Trump's campaign of innuendo: Like many Republicans before him, Trump's arguing through insinuation

Trump isn't the first Republican who wraps his arguments in a cloak of plausible deniability, but he is bad at it

By Amanda Marcotte
Published June 15, 2016 7:55PM (EDT)
Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan   (AP/Mary Schwalm/Bob Dougherty)
Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan (AP/Mary Schwalm/Bob Dougherty)

At this point, one needs a spreadsheet housed in its own server to keep track of all the various grudges Donald Trump is nursing, but special attention should be paid to his attempts to beef with the Washington Post, and not just because it indicates, yet again, Trump's hostility to a free press. The whole debacle speaks volumes about what kind of game Trump is playing and his attempts to get away with deeply sleazy behavior.

At issue is a completely accurate piece by Jenna Johnson headlined "Donald Trump seems to connect President Obama to Orlando shooting."

It's an alarming headline indeed, because it accuses a major presidential candidate of linking a sitting president to an act of terrorism.

Sadly, however, there is nothing factually wrong about the piece. It is, as previously noted, 100% accurate. Trump did go on TV and strongly imply that President Obama is deliberately allowing terrorism to happen for dark, unspeakable reasons.

"Look, we're led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he's got something else in mind," Trump said during a Fox News interview.

"And the something else in mind — you know, people can't believe it," he added, doing that thing he does, where he says "people say" when he means "Trump says."

"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."

In case there was any doubt that Trump was insinuating that Obama is a secret ISIS sympathizer, he added, "He doesn't get it or he gets it better than anybody understands — it's one or the other, and either one is unacceptable."

(To be clear, Obama is neither incompetent or complicit, the only two options that Trump believes one should consider. But the debate has grown past whether he's a liar, since duh, and now is a scuffle over how his lies should be interpreted.)

Now Trump is taking umbrage at the Washington Post, claiming that they are "phony and dishonest" and that it was "incredibly inaccurate coverage".

These are more lies, of course, because there is nothing inaccurate about the Post's coverage. Indeed, after tantruming at the idea that anyone dare say that Trump is suggesting Obama is a terrorist sympathizer, Trump went on Twitter and accused Obama of being a terrorist sympathizer:


It's clear that the real source of discontent, for Trump, is that the Post wasn't willing to play dumb and pretend they don't know what he meant when he said there is "something going on" that supposedly makes the president unwilling to fight terrorism.

On "Late Night", Seth Meyer did a bang-up job explaining what Trump's game here is: To use "vague innuendo" to speak to the "outer fringes while also avoiding accountability."

"Sure, Trump didn’t explicitly say" that the president is secretly working for ISIS, Meyer explained, but, "he implied it with all the subtlety of an eighth grader’s cologne."

Trump's anger here, then, is not that he was misinterpreted, but that he was interpreted correctly. He thought he was a tricksy hobbit who had figured out how to bamboozle the press. Instead, he found out, the press wasn't going to be cowed that easily. Feeling entitled to a more compliant press corps, Trump flew into a rage.

No doubt that Trump is an overly entitled orange-tinted man-baby, but his assumption — that he, as a Republican, gets to get away with spewing transparent bullshit — doesn't come from nowhere. The sad fact of the matter is that code words and insinuations are the primary way that Republican politicians communicate, and they get away with it surprisingly often.

Take a look at the Republican platform, for instance. Nearly all of it is pure smarm that relies heavily on code words and insinuation to convey a message that, stated bluntly, would be come across as repulsive.

"We, however, affirm the dignity of women by protecting the sanctity of human life," the platform reads.

This is both pablum and a non sequitur, if taken literally. But of course, it's not meant to make sense on its surface, but is code for banning abortion. And "dignity of women" is code for forced childbirth, because sometimes the literal meaning of conservative code words is in direct opposition to their actual meaning.

"The institution of marriage is the foundation of civil society," the platform reads. "Its success as an institution will determine our success as a nation. It has been proven by both experience and endless social science studies that traditional marriage is best for children."

That's code for denying equal marriage rights to LGBT people.

"For the sake of low-income families as well as the taxpayers, the federal government’s entire system of public assistance should be reformed to ensure that it promotes work," the platform reads.

As a general rule, if Republicans say they're trying to help someone, they're trying to screw them over. So it is with low-income families, who Republicans intend to "help" by depriving them of food and shelter.

"Then the American people, through the free market, can advance affordable and responsible healthcare reform that meets the needs and concerns of patients and providers," the platform reads.

That's code for ending universal health care and forcing millions upon millions of Americans to go without health insurance.

It goes on and on, just piles of smarm and winking bullshit masquerading as policy. Nor is this anything new for Republicans. Richard Nixon practically invented this technique, coming up with code words like "law and order" to express racist views and policy ideas, a strategy that helped secure the white Southern vote for Republicans for decades.

Ronald Reagan was also a master at it, spinning stories about "welfare queens" and "strapping young bucks" to evoke racist stereotypes without using overt references to race.  He even went so far as to launch his national campaign from the same town three civil rights workers were famously murdered in, sending a message to his racist base while maintaining a veneer of innocence to the press.

George W. Bush played this game, too, making a nonsensical reference to Dred Scott during a debate, a reference that was designed to fly over most people's heads while signaling his opposition to abortion rights to the base.

Is it any wonder that Trump took a look at decades of Republicans playing this game and concluded that he  has every right to do it, too?

The main difference between Trump's rhetoric and the standard issue Republican rhetoric is that Trump is less artful and more ham-fisted. He just isn't as good as most at playing the "who, me?" game, and it's made worse because he flies into a defensive rage when his efforts at pretending he's not saying what he's saying fail.

This inability to be subtle about his bigotry has helped him win over huge sectors of the conservative base, who increasingly conflate Republican efforts at plausible deniability with kow-towing to "political correctness", but it makes him seem like an artless buffoon to everyone else. But make no mistake, just because he's bad at it doesn't mean Trump isn't trying to play the same game as many Republicans before him.


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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