GOING WITHOUT SAYING: The Rhetoric Gets Emptier Every Day
Or, How to Say Whatever You Want Without Saying Anything.
It would be remiss, perhaps even unseemly, to say a certain world leader is a huckster without a moral center. I will not do so. Nor will this essay contain characterizations like “narcissist bully,” “fascist wannabe,” nor “habitual lying machine.” You won’t read these aspersions from me.
Now, the above might make you chuckle, or it might make you question my intentions or sanity. All are valid responses. I’ve just hit you with a rhetorical device called paralipsis, only one of the many pernicious and cynical tools of gaslighting that the last four years have dumped in unprecedented bucketloads on a weary public. The term, one of several referring to this technique of emphasizing an idea by professing to say little or nothing about it, brings to mind the pair o’ lips that emit these hypocrisies.
I don’t use the H-word lightly. Paralipsis and many other techniques used by the Trump White House and perpetuated by its imitators are indeed forms of hypocrisy — each its own subtle, treacherous style of head-fake. But that does not mean they don’t have the desired effects. The Trump administration has made a rhetorical art out of persuading while not saying anything, and we do well to know the shape and sound of each logic bomb so that we can dodge its effects as best we can.
[ADDENDUM - December 2020: Even though the sun is setting on the Trump administration, his continued voice in our ears, sway over GOP politics and the state of the nation at large, and the fact the following ideas are still alive in the rhetoric of others who might wish to follow in his footsteps, means this text, as a cautionary tale, should remain valid for many years to come.]
This brand of non-statement is not new. For instance, we might remember Obama telling the DNC in 2004 that “[w]e do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country,” before going on to do just that. But that was an eyedropper; this is a firehose.
How can we forget Trump talking about primary opponent Carley Fiorina:
“I promised I would not say that she ran Hewlett-Packard into the ground, that she laid off tens of thousands of people and she got viciously fired. I said I will not say it, so I will not say it.”
Or of Marco Rubio:
“I will not call him a lightweight, because I think that’s a derogatory term. So I will not call him a lightweight. Is that OK with you people? I refuse to say that he’s a lightweight.”
Or tweeting about Kim Jong-un:
“Why would [he] insult me by calling me “old,” when I would NEVER call him “short and fat?”
Some people say that this use of language is particularly passive-aggressive. After all, you are leaving a gap between what you are saying (or saying that you aren’t saying) and its meaning, a gap that relies on the listener to connect to the desired conclusion. It’s the psychological equivalent of the purported agent provocateur that leaves bricks sitting mildly on the side of a street where angry protests are scheduled: “Oh, I didn’t leave them there to be thrown; I just needed to set down my heavy load of bricks. I can’t help if others pick them up.”
In this quality the practice bears a resemblance to less sinister literary devices such as hypophora, which is simply when speakers ask a seemingly rhetorical question — creating a momentary desire for closure in the listener’s mind — and then fill that gap by answering it. “Will we stand for this?” asks the speaker, before answering, “No, we will not!” You may not have asked the question; you may even disagree with the speaker, but they have engaged your grey matter in creating meaning.
Does this make hypophora an effective element of rhetorical persuasion? Yes, yes it does.
Paralipsis gets into our heads in a similar way. It’s a lazy sort of lying; you don’t even need to come up with a plausible example of why Rubio is “a lightweight”; the listener fills in what’s missing, because our brains seek meaning, consistency, and deplore incongruity. That’s why we tend to read media we agree with: it fits our world view; it doesn’t challenge us to form new neural pathways. It’s mental comfort food.
But make no mistake. Though paralipsis appears to be retracted before it is even made, it is gaslighting, plain and simple: Yes, you heard it, but I never said it, believe me.
VAGUE WORDS AND INCOMPLETE IDEAS
Another way Trump says something without saying anything, and makes you a useful idiot, is by “breaking off [sentences] or substituting a vague word for a more precise one,” explains Emily Flitter. This is a use of enthymemes, leaving out or rendering incomplete part of an argument. Again, here the speaker gets you just far enough down the tunnel that you think you can see the light at the other end. Here’s Trump at a campaign rally in South Carolina on July 21, 2015:
“…if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you’re a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student…”
What do they try? What “number” do they do? He won’t tell you, because you already know. Ot at least, you do now…even if he’s making it up.
Perhaps the most notorious Trumpian example of this is when he insulted Megyn Kelly (ex of Fox News) after she dared pose a difficult question or two for him in a debate, saying she had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her — wherever.” Did he say something unspeakable, or not? You thought what? You have a filthy mind.
Katy Waldman at Slate does a great job of parsing some of these techniques in her 2016 article Trump’s Tower of Babble. On the use of vague words, she notes:
“Consider his reliance on dog whistles and buzzwords. Trump returns again and again to ‘radical Islamic terror,’ as if the incantatory phrase presented an argument in itself. Urging his supporters to monitor polling places in urban districts, he said: ‘Go down to certain areas. … Make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times.’ Certain areas. Other people. Leaving things provocatively undefined is a powerful strategy, allowing people’s fantasies to swirl into the gaps between his words.”
And certainly one could argue his base knows exactly where to follow him on each unfinished thought. There’s a reason we talk about dog whistles; not everyone responds, but the target audience can hear them loud and clear.
SHOUT, THEN SHRUG
A modern type of gaslighting was recognized by Jennifer Mercieca in GVWire who points out that “Trump repeatedly amplifie[s] racist white nationalist content on his Twitter feed while denying that he agree[s] with them.” She cites as an example his denial of responsibility over retweets, in which he told Jake Tapper of CNN, “I don’t know about retweeting. You retweet somebody and they turn out to be white supremacists. I know nothing about these groups that are supporting me.” This allows Trump to “say and not say” what he wants, says Mercieca. He’s done the same with QAnon, which he and his family may retweet repeatedly, but which he, surprisingly after all this time, doesn’t know much about.
Closely allied is the modern phenomenon of the tweet-and-delete. There was a good example of one of these let fly back on June 3. The White House released a misleading video accusing leftist protesters, their scapegoat of choice during the George Floyd demonstrations (and occasional riots), of placing those aforementioned bricks, without any evidence. Supposedly the leftists wanted to nudge protestors towards property damage and violence against law enforcement. (Let’s put aside for the moment the notion that such violence arguably helps Trump more than it helps the protestors.)
But then the White House deleted the video. So did they post it, or not? What about the post naming a whistleblower or doctored videos that slow down Nancy Pelosi just enough to sound inebriated? If you make note it was dishonest to share such false information, they will say, well, we deleted it, so no foul. But the video is already out there in the rumorsphere, so like Schrodinger’s Tweet, it both exists and doesn’t.
THE TRUTHFUL HYPERBOLE TRAP
In the realm of saying/not saying, the crown jewel of Trump’s success as a politician may be related to his habit of what he shamelessly calls “truthful hyperbole.” He’s referring to his tendency to paint anything and everything he does in superlatives: It’s “the greatest,” even if it’s not. It’s “beautiful,” even if it’s, well, a piece of paper, or coal. Sometimes it’s the “first,” even if this is demonstrably false. He has said he sees this not as lying, but as “playing to people’s fantasies” (which is what carnival barkers do to draw in the rubes at the Half-Snake, Half-Naked-Lady tent…but anyway).
But then he goes beyond this. Trump makes a claim that already seems notably positive or negative and simply exaggerates the numbers, knowing that fact checkers who realize he has “exaggerated” the statistic are hesitant to call him on the lie. Why? An example reveals the con: On August 25, The Hill reported of the Republican National Convention, “Trump at times overstated his administration’s efforts, including saying that he was close to appointing 300 judges to the federal bench. The Senate confirmed Trump’s 200th judicial appointment at the end of June.”
OK, is that a “lie”? Yes, by definition, but it doesn’t even matter: If his opponents cry foul, saying, “It’s not true, he only appointed 200 judges,” he gets free publicity for what is, even to his enemies, a notable accomplishment. Agree with Mitch McConnell’s questionable tactics or not, two hundred slots filled is not so shabby. So his opponents either have to shut up and live with the 300 figure, or they have to give explicit acknowledgement of his dubious accomplishment.
THE MAGIC WORD THAT MAKES A HARMLESS TOPIC UNTOUCHABLE
Paradoxically, denying something is “political” is a sure-fire way to make it political — and deny your opponents space to give their position. Used with intent, this can be another masterful use of negative space. We saw this July 7 with Donald Trump insisting that he would push for schools to reopen in the fall despite the COVID-19 virus because “We don’t want people to [close schools to] make political statements or do it for political reasons; they think it’s going to be good for them politically so they keep the schools closed. No way!”
The issue of closing schools can be decided without politics, based solely on recommendations of health authorities and local leaders (to whom he has often said he would leave these decisions about public health). But Trump has now made it political. By saying “we want no politics in this issue,” he removes any possibility that the issue can be anything but political. But he retains plausible deniability.
Indeed, we also see this regarding judges: The cry from politicians of all stripes that they want nominees who will not impose “personal agendas” rings a bit false when the record of their nominees reveals such clear evidence of imposing a particular political agenda.
GASLIGHTING WRIT BIGLY
These are just some of the feeder streams that supply the broader torrent of gaslighting we have seen these past few years, telling us that what we see in front of our faces, cannot be trusted. (There are others, like the “Trump was joking” defense.) Gaslighting is not misinformation or disinformation, but more anti-information: It not only misinforms you, it sucks the understanding of truth out of you. It’s a virus that makes you doubt everything. And in the monsoon of it, there is no time to respond to every piece of misleading intelligence. Six weeks later, it has sunk out of sight in your conscious memory — many other outrages have supplanted this one — but it’s still lurking there, deep in your world view, and there it remains, like a vague odor that has infiltrated a favorite piece of clothing.
Whether it counts towards the record of lies of the administration or not, all of this non-sense is poisonous to civic discourse, because it sidesteps meaning and undercuts (uppercuts?) truth.
No wonder those who lament the relentless, nearly always baseless innuendo of this administration feel a sense of helplessness and even occasional rage, all of which eventually, if the White House achieves its cynical vision, degenerates into moral exhaustion, resignation and bitter withdrawal from civic life. You are fighting away, but accomplishing nothing but pushing smoke around.
Repellent or not, the White House knows all this is a perverse kind of winning. It means they never have to stand behind their false rhetoric or its consequences. And this is why we must watch for instances of paralipsis and other forms of gaslighting and passive lying—from this leader or others—and call them out loudly and repeatedly for what they are.
A whole lot of very, very effective nothing.
Adam Steinberg would never claim to be a language buff, former editor and educational software producer, until recently teaching International Baccalaureate English in southern Germany and currently generating compelling marketing copy for B2Bs and 501(c)3s. Moreover, he is far too modest to invite readers to enjoy (and download for a pittance) his musical scribblings at www.lyricist.net.