Guest Commentary: The Use of Tropes in the DA’s Campaign Is a Disservice to Our Community

Photo by SHTTEFAN on Unsplash

by Robb Davis

A trope is a rhetorical device that “establishes a predictable or stereotypical representation of a character.” A dog whistle is, perhaps, a particular type of trope intended for specific audiences who understand its meaning and significance. In a literary sense, “tropes become popular because they work. Tropes get used again and again because they speak to us on some deep level and connect with our experiences, fears, and hopes.”

Tropes are often grounded in a historical stereotype that becomes a shorthand for a group characteristic that demonstrates their inferiority or danger. Stereotypes that evolve into tropes, and in some cases, dog whistles, can be long-lasting and represent durable representations of entire groups. 

They can be used and mobilized to categorize and create us/them distinctions.  Indeed, given their presumably occult content, dog whistles specifically appeal to an in-group to build solidarity among members.  Dog whistles draw on terms that speak at a deep level and connect to fears. 

Anti-Semitic and anti-black tropes are so common that extensive lists have been compiled to alert people to their use. See, for example, the American Jewish Committee’s Glossary of antisemitic terms, phrases, conspiracies, cartoons, themes, and memes. And though the focus here is on rhetorical tropes, visual tropes are used in media that elicit specific expected responses or behaviors.  See familiar racialized TV tropes here. 

Typical contemporary anti-Semitic tropes include accusations of receiving “Soros’ money” (in my childhood, it was Rothchild’s money) or belonging to a cosmopolitan elite—a concept that Stalin utilized and was used recently by Putin concerning oligarchs. In Putin’s case, he is NOT saying they are Jews; he merely says they are dangerous like the “rootless cosmopolitans” of the Stalinist era.

There are tropes related to unhoused individuals, the most common and enduring being the use of “transient” to describe them.  This indicates that unhoused individuals are not from “here”; they are not one of us; they are aliens. 

And, of course, Lee Atwater’s entire Southern Strategy was a series of tropes that evolved as the N-word became unutterable in public.  As Atwater made clear, that led to using other words that meant the same thing. Terms like busing, state’s rights (making a comeback in recent weeks), and later, economic issues related to welfare and the lazy poor.

Lately, a trope of seemingly recent origin has shown up nationally and locally in the news.  This trope combines some elements of being soft on pedophiles, accepting child pornography, or, more insidiously, engaging in “grooming” children to be sexually abused by gay people.

I say seemingly recent origin because most of us relate these tropes to the rise of Q-Anon and the accusation that Democratic Party leaders and members are engaged in a global conspiracy to enslave and sexually abuse children. 

While laughable in one sense, the Q-Anon conspiracy led to potentially serious consequences when a Q-Anon believer showed up armed at a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC. It is interesting how far into the mainstream this conspiracy has, since then, come in the form of a trope or several related tropes. 

But this trope is not new.  In an excellent Mother Jones article: Why Are Right-Wing Conspiracies so Obsessed With Pedophilia? Ali Breland traces the historical durability of not just the conspiracy but the tropes that have flowed from it.  Indeed, this particular trope is one of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes—the trope of the blood libel.  It has been around since the Middle Ages and accuses Jews of using children in human sacrifice.

The trope mobilizes our fear about protecting the most vulnerable members of our families and communities. It is bound up in our evolution and is always visceral—leaving a feeling of revulsion. 

Perhaps, therefore, we should not have been surprised to see this trope rolled out during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson.  Notice that no one had to say she had cozied up to pedophiles; they merely had to question her sentencing record.  Once the trope was unleashed, it mattered little that the record shows that she has dealt with this category of crime in ways that are the norm.  The doubt is sown; the trope has established Judge Jackson as a certain kind of character.  In her case, this character is someone who will, if given a chance, endanger our children.  She is a danger.

When District Attorney Jeff Reisig used a similar trope in a campaign advertisement (alert?) attacking Cynthia Rodriguez, he did the same thing.  The trope is designed to place Ms. Rodriguez beyond the pale—not just someone who is likely to coddle criminals, but the worst kind of predators.  She is a danger.

I will also note that the image in the Reisig ad also added a half-page of money images, which raises the question of whether statements about Soros’ support for so-called progressive DA candidates might be on the horizon.  Reisig supporters in the last campaign used that trope and the question was raised in a recent forum. 

(I must address the “accusation” briefly in the Reisig ad.  The Rodriguez campaign received donations from the families of two individuals convicted of sex crimes—sex with underage people.  This is not under dispute.  But the rapid move to unleash the “support for pedophiles” trope obscures the question of why those donations were made and, more importantly, whether they say anything about how Rodriguez will handle accusations of criminal behavior related to sex with children or child pornography that might come before her as DA. First, we know about these donations because the donors (family members of the donors, more correctly) had committed and been convicted in very public ways.  They are known offenders.  Second, there is no legal reason they cannot contribute to a campaign, whatever their crimes.  And third, perhaps their contributions say more about their treatment by the DA’s office than their support for the DA’s opponent.)

The ubiquity of media—social and informational—has multiplied appeals to stereotypes, led to the rapid proliferation of memes, and led to the recycling and repurposing of even ancient tropes.  It is incumbent upon us, the consumers of these media, to recognize the way terms, concepts, and images are used to connect, especially in these times, to our fears. 

We claim to want elections and governmental processes to be about “the issues,” but we too often allow tropes and other rhetorical mechanisms to fashion and dictate our engagement. 

We do not need tropes in this race; we need substantive discussions and debate about such issues as AB 1928, the purpose of bail, appropriate and inappropriate uses of restorative justice, charging philosophies and plea bargaining, and mental health and criminality.  

Robb Davis is a former Mayor of Davis


About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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25 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: The Use of Tropes in the DA’s Campaign Is a Disservice to Our Community”

  1. Keith Olson

    Tropes are used by both sides of the political spectrum.

    Since this article concentrated on tropes used by the right here are some tropes used by the left:

    Koch money

    Conservative states enact voting laws to ban black votes

    Kavanaugh is a gang rapist

    How can Reisig hold police accountable if he takes law enforcement donations?


    Everyone, feel free to add to the list…

    1. David Greenwald

      This is a typical Keith response to an article. Someone identifies a problem, Keith finds an example which in his mind is the equivalent of that problem done by the other “side.” Often the readers including myself will disagree with him and argue that this is a false equivalent. Sometimes he’s right.

      But even if both sides do it – how does that help us? If someone points out a problem and the constant response is to point over there, responsibility is getting shirked. And nothing changes. So “both sides-ism” is a deflection getting us to debate this point rather than the real problem. It’s not helpful. I don’t pretend like one side is an angel and the other side is the devil. The system is messed up, but it’s not solved unless we step up and try to solve rather than deflecting blame. Keith will undoubtedly respond by asking about another issue and never himself offer a solution when it’s his side in the stoplight.

      1. Keith Olson

        Well David, if one really wants to be balanced and fair don’t you think that tropes from both sides of the political spectrum should be called out?

        1. Ron Oertel

          Keith:  I realize that it can be difficult to tell at times, but I’ve come to believe that the Vanguard prefers one candidate over the other.  And, isn’t that much of a fan of Reisig.

          It’s extremely subtle, so you have to read between the lines. 🙂

          As such, attacks on one candidate *might* not receive the same amount of attention as vice-versa, or might be reported on in a different manner.

          I’ve arrived at similar conclusions regarding the Vanguard’s view of various development proposals (and the people involved with those).

        2. Richard_McCann


          First, please list where Reisig was attacked with an inappropriate trope? All of your examples are from completely unrelated situations. The linkage of DA decisions to donations from the group individuals that his office works with directly is not a “trope”–it’s a reality of the political functioning of government. There is no speculation about the attempt of the law enforcement unions to influence the decision making within the DA office. (The same problem arises with any political donations by government employees to elected officials.) So you’re claim on that one is completely wrong. (Unless you want to argue that government employee donations are just fine and have no influence whatsoever.)

          So, an attack using inappropriate language is fully justified if a similar attack was launched somewhere else in an unrelated situation?

        3. Robb Davis

          So, I spent about 5 hours researching, writing and revising this contribution.  David did not ask me to do it. I am a member of the public who wanted to contribute a point of view on this issue.  No one compelled me.  I did it because I am genuinely interested in having the two candidates debate the issues I listed at the end.  I am particularly interested in AB 1928.  It is a piece of legislation supported by DA Reisig and I want to hear it discussed (along with the other things I mentioned).

          Second, I am not bound by a “fairness doctrine.”  I am not obligated to present “all sides” to an issue.  I can offer an opinion and leave it at that.

          Third, I am free to express my opinions about candidates and have done so here and in other news outlets over the years.

          Finally, if another member of theVG readership wishes to provide David with an article supporting DA Reisig, supporting this particular advertisement, or speaking out against Candidate Rodriguez they are free to do so.  My experience is that David will post any article submitted to him (I assume as long as it does not contain obscene language or is libelous.).

        4. Ron Oertel

          There is a difference between a guest article from someone no longer associated with the Vanguard, vs. an article written by David or his staff.

          However, if someone was part of the Vanguard itself (and ran for council, for example) with supportive/advocacy articles written by David or his staff, that would be a problem.

          In fact, it’s a problem if the Vanguard (however that’s defined) advocates for any candidate – even if not associated with the Vanguard.

          In my opinion (and apparently that of some others), the Vanguard does indeed advocate for candidates.

        5. Keith Olson

          Second, I am not bound by a “fairness doctrine.”  I am not obligated to present “all sides” to an issue.  I can offer an opinion and leave it at that.

          Robb, you are exactly right.   If I feel that tropes from the left also should be called out I as a commenter can offer my opinion and also leave it at that.

  2. Edgar Wai

    The root cause of those campaign tactics is the artificial limit on the number of elected officials in a mandatory representational republic. The permanent solution is to undo the centralization and undo mandatory representation.

    When that happens, a candidate that gets 51% approval only represents the 51% of the population that approved him (Instead of also representing the other 49% that did not approve him), and the power/budget that he may wield comes only from the 51% that did approve him. Accountability is complete. (i.e. “Your selected representative will order lunch for you using your money” versus “The elected representative will order lunch for everyone using everyone’s money.”)

    Since a candidate with 51% does not wield 100% of the power, the benefit gained by swaying the 51st% does not outweigh the cost of elaborated campaign tactics. The result is that society gets more polite, less polarized, more rational, constructive, problem-solving, result-driven discussions.

    1. Bill Marshall

      And your proposed alternative?

      In reality, no elected representative should only represent the views of the “51%”, nor only their own views (the ‘mandate’ thing is BS)… goes to ethics, moral responsibility, etc.

      I could give many examples of where the ‘righteous’ ones represented the 49%, 20%, 10%, or less, as well as those who were in the 51+%…

      But you are correct, Edgar, that folk today are more polarized than they were, could, should be…

  3. Sharla Cheney

    Aren’t campaigns usually just big trope generators?

    It would be nice to have conversations about real solutions and qualifications of candidates, but I don’t think this is possible during a campaign. The whole premise is that one candidate is bad, inept, evil, greedy, etc and another candidate is the opposite and a better choice.  Measures around land are no better.  We all have been conditioned to view developers as evil and greedy manipulators who can’t be trusted.

    I agree that this needs to change.

  4. Ron Oertel

    When District Attorney Jeff Reisig used a similar trope in a campaign advertisement (alert?) attacking Cynthia Rodriguez, he did the same thing.  The trope is designed to place Ms. Rodriguez beyond the pale—not just someone who is likely to coddle criminals, but the worst kind of predators.  She is a danger.

    No one is stupid enough to literally believe this, or any of the other tropes.  And if they are, then tropes are the least of the problem.

    What this (generally) does is to establish one side as tough on crime, the other side less so.


  5. Bill Marshall

    Robb (author)… despite comments from others, thank you… I can see where you were trying to be “the adult in the room”… but, ‘brats’, cry-babies, whiners, contrarians, oft do not respond well to an adult’s voice… it is what it is…

  6. Alan Hirsch


    A thoughtful piece. Tropes elict emotions via what is implied but not stated explicitly  vs cool reason of fact and logic.

    The problem is we human are bombarded with things and organically resort to the shorthand of tropes to navigate the “buzzing booming confusion. ” .

    The reality is some tropes, like some facts, are dishonest and ungrounded, and some are honest attempts as summation.

    I think your piece calls out the dishonest use of tropes.


      1. Keith Olson

        By one side of the political equation, only.

        And notice how upset some people get when you call out the dishonest tropes used by the other side.

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