The mystery of The New York Times’ anonymous op-ed: a ROAM analysis

Graphic: Delcan and Company via New York Times

The New York Times posted an op-ed from an unnamed “senior official” who is managing the chaos in the Trump Administration. To truly understand what’s going on here, you need to look at the writer’s motivation. ROAM is the perfect way to do that — but in this case, it only deepens the mystery.

The unknown op-ed writer makes a clear, compelling, and well-written case that in private, Trump is behaving erratically and irrationally. But that’s okay, because, as the writer states:

The erratic behavior would be more concerning if it weren’t for unsung heroes in and around the White House. Some of his aides have been cast as villains by the media. But in private, they have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing, though they are clearly not always successful.

The main point seems to be that these heroic figures within the White House are promoting a good populist Republican “Make America Great Again” agenda, even as they keep Trump’s worst impulses from destroying the country.

This description reinforces the chaotic picture of The White House from Bob Woodward’s new book Fear, and has generated a lot discussion about this president and his fitness to serve.

While we don’t know who wrote the op-ed, an equally important question is why. If you’re writing something important, I recommend asking four questions that you can remember by the acronym ROAM: Readers, Objective, Action, iMpression. You can ask the same questions about other people’s writing, to understand where it came from and whether it is effective. So let’s do the ROAM analysis of the unsigned Times op-ed.

Readers

The op-ed is aimed at all Americans.

It may be aimed more specifically at prominent Republicans in Congress or elsewhere, who are deciding whether to stand behind this president or to take action against him.

I doubt it was aimed at Trump, although it certainly hit that target, based on his reaction.

Objective

The objective in ROAM is the change that the writer wishes to create in the reader’s mind.

In this case, the objective seems to be to create a view of the White House in which aides and other officials are keeping the worst impulses of the president under control. To some extent, the writer may be wishing to counteract the chaotic picture that Bob Woodward paints in his book.

Action

In ROAM, Action refers what you want the reader to do. I wish I could tell you what the desired action was, but it’s quite unclear. It’s possible that the writer has no idea what will happen, or is deluded about it.

Any of the following are possible actions that the writer might have in mind:

  • Convince Republicans in Congress to stay the course, because the White House chaos is being managed. If this is the desired action, it’s likely to fail, since the picture the op-ed paints is terrifying.
  • Prod Republicans in the House and Senate to vote to impeach Trump. This picture might help convince Republicans to go along with congressional leadership if it recommends an impeachment. It adds incompetence to corruption as a possible reason to impeach and convict the president. Should Trump decide to remove Robert Mueller from his position as special counsel investigating the Trump administration, this op-ed provides more evidence for treating that action as part of a pattern of corrupt and unhinged behavior.
  • Encourage Pence and a majority of cabinet members to remove Donald Trump under the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. Section 4 of the amendment provides for the removal of a president who is determined to be incapable of performing the job. If the president contests it, Congress needs to confirm such a decision by a two-thirds vote. This op-ed could provide more of the evidence that the cabinet and the Congress need to act.
  • Prod Trump to further demonstrate his incompetence in reaction to the op-ed.
  • Create further chaos as Trump ceases to trust anyone he works with.
  • Encourage other aides to come forward about the situation within the White House.

To the extent that this op-ed is an attempt to convince people that everything is fine, it is a failure. It proves that everything is not fine, and that unelected officials (and possibly the vice president) are manipulating the president.

To the extent that the op-ed is an attempt to convince people that everything is screwed up, it has succeeded, but it’s not clear at all why the writer would want to do that.

iMpression

I recommend that people think about the long-term impact their writing has on what people think of them. But in this case, since we don’t know who the author is, we don’t know who we are supposed to think is the hero saving us from Trump’s worst behavior.

If the author imagines that this op-ed will enable them to hold their head high after they are revealed as its author, that’s unlikely to happen. Once they are unmasked, Trump supporters will see them as a traitor, Trump opponents will see them as an enabler, and no one will see them in the principled way they see themselves. This op-ed is likely to backfire on its author.

Is the author deluded?

The most fascinating part of this piece of prose, from my perspective of an analyst of writing, is the contradictions within it.

The author clearly sees themself as a hero, and is able to express their situation clearly and intelligently. This speaks to a high level of thinking.

The author is also engaged in a fundamentally screwed up series of behaviors.

Loyalists are loyal to their leaders. Patriots are devoted to the country. When the two are in conflict, one has to make a choice. Trump’s supporters see no conflict, they think they are loyal patriots. Democrats and never-Trump Republicans have decided that the country is better off without Trump.

But somewhere in the no-man’s land between these alternatives is the person who believes that Trump is terrible person and a dangerous president, but he is worth supporting for other reasons. This is where many Republicans in Congress are, and it is also where this op-ed’s author has landed. But it is no place for a rational American to end up. When you’re irredeemably compromised as a moral human being, writing about it doesn’t actually help much.

4 responses to “The mystery of The New York Times’ anonymous op-ed: a ROAM analysis

  1. Perhaps the ACTION is to convince people, at some future date when the author comes forward, that he or she still deserves a job and was doing their best to manage Trump. In the end, that’s a lousy expectation–as you well put it, either be a loyalist or a patriot, but trying to sit in the middle is disingenuous. But maybe this was a desperate and misguided attempt for someone to save face after the administration crumbles.

  2. When we vote for a president we vote for that person. Here, there appears to be people that are undermining the president…. Now it seems that there are people working against the president for “the good of the country” as he or she sees it. Well, that isn’t a democracy at all, it sounds like a free for all by someone or some people who are not elected. Maybe someone who has connections to Putin. Maybe Putin is really running the country.

  3. Without bullshit … seems vague and opinionated to me. Some of the phrasing and word combinations suggest it very well could have been a Russian plant. Just sayin’
    🙂

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