Sunday, August 14, 2016
Weapons of Mass De-Construction: How Trump Uses Innuendo and Ambiguity to Incite Hatred While Denying Responsibility
If you wish to be included on the email list we use to notify readers whenever there is a new post, please send your email address to email@example.com. Here is Steve’s take on how Donald Trump relies on linguistic weasels to spew hatred with “plausible denial.” Weasels, by the way, are not the least bit happy to be associated with Donald Trump.
Last Sunday evening – essentially in the Paleozoic era of in this electoral cycle -- I met with my editor (ok; Tom and I were killing time waiting for McCartney at MetLife), and I wondered aloud why Trump isn’t getting pilloried for his refusal to release his taxes. After all, I noted, every single major party candidate since 1980 has provided returns; often going back a dozen or more years. So he’s getting audited this year – fine, just release a few of the prior years! Why he is getting away with this?
Tom’s reply was great. When the Republicans want to go after Hillary, he noted, there are essentially only two areas they can or simply choose to focus on: Benghazi and email. But Trump, on the other hand, presents such a cornucopia of succulent attack fodder that the Democrats are paralyzed by choice, much like Chris Christie sizing up an Olive Garden buffet. “Where do I start? Is there really no limit? Note to self: don’t fill up on bread! Have they ever run out of shrimp? How many plates can I carry?”
Tom’s point: the Rubenesque overabundance of Trump’s vulnerabilities has effectively prevented the Democrats from tightly focusing on a small number of the most noxious of Trump’s Presidential disqualifiers. The Dems actually risk squandering an enormous opportunity precisely because the opportunity is so enormous.
The Democrats just need to pick the biggest stumble, fumble, and bumble on Trump’s gaffe-a-minute blunder bus – and stay focused. Put Trump on the defensive, because we now know that he doesn’t just react, he is a nuclear reactor. Get him pissed off and he will twitter away the hours, drifting further off course than a Malaysian Airlines 757.
What makes such focus and discipline nigh impossible, however, is the fact that the cornucopia of gaffes keeps getting bigger ever week. Even Chris Christie couldn’t keep up with the daily additions to Donald Trump’s Olive Garden of Evil.
Now, mind you, it was only seven days ago that Donald Trump had completed what was then considered the worst week of his fourteen month campaign, as he managed to commit more crude gaffes, unforced errors, demonstrations of ignorance, and utterly offensive behavior in seven days than The Situation did in all six seasons of Jersey Shore. When last week ended, we literally made this point: once you have attacked a Gold Star family and insulted the U.S. military, the only thing left was to go after Mother Theresa.
How wrong we were!
The week began with yet another attempt to shove Trump onto the path to respectability as his handlers cut off his twitter feed and chained him to a teleprompter in Detroit, forcing him to read a vintage trickle-down speech that was the economic policy equivalent of a used Swiffer refill. Still, the troops at Fort Manafort exhaled and beamed proudly: The Id Kid had made it through the entirety of Monday without spewing carcinogens.
As a reward for good behavior, Trump was allowed off prompter on Tuesday in North Carolina, and he took the opportunity to deliver the single most shocking and horrific campaign message in modern American Presidential politics. Riffing on the reliable Red State red meat crowd-pleaser that Hillary Clinton is determined to destroy the Second Amendment, the Donald intuited that he had not yet stroked his faithful to climax and that he needed to go one step further. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks… although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Donald Trump thus became the first candidate in the history of the United States to imply, even if somewhat obliquely, that his supporters should consider the option of assassinating the President of the United States. Perhaps he thought the concept of shooting a political opponent would suddenly make him popular; maybe he was just confused about why it had worked so well for Lin Manuel Miranda.
In an earlier piece (“White Lies Matter,” posted March 23), we took pains to identify four distinct forms of lying that Donald Trump was routinely employing in his campaign. Silly us! We missed an entire genre of Trump’s lies, which we shall now categorize as innuendo. Google it, and you get “an allusive or oblique remark or hint, typically a suggestive or disparaging one.”
Trump’s brand of innuendo has a distinct familial relationship to a form of lying in his core tool-kit, which we labeled as “I’ve heard that…” Trump will routinely claim that he has “heard things,” or “read something,” never identifying that actual source as he broadcasts it on Twitter or the national news. The disclosure that he has “heard something” appears to serve, in his mind, as a Teflon coating ensuring that he bears no responsibility for the veracity of the rumor he has just greased, if not wholly fabricated.
Now we have innuendo. Trump does possess a weasel’s skill for phrasing things with just enough clarity that they serve as dog whistles to the rabid animals in his pack, but with just enough vagueness that he can claim that his meaning has been misconstrued by his enemies, usually by the "mainstream liberal media."
This was indeed Trump’s defense when interviewed in the warm bosom of Sean Hannity, Trump’s Enabler-in-Chief at Fox. Trump flat out denied that he had any intent to encourage gun violence against Hillary Clinton. “This is a strong political movement, the Second Amendment. And there can be no other interpretation. Even reporters have told me. I mean, give me a break.”
Unfortunately, this skunk had been run over in real time on national television, and Manafort’s destiny was that there was no time for organized damage control as the fumes spread.
The most authentic reaction in TrumpWorld was right there – plain as day -- in the very video that has been replayed and parsed over and over again of Trump’s actual quote. There is a redneck wingnut in the audience directly behind Trump who reacts to Trump’s words as if he had just received a spontaneous prostate exam. His eyes bulge and his jaw drops in utter disbelief. However, a diabolical grin soon spreads over his face, and there is no mistaking what he took the meaning to be: Donald Trump was handing out the double-O prefix to a helluva lot more people than Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig.
Rudy Giuliani, who has undergone a far more radical transition than Kaitlyn Jenner in his passage from America’s Mayor to Trump’s Poodle, was quick to argue that Trump was merely rallying Second Amendment supporters to vote against Hillary. The problem with Rudy’s illogic is that Trump’s heat-seeking missive to “Second Amendment people” was clearly placed in a context in which Hillary has already been elected. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks… although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.” Rudy, a self-professed law and order guy credited with cleaning up New York by ticketing the squeegee cleaners on off-ramps and praising the City’s profiled-guilty-until-proven-innocent “stop and frisk” policies, was apoplectic in his disbelief that Trump’s remarks could have possibly been misinterpreted. In a related story, Rudy has been cast in the title role of Star Wars XXII: The Emperor Is Simply an Asshole.
Paul Ryan, still smarting from Trump’s childish game of publicly delaying a formal endorsement of his congressional re-election bid, held this particular turd at arm’s length before declaring it a likely a “joke gone bad.” Ryan was clearly signaling that he was, uh, “not ready” to fall into lemming formation by flatly denying that Trump’s message was a reference to assassination. Well played for now, Mr. Speaker… but there are only so many chambers left in the pistol you are holding to your temple. Sooner or later you have to put on some big-boy pants and give the Kelly Ayottes in your party permission to fly the coop, or you can kiss 2020 goodbye for having been just one more Trump enabler.
Finally, the Secret Service confirmed to CNN that it had actually contacted the Trump campaign about the quote. Awk-ward! “Uh, Mr. Trump, we are in charge of protecting you from, well, uh, people like you.”
Ah, The Donald, there you go again. Vague implication. Distanced suggestion. “I’ve heard that…” “Lots of people are saying…” “Believe me…” And now we add innuendo, the dark Trump art of saying something utterly repugnant in a way that thrills his supporters but retains what Richard Nixon called “plausible deniability.”
Nothing is more revealing about the man than watching Trump beam with macho pride when his secret signals make his stadium audiences howl with venomous delight, and then witnessing his feigned wide-eyed wounded innocence when called to account by journalists. He is a preener willing to bask in the cheers of the bloodlust he incites, but not man enough to even acknowledge that his words brim with ambiguity. His campaign is increasingly a game of how much he can get away with.
As Trump’s coy ploys for his hoi polloi pile up, his “catch me if you can” candidacy does indeed appear to be catching up with him. Throughout the primaries, he knew he could fix weak poll numbers with another fusillade of Mexican and Muslim bashing. It is entirely possible that the recent spate of tanking poll numbers actually inspired him to the appalling outrage of his assassination sub-text. He can say that he is innocent and that he is the victim of a biased liberal media, but with each time he disowns responsibility for the fair interpretation of his remarks, his weakness as a man becomes more evident. He is the candidate for all those who prefer the lie that supports their position to the truth that disproves it; he is the candidate for the feint of heart.
Mainstream Republicans, meantime, may choose to see darkness in Trump’s quotes or not, but they all know one thing for certain: yet another week has been squandered. Thanks to Trump’s utter domination of the news cycle, very few people learned that some particularly pungent Hillary emails saw the light of day last week. Add Week One of the Rio Olympic Games to Trump’s self-inflicted media carnage, and all coverage of Hillary’s problems was sandwiched between the Obits and Style Sections.
In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s “Second Amendment” quote, the former director of the NSA, Lt. General Michael Hayden, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that “if someone else said that outside the hall, he’d be in the back of a police wagon now, with the Secret Service questioning him.” Going even further, Hayden told Tapper, “I used to tell my seniors at the CIA, you get to a certain point in this business, you’re not just responsible for what you say, you are responsible for what people hear."
Funny, you don’t have to be a big deal in one of our national defense institutions to be held to this standard.
In the advertising business, you can make a television commercial in which every single word is literally true, but if the net take-away from the message is misleading to the consumer, you will likely find yourself on the wrong side of a lawsuit. If your competitor believes you made a literally true but nonetheless misleading commercial, all they have to do is show your commercial to a few hundred people in the target audience and quantitatively prove that the majority were misled. Though every word you said in your commercial was accurate, if that consumer test proves you were misleading your customer, you are toast.
So, yes, that means that we live in a society in which we hold a box of Honey Nut Cheerios to a higher standard of honesty in communications than we do our presidential candidates.
But we are not talking about breakfast cereal. We are talking about the person who we trust to represent the wisdom and moral stature of our nation to the world, the person who must make decisions that will irrevocably shape the world our grandchildren inhabit, and the person we empower with the ability to trigger the destruction of human civilization.
We owe that individual more scrutiny than Tony the Tiger.
In the end, words are imperfect vessels even in the employ of the most skilled communicators. The careful wordsmith takes every measure of effort to project a message clearly, knowing that the skill of the reader or listener will be the final arbiter of successful communication. To elect a President who is sloppy in communicating is a grave risk; to elect a President who actively manipulates the ambiguity of language to send intentionally misleading and confusing messages to friend and foe alike is a recipe for Armageddon.
I do not trust a person who is not strong enough to own his own words. I do not trust a person who seeks out the inherently ambiguous gray areas in grammar and nuance so that he can claim both sides of an issue. I do not trust a person who uses language to hide rather than to seek. I do not trust a person who packs language like a concealed weapon. I do not trust a person whose words are weapons of mass deconstruction, requiring more replays than the Zapruder film to simply establish the intended meaning.
But, hey, if that’s what you want in your president, Donald Trump is your guy.
Yes, Republicans, just bend over. He will give it to you, innuendo.
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