The insidious strategy behind Donald Trumps retweets

by Jennifer Mercieca / 01 December, 2017

Donald Trump's Twitter account generates a large number of news stories. Photo / Getty Images

On Nov. 29, President Trump retweeted a series of videos that purported to depict violence committed by Muslims.

They had originated from the account of a far-right British ultranationalist who had been convicted for harassing a Muslim. The backlash was swift, with British Prime Minister Theresa May saying “the President is wrong to have done this.”

But Trump’s retweeting of controversial (sometimes outright false) content is part of a pattern.

For example, during the 2016 campaign, George Stephanopoulos asked Donald Trump about his retweet of a follower who insisted that both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were ineligible for the presidency.

Trump dismissed Stephanopoulos’ question with “it was a retweet” – as if to say that retweeting someone else’s claim meant that he wasn’t responsible for the content.

When pressed, Trump continued:

“I mean, let people make their own determination. I’ve never looked at it, George. I honestly have never looked at it. As somebody said, he’s not [eligible]…and I retweet things and we start dialogue and it’s very interesting.”

It’s a response that can be reduced to I’m not saying it, I’m just saying it.

As a scholar of American political rhetoric, I’ve previously written about the ways that Donald Trump’s rhetorical style mirrors that of polarizing figures like George Wallace and Joseph McCarthy.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that what sets Trump apart is his reliance upon paralipsis, a device that enables him to publicly say things that he can later disavow – without ever having to take responsibility for his words.

Just saying…

The art of rhetoric – or persuasive communication – can include any number of forms: speeches, essays, tweets, images, films and more.

Paralipsis (para, “side” and leipein, “to leave”) is a Greek term that translates to “leave to the side.” It’s thought to be an ironic way for a speaker to say two things at once.

For example, say you wanted to imply that your coworker takes too many coffee breaks without actually accusing him wasting time at work. You might say something like, “I’m not saying that he drinks more coffee than anyone else in the office, but every time I go to the break room, he’s in there.” You might also shrug and make a “something seems kind of off” facial expression.

Paralipsis is a powerful rhetorical device because it can also allow someone to make a false accusation – or spread a false rumor – while skirting consequences.

And Trump has become a master at wielding this tool.

For example, after he was widely condemned for retweeting a graphic of homicide data delineated by race, FactCheck.org found that “almost every figure in the graphic is wrong.” His response on the Bill O’Reilly Show was:

Bill, I didn’t tweet, I retweeted somebody that was supposedly an expert, and it was also a radio show…am I gonna check every statistic? …All it was is a retweet. And it wasn’t from me. It came out of a radio show, and other places…This was a retweet. And it comes from sources that are very credible, what can I tell you?

In other words: I’m not saying, I’m just saying.

Meanwhile, Trump has repeatedly used paralipsis to deflect criticism that he’s courting white supremacists.

In January 2016, Trump retweeted a photoshopped image of Jeb Bush from a user with the handle WhiteGenocideTM. In response to the backlash he received for retweeting a white supremacist, Trump simply shrugged: “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.”

Likewise, he blamed a faulty earpiece for his unwillingness to disavow David Duke and the KKK in a CNN interview:

I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So I don’t know. I don’t know – did he endorse me, or what’s going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists.

I’m not saying, I’m just saying.

And when Gawker tricked Trump into retweeting a quote from Benito Mussolini during the campaign, his response was “What difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else? It’s certainly a very interesting quote.”

Accountability and responsibility

Certainly it’s a good thing to “start dialogue.” Trump knows that “interesting” content attracts retweets, followers, audiences and media attention.

However, there’s danger in circulating accusations and rumors, even if the purpose is to “start dialogue.” Research shows that once an accusation or a rumour begins to circulate, it’s very difficult to retract. Often, a retraction or clarification doesn’t receive as much attention as the initial accusation. Meanwhile, the mere act of retracting misinformation can reaffirm the deceptive assertions as facts, even after the clarification.

So what does it mean when a political figure gains a devoted following and rises to prominence – yet consistently avoids taking responsibility for the content of his public messages?

Political theorists, rhetoricians and historians have grappled with this exact problem since the rise of the “demagogue” in Athens in 429 B.C., when Pericles’ death created a vacuum for “unofficial” leaders of the people to rise to power.

The danger, according to political scientist Ernest Barker, was that “such a leader – having no official executive position – could exercise initiative and determine policy without incurring political responsibility, since it was not his duty to execute the policy which he had induced the assembly to accept.”

In the Greek context, Barker described the danger of demagogues who weren’t tasked with implementing the policies for which they advocated. In our current political context, Trump can argue that he can’t be held accountable because he wasn’t the one who originally posted the tweet. He can shrug and claim that he’s simply giving a voice to an idea.

In both cases, the defining feature of demagogues is their refusal to accept responsibility for their actions.

Yet Donald Trump (the television star) routinely fired people on his show “The Apprentice” for failing to take responsibility for their team’s failures. And he’s often given lectures on “responsibility” to his Twitter followers, like on February 14, 2013 when he invited his followers to “take responsibility for yourself – it’s a very empowering attitude.”

To use the President’s brand of paralipsis: I’m not saying that Trump’s a hypocrite and a demagogue. I’m just saying that he doesn’t exactly follow his own advice.


Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article first published on March 8, 2016

Jennifer Mercieca, Associate Professor of Communication and Director of the Aggie Agora, Texas A&M University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Richard Prebble: Jacinda Ardern will face the tyranny of events
86009 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Politics

Richard Prebble: Jacinda Ardern will face the tyra…

by Richard Prebble

I predicted Bill English would lose the election and the winner would be Winston Peters. But no forecaster, including the PM, predicted her pregnancy.

Read more
Aokigahara: More than just the ‘suicide forest’
85966 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z World

Aokigahara: More than just the ‘suicide forest’

by Justin Bennett

It's known as a 'suicide forest', but Justin Bennett found Aokigahara's quiet beauty outweighed its infamous reputation.

Read more
Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance of Len Lye
85816 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Arts

Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance …

by Sally Blundell

New essays on New Zealand-born US artist Len Lye elevate him to the status of Australasia’s most notable 20th-century artist.

Read more
Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infertile couples
86046 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Health

Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infe…

by Nicky Pellegrino

For about a third of infertility cases in New Zealand, there is no obvious reason why seemingly fertile couples struggle to conceive.

Read more
Farewells on the Auckland wharves, captured by photographer John Rykenberg
85964 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Farewells on the Auckland wharves, captured by pho…

by Frances Walsh

More than one million images from Rykenberg Photography, taken around Auckland, are now in the Auckland Libraries Collection. But who are the people?

Read more
'Termite hell' for Golden Bay man after he woke covered in insects
86027 2018-01-18 11:59:55Z Environment

'Termite hell' for Golden Bay man after he woke co…

by Hamish Cardwell

A Golden Bay man spending his first night in his new house says he woke to find his bed, walls and floor covered in hundreds of creepy crawlies.

Read more
Ten ‘stealth microplastics’ to avoid if you want to save the oceans
86015 2018-01-18 11:18:49Z Environment

Ten ‘stealth microplastics’ to avoid if you want t…

by Sharon George and Deirdre McKay

There's a growing movement to stop the amount of wasteful plastic that goes into our oceans, but what about the tiny bits we can hardly see?

Read more
It's time to chlorinate New Zealand's drinking water
86001 2018-01-18 09:41:15Z Social issues

It's time to chlorinate New Zealand's drinking wat…

by The Listener

The inconvenience to chlorine refuseniks is tiny compared with the risk of more suffering and tragedy from another Havelock North-style contamination.

Read more