Sunday, 14 August 2016

Trump, Truth, and Reflecting On a Politics of 'Yes' and 'No'

Donald Trump has made many controversial, questionable, and patently false statements in his run for the presidency.  I’ll not take time to relate them all here, as they’ve been dutifully collated by many journalists, commentators, and bloggers.

For the sake of my topic, I’ll need to explore one, delivered on 10 August at a rally in Florida. Trump declared to supporters that President Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton are responsible- personally- for founding the Islamic State (ISIS).

‘ISIS is honoring President Obama’, Trump said. ‘He is the founder of ISIS; he is the founder of ISIS, OK? He’s the founder. And I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton. Co-founder. Crooked Hillary Clinton.’

As with many of Trumps declarations, the statement left many- opponents and supporters alike- pondering questions like ‘did he really say that?’ and ‘what did he mean?’

Many prominent Republicans took his comments at face value and strenuously defended his analysis on media outlets.

Others, like conservative radio host and Trump supporter Hugh Hewitt, wondered if he might have been speaking metaphorically. ‘I know what you meant’, he said to Trump in an interview. ‘You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace…’

Trump was having none of it. ‘No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.’

By Friday, however, Trump was insistently tweeting that his comments were never meant to have been taken seriously:

Ratings challenged @CNN reports so seriously that I call President Obama (and Clinton) "the founder" of ISIS, & MVP. THEY DON'T GET SARCASM?

So… Where to begin?

The easiest place to start is that it’s obvious Trump doesn’t understand sarcasm either. This tweet commits one of the biggest misuses of rhetorical terminology since Alanis Morissette co-wrote a hit song titled ‘Ironic’ that contained no examples of irony. 

‘Sarcasm’ is the use of irony to mock or convey contempt; Trump’s statements that Obama and Clinton founded an international terror organization- whether Trump believes that or not- were not sarcasm. They were lies, obviously, but the technical term would be either ‘slander’ or ‘defamation’.

Secondly, Regardless of his earlier insistence he was serious, backed up by many defenses by his own party, it appears that Trump does not, in fact, believe that President Obama and Hillary Clinton founded an international terror organization. The amazing thing about this particular candidate is that we can’t really be sure…

This is uncharted territory in US politics, one that the voters and the media have never encountered. Traditionally, a candidates speeches, interviews, and position statements- as well as unscripted gaffes or mistakes- made on the campaign trail are the news story, building a broad picture of the candidate's beliefs; but Trump makes so many incredible, outrageous, and downright unbelievable statements that they are news in and of themselves. It’s almost impossible not to report them. 

In this case- the initial statement, the confirmations, the double-downs, and then a declaration that he never meant them to be taken seriously- we are now in the position of not knowing if the candidate believes what he is saying or not. Moreover, Trump’s unvarnished loathing for the media means he revels in the idea that the media doesn’t understand his meaning, as he did in a Friday tweet:

I love watching these poor, pathetic people (pundits) on television working so hard and so seriously to try and figure me out. They can't!

Finally, the whole episode displays all the classic, strategic hallmarks of a bully- say something outrageous, abusive, violent, or rude, and when confronted, insist you were kidding… and imply that anyone with any intelligence would have known you were kidding.

But the point I’ve been thinking about is this:

The important question, in my opinion- and what Trump and his supporters don’t seem to grasp- is that is not so much whether or not people understand that a potential US President was being sarcastic, but whether or not people should be put in the position of having to figure that out…

The biblical text contains many and varied statements about the importance of honesty and plain-speaking. Needless to say, it is unequivocal in its condemnation of lying; lying gets condemned more often than any other sin. The Hebrew understanding of ‘bearing false witness’ bore a legal and moral imperative, encompassing slander, libel, defamation, and false reporting of events. Lying could even carry the death penalty; if a person was found to be lying against a defendant in a capital case, they would receive the punishment they sought for the defendant.

In the political sphere, we’ve become so accustomed to lying that we are almost totally inured to it. We often dismiss or overlook lying as ‘just a campaign promise’, ‘the way it works’, ‘the way you get things done’, ‘spin’, or ‘putting bad news, in the best light’.

But the biblical text is adamant that lying destroys community, is a window onto bad character, damages personal credibility, and rots the soul.

But since Trump insists he was being sarcastic, what can we take from the biblical text on that?

I’d reflect on the words of Christ in Matthew 5:37:

Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.

Now, sarcasm is not a sin; it certainly wouldn’t be thought of in the biblical text as a sin in the way that lying is a sin. Indeed, among close friends, it can be harmless fun. But it carries an enormous capacity for abuse- abuse that takes subtlety and cunning. It brings a complexity into what is being said that runs the risk of being problematic or offensive.

It pretends to give positivity and praise- things we all need and desire- while actually delivering disparagement.

It uses wit and 'knowing' against someone with seemingly less wit or knowledge and punishes them for not being in on the joke.

It forces its victim to interpret what is being said until finally realizing that they are actually being insulted.

Sarcasm is also very culturally specific; it requires intimate knowledge of the norms, customs, turns of phrase, humour, and culture of all involved in the exchange.

At bottom, sarcasm is a form of communication in which it is nearly impossible to convey respect, affection, or admiration… and it is absolutely impossible to convey love.

The message of Jesus was the love of God, particularly the love of God for those whom the rest of society found it difficult to love- women, the poor, the bereaved, the marginalized, the diseased, and the lost.

The message of Jesus was ‘yes’ and ‘no’- ‘yes’ to love, life, justice, goodness, reconciliation, and liberation; ‘no’ to hatred, oppression, marginalization, fundamentalism, and death…

We should expect and demand ‘yes’ and ‘no’ politics- a politics of truth, transparency, honesty, integrity, reconciliation, liberation, and transformation.

We should reject any candidate or system- at any level- that can’t or won’t deliver that. 

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