Signal, Noise, Rorschach: The Tactics of Mr. T?
Is there method to the Donald's madness?
Posted January 29, 2017
There is a concept in communication engineering called the signal-to-noise ratio. Noise is the static you hear and see on your TV when there is no picture. When the signal is weak, what you see is a mixture of signal (the picture) and noise (the static). Now suppose there is a picture, or a written message – something you need to understand – behind the noise. Theory says that it takes longer to understand, to decode the signal, the picture, if it is embedded in noise. When the signal/noise ratio is low, you need more time to allow the signal to be extracted from the noise.
Language can contain noise, in the form of contradiction and obscurity. The more noise, the longer it takes to understand the message and the more reluctant a listener will be to take a small sample at face value. After all, a short sample might not be the whole story.
Diplomatic language and the language of international leaders, although sometimes intentionally vague, is generally noise-free. Look at the “One-China policy” for example. Is there “one China”? Well, no – Taiwan is autonomous; we deal with the Taiwanese government alone on many matters. Can we refer openly to that reality? Well, apparently also no, as President Trump found out early on. China is “one” in one context, but “two” in another. Diplomats strive very hard to tread a fine line, to not send the wrong signal to friends or adversaries. Small changes in wording can have big effects. That is why diplomats are so careful about how they phrase things.
President Trump is different. He seems to change his message or even reverse it frequently. His speech is full of noise. His diplomatic speech is often shocking.
How will our allies and adversaries react? Alarm is expressed, with good historical reason. Traditional diplomacy is like walking on eggs: Nuanced and precise diplomatese means that even small deviations from a past line can have great significance. Large deviations, à la Trump, are alarming.
But people evaluate a message according to its source. Other countries, like Trump’s own fans, have surely learned not to take individual Trump pronouncements at face value (remember “seriously, but not literally”?) The S/N ratio is too poor for that. Is it not likely, therefore, that Trump’s well-known unpredictability and imprecision will give him more leeway, more room to make mistakes and change his position, in international relations than a more conventional diplomat?
And there is a side benefit for him. By parading inconsistent positions before a public that is cautious about believing any of them, President Trump presents people with a sort of Rorschach test. His listeners can read more or less what they want into his cloudy and confusing utterances. A populist more than an ideologue, Mr. T can then pick the best-selling interpretation and go with that, maintaining his popularity without really committing himself to anything.