You Tell Me: Trump and the Politics of Denial
“You tell me,” said Donald Trump recently implying that there was some nefarious reason why Ghazala Khan, the mother of a fallen Iraq war hero Army Captain Humayun Khan, stood by silently while her husband Khizr explained at the DNC in July why Trump’s lack of character and knowledge makes him unqualified to be President. Trump intimated that as a Muslim woman she was not allowed to speak. He would not actually say it definitively; instead he left us with the strong impression that that is what we should conclude. In this one moment, Trump’s cryptic statement crystallized a lot about who he is and how he operates. He showed us that he is a selfish bully who thinks he ought to be free to say the most outrageous things and not be held accountable for them.
Trumpese, as spoken by its namesake, employs enthymeme, where an argument is partly unstated, so says Emily Flitter of Reuters. Flitter spoke to a class I teach at Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute in February to see how students responded to Trump’s use of this linguistic practice. The class was shown how Trump’s use of enthymeme takes many forms, from “you tell me,” to “there is something [unstated] going on,” to the infamous “wherever” (as in the unspecified part of Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly’s anatomy that was exuding blood in response to Trump’s criticism). At rallies, Trump commonly asks the audience to finish his sentences in unison. “It goes without saying,” “enough said,” “as people say,” and so on. Trump often takes people right up to the epithet without actually saying it himself, leaving them but little choice but to connect the dots for themselves. Trump gets to pollute public discourse but still maintains deniability. He reserves the right to say that he himself did not actually say what it is he wants us to think; like when retweeting other people’s lies and conspiracy theories.
Trump “wants the power of denial,” says Alina Polyakova of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center when discussing his various connections to Russian finance and the related connections of his key campaign advisors. Trump, at first, claimed that he had a close relationship with Vladimir Putin but then refused to admit it during a Republican primary debate. He finally had to admit that he had no relationship with Putin at all this past weekend in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. Even in the face of withering criticism for inviting the Russian government to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, he turned to the power of denial by citing “sarcasm.”
Trump’s most outrageous non-statements continue to receive criticism for being beyond the level of common decency. But as long as he has the power of denial that his enthymemic practices provide him, he is often, but not always, able to keep his escape hatch open.
Not releasing his taxes isn’t any different. He can continue to deny that he is a tax dodger or that he is less charitable than he claims. He can continue to avoid showing money loaned to him from foreign sources who may be seeking to gain influence under a Trump presidency. Without full disclosure, he can avoid being held accountable.
This is a problem of democracy more generally. Hillary Clinton has been less than forthcoming about her email communications as Secretary of State. She has been secretive about ties to Wall Street, as manifested in those speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs for a total cost of $675,000 or the extent to which the Clinton Foundation gets funding from other governments who may also be seeking to buy presidential influence. How are the people able to hold public officials accountable if they are less than transparent about whom is influencing them? Whether it is foreign funding sources or lobbyists meeting with presidential transition teams, such as with energy firms in the deliberations with the incoming George W. Bush administration?
Democracy thrives in the sunlight of open deliberations. For some politicians seeking the freedom to operate without democratic constraints, there is the incentive to be less than transparent, to at least equivocate, and, better yet, operate in the power of denial. This is especially the case when the majority of people would frown upon what they are doing. For example, take the “Bridgegate” scandal that ruined the presidential candidacy of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Power is at its most powerful when it is not visible, when it can be denied and not called into account. But when it is, then politicians must accept the verdict of democracy, even if not in the courtroom. While the law could not call Christie directly into account for punishing the mayor of Fort Lee over a non-endorsement, enough information leaked out to tarnish his political image (his emails were never found, his cellphone was “missing” for over a year, only to be located in his lawyers office, after the fact). It was tarnished enough to prevent his presidential campaign from getting off of the ground.
There is however a vicious cycle to democracy being thwarted by politicians seeking the power of denial. The more we the people insist on democratic transparency, the more politicians who succumb to the power of denial seek to deny democracy the transparency it demands. And the more the power of denial creates a void of information, the more ordinary people are prone to fill that void with unfounded rumors or gossip about what the powerful are actually doing. The power of denial is the perfect breeding ground for speculative conspiracy theories about how elites are engaging in nefarious doings behind the public’s backs. Worse yet, political leaders can often go on to manipulate information-starved citizens by spreading their own unfounded theories to rationalize their political positions at the expense of others.
Trump not only loves the power of denial, he feeds us a steady diet of conspiracy theories: President Obama’s nationality, his religion, and his allegiances with ISIS, or stories about any other enemy that crosses his path such as Ted Cruz’s father being involved in the Kennedy assassination. He spread these stories via enthymeme, by retweeting or saying that other people were already saying these stories and that they might be true.
This week while Trump supporters and political advisors were smearing Khizr Khan as a secret agent of the Muslim Brotherhood, Trump used enthymeme to suggest that the election system is rigged to deny him the presidency: “If the election is rigged, I would not be surprised,” he told the Washington Post this week. His evidence: courts were striking down discriminatory voting restrictions Republicans had put in place to combat non-existent voter fraud. Trump’s implied and fact-free conspiracy theory was evidently that Democrats try to steal elections with voter fraud and the courts let them. In both cases, Trump maintained the power of denial while getting to insinuate the most disreputable and politically irresponsible lies.
The deleterious effects on democracy that come from Trump’s love affair with the power of denial must be called into account. He should not get to undermine our democratic discourse any further than it has already been damaged for decades because of lack of transparency. A good start for Trump would be to release his tax returns so questions about his financial indebtedness can be openly discussed.