A Bit of Republican Tone Policing: 12th Republican Presidential Debate

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Andrew Pulrang

The last Republican Presidential Primary debate stood out from all the others in one respect: tone.

It was obvious from the very start. The Republican Party Chairman gave a surreal address to the crowd … and, presumably, the candidates … reminding them to behave themselves if they want to beat the Democrats in the Fall. It seemed like the candidates heard and listened. While they did tear into each other again later in the debate, the debate itself was much more substantive and far more calm. Trump, in particular, showed that he is fully able to deliver his message without yelling and without obvious, up-front contempt for his rivals … when it suits him. It’s all relative of course, but the difference was dramatic, and lasted pretty much through the whole event.

What does the drastic change in tone suggest?

First of all, it shows that there is an important difference in political communication between content and tone. On the surface, Trump sounded a lot more “reasonable” in Thursday’s debate, but his core message was the same as it’s always been. In fact, it was almost eerie how calm and controlled he sounded trying to explain or excuse the hostility and violence breaking out at his rallies.

Second, it suggests that what happens with Trump from now on may teach us a lot about the value of “tone” and “civility.” Bad people can get far with a carefully crafted, pacifying tone, and good people can sound unhinged if they yell a lot and seem to be motivated by hate or resentment. The reverse is also true. Bad ideas can be sold on anger, and good ideas are often robbed of a fair hearing due to an excess of politeness.

This is a very relevant issue for the disability activist community. We have some ideas that seem radical or unrealistic for people unfamiliar with disability issues … things like universal availability of home-based personal care, disability income support without income caps or cutoffs, and much more aggressive enforcement of accessibility laws. But there is also a disconnect between the merits of our actual positions and our real or perceived “tone” when we push for them.

This is what “tone policing” is all about. On the one hand, you have this idea that oppressed groups can accomplish more if they avoid displays of anger and communicate with “civility.” On the other hand, you have activists who assert that civility and politeness don’t actually accomplish much, and that sometimes anger is not only justified but also effective in forcing needed change.

I am not for a moment comparing Donald Trump and his supporters with the disability rights movement. I’m just saying it will be interesting to see the roles that “civility” and “tone” … and the lack of both … play in Trump’s rise or fall. If he fails, will it be because his actual ideas are abhorrent, or because people are frightened and disgusted by his mocking, vulgar, violent tone? Do his fans like him because they agree with what he says, or because they get a thrill out of the way he says it?

And which is more powerful in the disability struggle… expressive, confrontational, empowering militancy, or sound arguments and broadly appealing diplomacy that can also be a bit dull and uninspiring? What’s the most effective and ethical blend?

What about the debate itself?

It was, in fact, more substantive, in the sense that it covered more policy topics and discussed more details than usual, with fewer personal attacks. Unfortunately, this increased efficiency didn’t lead to any more discussion of disability issues. They came close three times:


The moderators asked a rare question about education which brought out real ideas, along with ritual denunciations of unpopular policies like Common Core. Education also happens to include a big, fat subset of highly contentious policy and philosophy arguments about educating kids with disabilities. These also happen to be issues where there is real disagreement over what constitutes “progressive” policy … an opening, in other words for Republicans to throw a real elbow or two on something that really matters to disabled people.

Except no … we heard nothing at all about Special Education, inclusion, discipline practices, or funding. The closest they came was the expected endorsements of charter schools and home schools, issues that actually divide the disability community in meaningful ways. It was just a mention though, and none of the candidates connected these issues with disabled students and their families.

Social Security

The candidates talked quite a lot about “saving” or “reforming” Social Security. Most of their plans hinge on cutting benefits for future retirees, and / or raising the retirement age, all in order to avoid a projected funding crisis. They never mentioned Social Security Disability funding, though.

That’s really surprising, since many Republicans believe that the Disability system is fundamentally broken, and that huge numbers of people are collecting Disability who probably shouldn’t be. It didn’t come up though. I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, to be honest. I am actually quite worried that at some point in the next few months, we’ll hear some real scapegoating about SSDI, leading to some of the kinds of cuts and ugly “reforms” that have been happening in the United Kingdom. But on Thursday night? Nothing, good or bad.


Once again, talking about veterans seemed like a placeholder of sorts for the missing discussion of disability. The moderators mentioned the high rate of suicide among veterans, and an apparent link to poor performance by the Veterans Administration. All of the candidates pledged to reform the VA, and some of them hinted at get-tough policies that sound satisfying, but could have unintended consequences. Also, I was impressed when moderator Jake Tapper asked, flat out, “Should veterans’ benefits be part of attempts to reduce the deficit?” It wasn’t a terribly sophisticated question, but in a field of candidates naturally inclined to budget-cutting, it’s an important sort of question to ask.

Stray observations

Trump repeated his promise of “waste, fraud, and abuse,” which along with “making better deals” is the key to making all of his economic plans work. And for the second debate in a row, the moderators, and some of the other candidates, went out of their way to note that there isn’t nearly enough “waste, fraud, and abuse” to come close to balancing any sort of budget currently on offer. In the disability community, it’s certainly a moral issue, but we, too, need to be reminded once in awhile that “misspending” doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans, and it’s not why any one of us lacks the support we need.