The Power-Play: A Case Study in Political Confrontations with Power Disparities
by Nicole Tanquary
In political discourse, we are used to witnessing confrontations; it is an integral part of the election process, as different parties and candidates engage in discursive sparring matches to sway the opinions of the viewing audience. Yet in specialized political environments–debates, rallies, interviews and press conferences– there are also structural rules that participants are expected to follow. Figures whom I will refer to as political power-elites (a term coined by Teun Van Dijk, in his 1993 paper) are often allowed to control the flow of conversations, and audience members listen in relative passivity to the elites’ discourse constructions. The discursive rules surrounding these political events, in the consistency with which they are followed, seem concrete and unassailable. Yet when an upstart breaks these rules, we begin to see how delicate the political conventions protecting the status of power elites really are.
Such an event took place during a 2015 Iowa press conference for then-candidate Donald Trump, who was running for the nomination of the Republican Party in the 2016 presidential election. Jorge Ramos (a reporter of Mexican descent) was among the audience of attendees, representing Univisión, the premier Latinx television network in the United States. Prior to the conference, Trump had dictated a number of policies regarding Mexican immigration (including the building of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, the expulsion of 11 million illegal immigrants, and the preventing of American-born children of illegal immigrants from obtaining American citizenship) that at the time were considered highly controversial. These policies were and are still criticized as dehumanizing to the Latinx community, and are at the center of much outcry (for a scholarly discussion, see Brown, 2016, and Kteily et. al., 2017).
This study focuses on how Ramos decided to challenge Trump, who at this press conference had so far successfully dodged the topic of immigration, perhaps in an effort to avoid his campaign’s more controversial aspects so early in the election cycle. Initiating the confrontation, Ramos stands and begins directly speaking about these policies, ignoring commands from Trump to sit down and stop talking. It is a challenge to Trump’s authority as the head of the press conference–and, in challenging Trump, Ramos confronts the immigration policies with which he so intensely disagrees.
After examining the literature surrounding the subjects of immigration, power dynamics, and political legitimization, my study moves into a systematic evaluation of the Trump/Ramos interaction in terms of power discourse and the framing of identities. The analysis is particularly concentrated on the ways that Ramos made successful impacts on Trump’s position as a power elite, and on Trump’s strategy in his responses. I then move into the implications of this research, exploring the ways that one can make successful challenges against power elites, even in situations such as this one, when the setting’s inherent structure gives the challenger little power to begin with.
For this study, I examined at the first 35 seconds of the initial confrontation. I selected this moment because it encapsulates the most discursively charged sequence of the confrontation and includes the most direct challenge to Trump. My transcribed notes are largely provisional in that I do not record pauses, inhalations of breath, and other short (yet rhetorically charged) moments of language patterning. Although a Conversation Analysis (Kitzinger and Frith 299) that takes into account such patterns can be enlightening, this study is more concerned with large-scale discursive strategy. Also worth mentioning is the fact that, for most of this study, I do not attempt to record Ramos’s actual words but simply the fact that he is speaking. This is because in the recording, Ramos remains largely inaudible from the audience’s viewpoint. When, in fact, words can be made out, I make a point of transcribing them.
In looking at the power relationships constructed in the Trump/Ramos confrontation, I will be treating the idea of “power” based on the interpretation formulated by discourse analyst Judith Baxter (829), especially with regards to how “power” as a set of relationships is constantly being renegotiated. In Baxter’s paper, power is not a static and clear-cut dichotomy between a have and a have-not, but spread in varying degrees throughout a complex sociological network that is always subject to change (829). I also make use of some discourse analysis terms as defined by Van Dijk, especially the phrase power elite, which TeunVan Dijk defines as an individual who “[has] a special role in planning, decision-making and control over the relations and processes of the enactment of power” within dominant groups and organizations (“Principles” 255).
As legitimization strategy is a key topic of this paper, it is worth mentioning that this piece joins an already existing body of work that examines legitimization in confrontational contexts–in other words, how speakers work to prove that their ideas are the “right” ones, and to dismiss conflicting views. Of particular relevance is Shiao-Yun Chiang’s essay on “Well I’m a Lot of Things, but I’m Sure Not a Bigot: Positive Self-presentation in Confrontational Discourse on Racism,” which investigates some of the tools used to give a positive spin to rhetoric positioned against the immigrant community (273). Antonio Reyes makes a similar study in “Strategies of Legitimization in Political Discourse: From Words to Actions,” using Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) to investigate how speakers (particularly politicians) use certain discursive tactics to justify their actions. Some of these tactics, such as positioning oneself as a champion of rationality or a voice of expertise, have clear parallels to how Trump asserts his “rightness” when confronted with Ramos’s challenge (781).
Finally, since Ramos challenges Trump’s status by disrupting the normal rhythms of the press conference, we need to know how the discourse in these political events normally functions. Aditi Bhatia provides this in his 2006 piece, “Critical Discourse Analysis of Political Press Conferences” via the lens of CDA methodology to investigate the genre’s inherent power relationships. Although the context of Bhatia’s study is different from mine in that it illustrates two political leaders attempting to reconcile their differences over the course of the conference, a major theme of his paper–the tendency of political elites in press conferences to avoid “inconvenient” questions–remains extremely relevant.
However, I will note that Bhatia’s paper focuses on avoidance strategies rather than on confrontation analysis, as there are no similar “confrontational” moments in his case study. Even though “confrontation” has long been a topic of analysis (see Scott & Smith’s “The Rhetoric of Confrontation”), its analysis has not yet been systematically applied to the sub-genre of press conferences, or on how one might specifically use confrontation strategy to upset political power dynamics. This paper seeks to remedy these gaps in scholarship in its analysis and subsequent interpretation.
From the very start, the press conference’s structure supports Trump as the central figure of authority. He stands bathed in lights while the reporters sit in moderate shadow. Facing the camera, he can emphasize his points with hand gestures and facial expressions, while the reporters sit in a mass of people with their backs to the camera, limiting their access to body language emphases. Trump has a microphone to heighten the volume of his words, while the reporters have no microphones and thus cannot be clearly heard, especially if they are interrupted by Trump’s much louder vocalizations. And, finally, Trump may pick and choose among the reporters, allocating who has the right to speak, and when. Assuming that he knows the reporter or what news organization he/she represents, Trump can effectively filter the questions posed and control the topical composition of the conference itself. If he recognizes possible troublemakers in the crowd–for instance, Univisión reporters who will likely ask questions about his immigration policies–he can avoid these troublemakers without the audience necessarily being aware of his avoidance.
Exerting such control over a political conversation demonstrates, obviously, a position of tremendous power; from where he stands, Trump can oversee the discursive rhythm and structure of the entire room. This position fits comfortably with his agenda of presenting himself in a favorable light to the American people. Additionally, it makes challenges to his power difficult by limiting opportunities for reporters to make a “legal” interruption–that is, an interruption that does not violate the inherent discursive structure of the conference.
In order to illustrate a rejection of Trump’s power, Ramos therefore needed make a stand outside of the conference’s acceptable conventions. Without Trump selecting him as having permission to talk, Ramos stands and begins speaking immediately about immigration. The television audience does not see this first challenge, as the camera continues to focus on a close-up of Trump; compared to Trump’s loud, microphoned speech, Ramos’s voice comes across in a nearly-inaudible mumble. The scope of the interruption, as far as the audience can tell, appears a minor one.
Yet it elicits a strong response from Trump:
RAMOS: [speaking, inaudible]
TRUMP: [to a different reporter] Go ahead. [to Ramos, still speaking] Excuse me, sit down. You weren’t called. Sit down. Sit down. [to another reporter] Go ahead.
[Other reporters remain silent. Ramos continues to speak.]
RAMOS: I am a reporter, I have the right to ask-
TRUMP: No, you don’t. You haven’t been called. Go back to Univisión.
[to other reporter] Go ahead. Go ahead. [to Ramos, still speaking, inaudibly] Sit down, please. You weren’t called. [to reporter] Yes, go ahead. Yes.
As soon as Ramos begins the interruption, Trump points to another reporter and asks them to “Go ahead,” signaling his desire for them to speak over Ramos and thus assist him in rejecting Ramos’s challenge. Trump formulates an in-the-moment appeal to the rest of the room whereby he ties himself to the other reporters–the ones who follow the conventions of the press conference and recognize his commands–over the “bad” reporter who speaks out of turn. Soliciting spoken support from the other reporters would ostracize Ramos, making him more open to a spoken counter-attack from Trump, if such a counter-attack became necessary. If the others joined Trump in putting Ramos down, it would confirm Ramos as a “bad” reporter to the watching viewers, compared to the good/obedient majority. With this implied label, the audience could then be expected to discount anything that Ramos says.
However, Trump fails to obtain support from the other reporters in the room: They remain silent, and Ramos continues to push his point, forcing Trump into a direct confrontation where he must show verbal dominance to end Ramos’s pressing and reassert his power over the room. Although no longer pretending that Ramos does not exist, Trump continues to draw a dichotomy between good/bad reporting by contrasting Ramos with the other reporters. To these reporters, Trump repeats affirmative phrases like “go ahead” and “yes,” even when it becomes apparent that they will not intervene. Trump supplements these positive statements with eye contact that is explicitly turned away from the still-talking Ramos. To the bad reporter, a.k.a Ramos, we hear several repetitions of “Sit down,” and the negative phrases like “No, you don’t,” and “You haven’t been called.” Trump attempts to use the contrast in language addressed to the “good” members of the press pool and his scolding of Ramos in order to dismiss and even ostracize Ramos as a “bad” reporter.
Along with the wording, Trump’s verbal tone shifts when he speaks at the two separate parties with the most notable example of varying tonality appearing at “Sit down. Sit down.” Trump annunciates this second repetition more slowly and loudly, in the style of a reprimand. Such an emphasis positions Ramos as a misbehaving child failing to listen to his parent or teacher. Yet when speaking to the other reporters, Trump’s speech returns to normal speed and volume, such that the reprimands and their consequent identification as “childish” apply to Ramos only. This affirms Trump as more powerful than Ramos, as he constructs himself as the adult of the relationship. This implies that he naturally has more control over Ramos, and that this control is justified, in the same way that an adult has justifiably more power than a child.
Another, darker layer to this moment of discourse cannot be ignored, in that Ramos is of Mexican descent, a fact that gives Trump’s paternalism a racial edge. Per Trump’s discursive constructions, Mexican-Americans like Ramos become individuals who are incapable of being professional adults, and instead need to be properly taught what constitutes right or wrong behavior … in this case, learning deference and propriety in the press conference setting. By using a verbal strategy that denies Ramos his legitimacy as an adult, Trump provides another point of contrast between him and Ramos to further support his good/bad dichotomy.
The extent to which these discursive strategies succeed is, however, questionable, in that Ramos takes an active approach in his own reaffirmation. Instead of following Trump’s orders, he continues to speak, unperturbed, about the controversial immigration issues that the press conference has so far avoided. His tone and volume do not change after Trump singles him out as “bad.” In fact, Ramos continues to speak even while being interrupted. In this way, with regards to the viewer of the confrontation, it almost does not matter whether or not we can hear Ramos’s specific words. We still understand clearly that Ramos rejects the idea that Trump is more powerful than he, and thus he rejects that Trump has the right to give orders in the first place. The underlying power structure in the press conference, up until this point so concrete in its ability to inspire obedience from the reporters, reveals itself as a discursive construction built entirely from the reporters’ compliance. When Ramos retracts his compliance, Trump’s authority is delegitimized. Such delegitimization undermines the validity of both Trump’s identity and his political positions – including the immigration policies that inspired Ramos to act in the first place.
Ramos also takes action against Trump’s paternalistic stance by deftly building his own counter-identity: “I am a reporter, I have a right to ask [questions]…” (my emphasis). He is not a child, as Trump asserts, but a professional attempting to do his job of “asking questions.” This protestation shifts the power dynamic by presenting Trump as someone who is acting decidedly unprofessional in refusing to answer a journalist’s questions. This positioning repaints the picture that Trump suggested earlier of an adult-to-child relationship, and instead suggests that Trump’s reliance on a paternalistic tone to a professional journalist is condescending rather than appropriately authoritative.
Alongside the questioning of Trump’s paternalism, Ramos’s response simultaneously invokes another cultural script, in which the journalists of oppressed nations are silenced by those nations’ totalitarian regimes. Investigative “reporters” here represent the ideals of free speech so integral to the American identity, as individuals who stand equipped to call out questionable morals, policies, and practices of those who have power in our society. As Ramos says, “I am a reporter, I have the right to ask [questions]” – so, if anyone attempts to silence Ramos, that person impinges on his rights as an American citizen and as a representative of the press. Trump is thus framed as an almost dictator-like entity, attempting to silence those who speak out against him. This identity runs counter to the very grain of political philosophy in the US and plants the idea–subtle, but nonetheless present–that Trump is acting un-American in denying Ramos’s right to free speech.
Following this statement comes a moment in the confrontation that can be read as a major ceding of power between Trump and Ramos: Trump’s direct reply to Ramos’s “I have the right to ask” statement, in which he says, “No, you don’t.” On the surface, this statement is a direct and unambiguous rejection of Ramos’s self-identification as a reporter who is allowed to ask questions. Yet from the standpoint of discourse analysis, the statement’s importance does not come from its actual meaning, but from the fact that Trump replied to Ramos in the first place. The action implies that Trump (despite pretending to ignore Ramos’s existence in the beginning of the interaction) is, in fact, listening to what he has to say. Moreover, Trump’s reply marks an acknowledgement that Ramos does exist, has spoken, and that his words were important enough to warrant a reply. We the viewers cannot hear Ramos clearly, but Trump’s singling out this statement gives it a natural emphasis that unintentionally confirms Ramos’s self-identity. He is, at the very least, worth being listened to.
What follows this reply of “No, you don’t,” is likely the most rhetorically powerful statement in the confrontation, in the way it shifts the dynamic in Ramos’s favor: Amid the other commands, Trump lets slip, “Go back to Univisión.” Not only does Trump acknowledge that Ramos exists and is worth responding to, but he admits that he knows which venue Ramos represents, and therefore, knows who he is on sight alone. As such, it becomes obvious to the viewer that Trump is ignoring him on purpose, based on who he is and what he represents. The fact that Trump recognizes Ramos’s face in a crowded room works against his earlier construction of Ramos as a bad reporter; after all, in order to be recognized by a power elite like Trump, Ramos must be a journalist of at least some note. This, in turn, adds strength to Ramos’s earlier self-identity as a professional reporter.
Saying “Go back to Univisión” also throws a more explicitly racist cast over the whole encounter. Earlier, we saw in Trump’s dismissal an equating of Ramos (and, by extension, those of Mexican heritage) to childish individuals who require correction. From this and other discursive strategies, Trump has already made clear his framing of Ramos as a “bad” reporter. So, in tying Ramos to Univisión, Trump implies that the label of “bad reporting” also extends to the network itself.
It is important to remember here that Univisión functions as a symbolic representation of the voice of the Latino/a community in the U.S. and Mexico. Dismissing this voice is essentially a rejection of Latino/as’ engagement with, and participation in, American society. By telling Ramos to “Go back to Univisión,” Trump no longer rejects the reporter just because of unprofessionalism or even because of his Mexican American heritage, but because of Univisión, an entity that pursues activist journalism and seeks to legitimize and empower Latinx people living in the United States.
The fact that this particular phrase ties Trump to racist discourse is undeniable. No one can miss the strong parallel between Trump’s “Go back to Univisión” and the phrase “Go back to Mexico,” a common saying among those who act hostilely towards Mexican immigrants and their descendants. In recycling this phrase over, we see a shift in Trump’s strategy; where before he dismissed Ramos on individual grounds, he now dismisses him on explicitly racial ones. And again, because of how Trump connects Ramos to Univisión, this dismissal passes on to the Latinx community as a whole. Trump accentuates this ultimate rejection through his pronunciation of Univisión, ignoring its Spanish-language accentuation in favor of a white Standard American English version.
Together, these discursive signals unintentionally work towards Ramos’s earlier presentation of Trump as “dictator” in that, in his phrases, Trump presumes himself to be enough of a power elite to discount entire cultural portions of American society – and, worse, to equate them as childish and disobedient. By the time security removes Ramos from the room, he has successfully framed himself as a martyred defender of human rights in the face of a racist, dictatorial power elite. Perhaps most interestingly, this was not achieved through simply his own actions and statements but also by Trump’s reactions to his statements. With particular assistance from phrases like “No you don’t” and “Go back to Univisión,” Trump’s discursive slips ceded to Ramos a position of power that in turn added affirmation to the identities Ramos drew for both Trump and for himself. Although Trump remains in his physical seat of power by the end of the confrontation–he continues to stand at the front of the room, to be the camera’s main focus, and to have his microphoned voice dominate the room–he leaves the encounter with his identity modified and his moral character diminished. He temporarily lost control over the reporters (who did not obey his commands to “Go ahead”), and in his blunt and racist handling of Ramos’s interruptions, detracted considerably from the justification of his own power.
In the end, Donald Trump–despite having every situational advantage in the press conference’s inherent discourse structure–lost power to Ramos, who brought the conversation to focus around the previously neglected immigration policies. Although I have written careful analytical explanations as to why Ramos succeeded in his interruption, the ultimate “proof” of this success lies in what happened immediately after the confrontation. First, security escorts Ramos out of the press conference, forcibly ending the interaction. And second, a few minutes later, Trump (perhaps rethinking the cultural symbolism of such an action) brings Ramos back into the room in a placating gesture. The two then engage in a dialogue on Trump’s immigration policies, the very topic that Trump had been attempting to avoid in the previous encounter.
It is, of course, undeniable that he had a discursive motive for inviting Ramos back and reengaging in conversation. In doing so, he can label himself as a conciliator who reaches out to bring together disparate groups of people. He also gets the opportunity to reframe and reposition the points that Ramos brought up prior to being removed from the room. Yet the fact that he feels the need to reposition these points in the first place implies that Ramos was successful in using them to detract from Trump’s power and self-identity. When we see Ramos invited back into the room, it shows us that Ramos has indeed made a significant impact, an impact that Trump will later try to revise.
That Ramos challenged Trump with such success offers us an intriguing case study in power structure negotiation. At the most basic level of the interaction, Ramos represents a participant with relatively little power, both because of the conventions of the press conference and because of his self-identification as a speaker of the much-reviled “immigrant community” (see Mehan, 1997; Santa Ana, 1999; Brown, 2016; Winders, 2016). Even so, Ramos confronted a power elite and made a palpable difference in how a particular discursive event (the press conference) was orchestrated.
From my investigation we can conclude that our society is not divided into clear, hierarchical groups–those who have all the power and those who have none–but is composed of a more nuanced body of ever-changing individuals. Every power elite has limitations and weaknesses, and even the “powerless” hold in themselves the possibility of position renegotiation. In other words, instead of a static and unchanging power structure, we have an illustration of what Baxter alluded to when she described how “fluctuating power relations between speakers are continuously reconstructed through competing discourses” (827). In this constant shifting of power dynamics, we can, in fact, achieve our discursive goals; in Ramos’s case, he is allowed to return to the room and hold the conversation that he wanted all along.
As my study illustrates, such a successful renegotiation does not happen easily or naturally. It requires an active role in whatever discursive hierarchy one wishes to change. This stems from the reality illustrated by Bhatia, who contends that one of the inherent components of a press conference is “evasion to hedge or avoid responses to probing and inconvenient questions from the media” (173). We can therefore assume that if Ramos had passively followed press conference conventions by sitting, raising his hand and waiting to be called on, he likely would not have been given a chance to speak and would have instead remained a faceless, powerless entity. A successful challenge also requires a certain amount of solidarity among the situationally “powerless.” We see this manifest in the Trump-Ramos interaction through the other reporters’ complicit silence; though they technically do nothing to support Ramos, in ignoring Trump’s commands to “go ahead,” they allow the press conference to become a discursive space in which Trump is forced to address Ramos, not simply brush him off and move on.
In later Trump press conferences, when press solidarity is absent, similar confrontations end much less successfully for those wishing to renegotiate power. Take, as an example, the January 11, 2017, press conference in which Trump framed CNN as a “fake news” outlet, then refused to call on an outspoken CNN reporter, successfully soliciting a different reporter to begin speaking and thus force the first reporter into silence. A similar exchange took place in a February 16, 2017, press conference between Trump and CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta, in which the “fake news” mantra resurfaced in accusations against Acosta and CNN as a whole. In this case, Acosta was able to remain a participant in the conversation, but had to act in a deferential manner towards Trump in order to do so, leaving the discursive power structure in the room unchallenged (“Transcript: President Trump’s Exchange with CNN’s Jim Acosta” n. pag.). From these and other incidents, including the notoriously confrontational press conferences of former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, we see a pattern emerge: Politicians delegitimize news sources and demand their compliance in order to eliminate questions that may undermine their status as power elites.
Since acceptance of this kind of oppressive discourse seems to be on the rise, the Ramos-Trump confrontation, in its use of active framing and solidarity, thus offers us a template that can be applied to peaceful resistance strategy. There may be power elites in our society who belittle those in lower standing in order to maintain their status as powerful–and, indeed, examples of this can be easily found in the research of Mehan, Chiang, Santa Ana and Baxter, not to mention by the simple act of turning on the news and perusing current events–but this is far from a static law of human interaction. Positions of power can always be modified. In learning the Discourse of Confrontation, we see that even a few short moments of speech and the cooperation of one’s fellows are enough to dissolve an elite’s high position of power, or at the very least weaken its foundations. Taking action in these short moments are where we, as individuals, can begin to confront oppressive power relations in our everyday lives.
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Nicole Tanquary recently graduated summa cum laude from Hobart and William Smith Colleges with a degree in Writing and Rhetoric (with a concentration in Theory) and three accompanying minors in Geoscience, Studio Art, and an in-house writer’s mentorship program. While she does consider herself an amateur short-fiction writer, having sold fantastical short fiction to twenty separate publications over the years, this article represents her first foray into academic non-fiction. As discourse and rhetoric studies are a continuing passion of hers – especially when thinking of how communication works in political contexts – she plans to pursue a graduate degree on this topic. She currently lives and works in her hometown of Syracuse, where she is employed as a writing tutor and instructional assistant at the local university.
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