Democracy & Government

Donald Trump and the Uses of Insinuation

A note on gobbledygook.

Donald Trump and the Uses of Insinuation

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in Wilmington, North Carolina, where his remarks unleashed another round of condemnation. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

The big story as I write is what Donald Trump said at a rally Aug. 9 in Wilmington, North Carolina:

Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what, that will be a horrible day.

The part about Clinton wanting to abolish the Second Amendment is his usual brand of sheer nonsense. Trump makes things up. As tedious as it is to point out his lies, falsehoods, mistakes and distortions, it has to keep being done, done and done, nonstop.

But that’s not the part that’s sparked huge and deserved disgust and outrage. It’s the italicized part, the “Second Amendment people” and “maybe there is.”

David Duke at rally

Donald Trump insists he doesn’t know white supremacist and former Louisiana gubernatorial candidate David Duke. (Photo by Philip Gould/Corbis via Getty Images)

Trump’s recklessness and indecency keep setting new records, as do his lame attempts to deny that he insinuated what he so obviously insinuated. We saw something similar with his pretending, in a Feb. 28 interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper that he did not recognize the name David Duke: “I just don’t know anything about him,” Trump said. We saw another version when Trump told Fox News in June, after the Orlando massacre:

[President Obama] doesn’t get it or he gets it better than anybody understands — it’s one or the other, and either one is unacceptable. … Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind. And the something else in mind — you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.

But the present occasion is, to be sure, distinctive. Having invited, or at least suggested the value of, the assassination of Hillary Clinton if she is elected, this duly nominated candidate of the Republican Party resorted to a cover-up/walkback/retraction/lie of such transparency as to promote a sort of breakthrough in virtual reality.

President Barack Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Wednesday, July 27. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Donald Trump insists he didn’t really mean to suggest President Barack Obama sides with terrorists. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In his pathetic effort to clean up the appalling mess he’d made — a mess that brought do-my-ears-deceive-me and are-you-kidding-me looks from members of his own audience — Trump told Sean Hannity that he was referring to the political power of gun rights advocates: “This is a political movement. This is a strong powerful movement, the Second Amendment. Hillary wants to take your guns away. She wants to leave you unprotected in your home. And there can be no other interpretation.”

In other words, Trump according to Trump, was not musing about an the assassination that might happen once she is elected. He was musing that “Second Amendment people,” aka gun owners, might take action to prevent her election. “There can be no other interpretation,” said the artless dodger. Oh yes there can. By speaking out of the many sides of his polyhedral mouth, Trump invites more efforts at interpretation than a barrel of Talmudic rabbis. This is not because journalists are stupid or biased. It’s because he practices the art of insinuation. He hopes to rouse his true believers while hedging bets.

What Trump offered up this time does not by any stretch of the imagination qualify as an “interpretation.” It did not clarify what he imagines, or wishes, could or should be done after Jan. 20. It was not, for example, a statement that Congress or the states should take legal action, should she abrogate the Second Amendment, to prevent her from abolishing the Second Amendment. (In the US Constitution that he claims to have read, the president does not have the authority to abolish amendments.)

Trump is too vain to deploy the usual politician’s evasion that he “misspoke.” No, his “interpretation” is sheer gobbledygook. It had no propositional content.

Hillary Clinton

Donald Trump insists he didn’t mean to suggest that gun owners take up arms against Hillary Clinton. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

What he said in Wilmington, North Carolina, was in other words, a typically Trumpian insinuation. When Trump “speaks his mind” — something his enthusiasts admire — he does not limit himself to factual statements that can be judged true, false or otherwise (“Hillary Clinton is a liar”). He spills out a heap of phrases to give him an out. Whenever it pleases him to try, he thinks he can use what is either the abject incompetence of his spoken language or his deliberate obfuscation to dig an escape hatch through which he can “distance himself” from the murderous, racist or otherwise indecent messages that he conveys to his more incendiary followers.

This sort of thing keeps happening, and it’s important to understand what it is. Trump’s lack of crystalline clarity and, in particular, his use of non sequiturs and half-statements are as common as his insults. This may at times be a matter of his incapacity — the fact that he is grammatically as well as intellectually and informationally challenged. Likely, it’s also a matter of trying to speak to multiple audiences at once. His enthusiasts, whom he tempts by speaking in half-statements, get the raw meat while his enemies, on demand, get a veggie burger substitute.

How to get serious about what Trump is doing? The New York Times tried this:  “Donald J. Trump on Tuesday appeared to raise the possibility that gun rights supporters could take matters into their own hands if Hillary Clinton is elected president and appoints judges who favor stricter gun control measures to the bench.”

The local paper, the Wilmington Star News,went further in one way (“taking up arms”) though lighter in another (“suggested”): “Trump suggests taking up arms if Clinton pushes restriction on guns.”

Staggering under the burden of digging out from under the most grotesque insinuation yet, Trump’s running mate Mike Pence, speaking to WCAU-TV in Philadelphia, was reduced to this:

Donald Trump was very clear. Hillary Clinton’s made it very clear that she wants to see changes in the right of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms. [What] Donald Trump is clearly saying is that people who cherish that right, who believe that firearms in the hands of law-abiding citizens makes our communities more safe, not less safe, should be involved in the political process and let their voice be heard.

So perhaps it’s true that, as The Washington Post’s fact-checker Glenn Kessler wrote (after Trump told the mother of a crying baby at a Green Bay, Wisconsin, event Aug. 5, “You can get the baby out of here”), his remark “certainly was not an ejection — it was an unusually barbed endorsement of the mother’s own decision to depart.” But if Trump was misunderstood on that occasion, it’s only because his instruments of speech are smoke and mirrors.

Baby at Donald Trump rally in Iowa.

Donald Trump insists he actually loves crying babies at his rallies. (Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)

The most acute journalistic reaction so far to Trump’s Wilmington insinuation comes from The New York Times’ Thomas L. Friedman. He urgently recalls the history-bending assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing fanatic who took seriously a certain Talmudic “interpretation” offered by other right-wing fanatics who happened to be rabbis — an episode disturbingly and brilliantly conveyed by the Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai in his film: “Rabin: The Last Day.” I have written about the way the film captured the sense of incitement and the “the environment of murder.”

Did the rabbis fomenting the notion that Rabin had betrayed his nation know what they were doing? Different nations have different styles of insinuation. In Israel, they cite sacred texts. In America, they “joke.” They say “Give me a break.”

This couldn’t be more serious.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.