'I Hope You Can Do This': A Continuing War Over Words

  • Steve Prentice
  • Jun 8, 2017 4:03PM

As former FBI director James Comey sat before Congress to finally give his side of the story, pro-Trump supporters were already busy with their co-ordinated social media assault. In the days leading up to Thursday, they distributed tweets to the faithful that amplified Mr. Comey’s own verbal assurance that the President was not being investigated. On Thursday, while Mr. Trump himself did not tweet about the proceedings at the frequency expected, his son, Don Jr., certainly did, joining hands with heavyweight supporters like Sean Hannity and actor James Woods to proclaim the Donald’s complete innocence.

Character assassination is to be expected in the ugly arena of U.S. politics, so it is no surprise to see Trump supporters and lawyers interpret Mr. Comey’s words as both a vindication of his former boss, as well as an outright admission of incompetence and duplicity by everyone else who was not explicitly rooting for the President. Donald Junior made explicit light of this.

As quoted in the New York Times, the younger Trump mocked Mr. Comey’s interpretation of the phrase “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Don Jr. tweeted, “Hoping and telling are two very different things, you would think that a guy like Comey would know that. #givemeabreak,” and later, “Knowing my father for 39 years when he ‘orders or tells’ you to do something there is no ambiguity, you will know exactly what he means.”

The Dangling Implication. You Know What I Mean.

This is an interesting summary of his father, a man who has made a career of perfecting the dangling phrase, perfectly framed and strategically incomplete – one that encourages the listener to fill in the gaps with whatever he or she has on their mind. A great example of this that anyone can use, is “You know what you did.”  

Mr. Trump is a master of this. His threat to “spill the beans” about Ted Cruz’s wife; his perennial favorite, “there’s something more going on here,” and even the milder, yet still effective, “it’s coming in two weeks.” As Bloomberg’s Toluse Olorunnipa writes, everything is coming in two weeks. It’s a highly effective method of deflecting hard questions with a vague device that cannot be argued against.

Verbal deflection is Mr. Trump’s stock-in-trade. He has used it to temporarily silence world leaders. He has used it to rally his faithful, by implying his wall, or those jobs at Carrier will materialize in exactly the way they themselves envision. His words work like a magician’s hands, letting people see what they want to see. They are the verbal version of the façades that adorn the buildings to which he licensed his name. Impressive at first glance, but nothing of his own behind them.

So, no, Donald Junior, anyone who has spent time listening to your father, which is now much of the world, knows that he never speaks directly. That would be too specific. It would commit him to an action or a position that he would have to stick to, and that is something The Donald abhors. His art of the deal is to agree with and say great things to whoever is bending his ear at the time. He never wants to put himself in a position where he loses because of a line he himself has drawn in the sand.

One does not have to possess an excessive amount of street smarts to read between the lines when people talk this way. To make someone “an offer they can’t refuse” is not simply about getting a good deal on car insurance. There’s more “there” there.

So Great. Really Great. Three Times Great.

Mr. Trump has taken the art of this verbal obfuscation one step further with his rhythmic repetition. Saying something three times has a much more insidious purpose than simply conveying enthusiasm. “He’s a terrific guy. A really great guy. He’s such a great guy.” Or “It’s a horrible thing. A terrible thing. It’s the worst thing.” Phrases like this are blockers. They allow the speaker to keep control over a conversation simply by not letting a pause happen. If a pause occurs, the other person might speak or ask a question, and this cedes control of the conversation. Instead, by filling those seconds between talking points with verbal smoke, the opponent gets no chance to move in.

This, again is classic Trumpian verbal domination. Keep talking. People are (sadly) too polite to push back.

The Best Speaker in History

Finally, of course, there is nothing Mr. Trump has done that is merely exceptional. Every action, activity, and achievement is framed in terms of the absolute. “The greatest ever. The worst treatment of a President in history. The absolute worst deal for America.” His superlatives are obese to the point that no other idea can get into the room. He leaves no space for critical thinking. Which is, of course, just how he likes it, and indeed how his supporters like it too.

It was to be expected that whatever Mr. Comey said at this hearing, it would suffer a humiliation from a team headed by a verbal illusionist. His mouthpieces will support the Oz-like mystique by handing out non-statements like, “I think the President has already been very clear on this point.”

The art of saying nothing yet being heralded as a great speaker is not a new one. It carries well across the heartland of any country because it feeds each individual’s pre-existing hopes. It matches the aspirations of each person and convinces them that what was said was what they wanted to hear.

Such is the legacy of the greatest speaker in the world. It’s up to you to decide what Great means in “Make America Great Again.” President Donald simply amplifies the sentiment. Oh and he also sells the hats.