trump’s monologue allowed Pelosi and Schumer a chance to disrupt the President’s framing of events to his face. They questioned his honesty and fact-checked specific assertions as he made them about the border wall. They also challenged Trump’s political legitimacy, noting that a win in the Senate was nothing to brag about and that Pelosi and the Democrats “just won a big victory.” Both Democrats shifted to an assertive tone, with Schumer even wagging his finger at the President during a heated exchange.
Judging by President Trump’s tone and nonverbals, by the end of the meeting he seemed rattled that he was being contradicted in front of the press. His last-minute bickering with Schumer resulted in another statement that could hurt him politically: “If we don’t get what we want, one way or the other, whether it’s through you or military, through anything you want to call it, I will shut down the government… I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it.”
There’s a reason Trump’s statement has been aired repeatedly on cable news during the current shutdown crisis. Previous government shutdowns, because they result from broken down negotiations, have produced a lot of finger-pointing from both parties. In previous shutdowns, national parks closed. Veterans were not able to see memorials to their comrades. Funding for cancer research was put on hold. Thousands of federal workers were sent home on furlough. Government shutdowns are not popular, which is why politicians do not take credit for them. Nor, for that matter, is it always evident that one side is at fault and should assume responsibility. Through this admission, Trump positioned himself to absorb much of the blame for the dysfunction.
Lessons for Future Dialogue
We shouldn’t overstate the damage this kind of interaction does to President Trump’s credibility. He is the Teflon man of contemporary politics. He can get away with making outrageous statements that no other politician—Democrat or Republican—would survive, and he certainly doesn’t need to be in a dialogue to make a misstatement. However, Trump has become a master at framing public debate and at developing a macho persona that appeals to his supporters, and both depend on the conversational dominance he displays in his monologue strategy. Disrupting the monologue provides a starting point for breaking through his stranglehold on discourse.
This insight is not just a lesson for Democrats—it is a lesson for friends and foes of President Trump alike. The President tends to suck all of the oxygen out of the room. In an ideal world, the press and the public would not give so much attention to Trump’s monologues. However, in our imperfect deliberative environment, public officials who want to shape the national conversation may need to be more conversationally aggressive to disrupt this monologue. There are times when decorum needs to take a backseat to more important deliberative goals, and I would argue that having a true dialogue is worth being a little rude.
John Rountree is a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication Arts & Sciences at Penn State University.