Rhetorical Recap: It IS a Small World, After All
June 17, 2016
Analysis of speeches by Trump, Clinton and Obama in the wake of the Orlando shootings.
A depressing sameness soddened public reactions to the Orlando murders. The media ritual for mass shootings dulled the shock of the record body count; the political lesson-drawing was equally predictable and mind-numbing right down to the possibility of Congressional action on the admittedly new proposal regarding making guns less available to persons on the no-fly list. But there were two minor surprises: Trump reached out to the LGBT community and got a rise out of President Obama by implying he was a traitor (and not just an alien).
1. Trump’s Vision for America: LGBTs and Cooperative Muslims In, Latinos and Foreign Muslims Out.
Donald Trump opened his Monday appearance by announcing a program change. The speech originally scheduled for this time, a response in kind to Clinton’s June 7 “major foreign policy address” which would demonstrate her unfitness to be president, was being postponed. Well, sure. The carnage at the Pulse nightclub presented Trump with a great opportunity to change the conversation topic from his comments about the “Mexican judge.” Better yet, the gruesome particulars of the massacre primed and entwined his America First gated nation program with three more issues that Republicans have long combined to gain advantage in the culture wars: God, guns, and gays.
As an amuse-bouche, Trump had told a Fox morning show team that President Obama was either “not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind,” implying complicity, and perhaps conspiracy (the vague words invite such suspicions) with the Orlando attack and ISIS. Trump also humblebragged about some “you-told-us-so” congratulations sent his way.
But the speech began with The Donald in a different mode. He offered words of compassion and inclusion for the unholy population segment in the GOP trinity:
TRUMP: “Our nation stands together in solidarity with the members of Orlando's LGBT community…It’s an assault on the ability of free people to live their lives, love who they want, and express their identity….We need to respond to this attack on America as one united people – with force, purpose and determination.”
That many of the victims were Latino as well as gay went unmentioned. As for Muslims, the ban now had to be extended to practitioners of that faith seeking entrance into the United States from a larger number of nations. Muslims who were American citizens were admonished that “have to work with us. They have to cooperate with law enforcement and turn in the people who they know are bad.” That’s because “the only reason the killer was in America in the first place is because we allowed his family to come here.” Trump did not acknowledge that some Muslim-Americans already have provided intel on their own volition. “The ban will be lifted,” he reiterated, “when we as a nation are in a position to properly and perfectly screen those people coming into our country.” The implication was that under President Trump’s leadership America’s dysfunctional immigration and hamstrung intelligence systems will be tightened through the imposition of a screening, excluding, and deporting operation capable of fingering not just “radical Islamic terrorists” but the parents of likely radical Islamic terrorists.
Along with the community intel, predictive models could conceivably get close to what Trump called for. However, his claim that this America First solution to Orlando (and much else) is “not complicated,” while obviously appealing, runs afoul of the facts and important technical, legal, and moral considerations. The FBI investigated the gunman, Omar Mateen, after he told coworkers at a courthouse where he worked as a security guard in 2013 that he was involved in terrorist organizations. That was not enough to detain him in 2016 for good reasons. Profiling by name, family origin, and statements risks false positives and (for US citizens) undue encroachment on their privacy and First Amendment freedoms. There are better techniques already in use by intelligence organizations which focus on behaviors more than identities and data.
In conclusion, Trump understandably attempted to use Orlando to frame the general election: “the choice I put before the American people: a mainstream immigration policy designed to benefit America, or Hillary Clinton's radical immigration policy designed to benefit politically-correct special interests.”
Hillary Clinton delivered her response to the attack Monday during a campaign event in Cleveland. She said “today is not a day for politics,” a ridiculous cliché belied by everything else she said. But the everything else was pretty solid. Although she also did not acknowledge the impact on Latinos, she mentioned the heroic along with the tragic. She differentiated known from unknown details. She pledged to make "identifying and stopping lone wolves" a top priority of her administration if she becomes president. And she condemned “inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric.”
Trump, typically, was not so careful with facts. He repeated his mischaracterizations of Clinton’s gun proposals from his NRA speech. He claimed that 100,000 Middle Eastern refugees arrive in the US each year, whereas the actual number is thousands less than the 10,000 Obama has called for. He said the gunman was “Afghan.”
In its timing, blend of scripted and extemporaneous material, and sense of his and his party’s base, Trump’s speech could have been just what GOP insiders were hoping for. His American First proposals are popular. In a survey of 1000 Republicans and Independents taken around the time of the Iowa Caucuses (late January-early February), 73 percent sided with Trump on the ban, 85 percent on the wall, and 90 percent on identifying and deporting illegal immigrants as quickly as possible. A CBS News poll this week found that 56 percent of Republicans supported the temporary ban.
However, Trump’s flimsily veiled accusation of presidential treason spoiled the mix. Such a charge is familiar rhetorical business on the fringes of American discourse but jarring to hear from a major party nominee. It elicited blunt and acrid treatment from the liberal media, provoking Trump to ban the Washington Post from his campaign events. The CBS poll reported that “Most Democrats (62 percent) approve of Clinton's response, while just half of Republicans (50 percent) approve of Trump's. More independents are critical of Trump's response than Clinton's.”
Trump also provoked a furious response from the president. He did not take up the scurrilous charge directly, knowing he would only validate and perpetuate it by so doing and knowing, as well, that others would condemn it. Instead, he reported on the war as being waged in the Middle East, and spent time addressing the nomenclature controversy.
2. The Fuss Over What To Call The Enemy
In his speech, Trump sounded a common Republican talking point expressing abhorrence of those who will not use the words “Radical Islamic terrorism” to characterize ISIS fighters and the ISIS-inspired who kill people. He regarded the refusal sufficiently egregious to warrant Obama’s resignation and Clinton’s withdrawal from the presidential race.
Clinton referred to “radical jihadists” and has also used the term “Radical Islamism.” On Tuesday Obama said this:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: “These are not religious warriors, they are thugs and they are thieves…. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away….And the reason I am careful about how I describe this threat has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with actually defeating extremism.
“Groups like ISIL and al-Qaeda want to make this war a war between Islam and America, or between Islam and the West. They want to claim that they are the true leaders of over a billion of Muslims around the world who reject their crazy notions.
“They want us to validate them by implying that they speak for those billion-plus people, that they speak for Islam. That's their propaganda, that's how they recruit. And if we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush, and imply that we are at war with an entire religion, then we are doing the terrorists' work for them.”
This semantic skirmish can look trivial given fifty dead, fifty wounded, and hundreds of millions fearful. Indeed the partisan attacks help make it look trivial inasmuch as each side asserts that the other is taking a ridiculous position. But it is quite serious and consequential. Both sides deploy their naming conventions as propaganda to boost homeland and allied morale and discourage the enemy.
To see the passion and strategy packed into the semantics, it helps to start with a parallel example which is also part of the post-Orlando discourse: whether or not to refer a killer by name. The parents of one of those murdered in the Aurora CO theater massacre started a movement called “No Notoriety” to get media to deny killers the fame and glory some of them purportedly sought through rampant violence. Anderson Cooper followed this practice in his coverage from Orlando, and FBI Director James Comey has as well.
The “Radical Islamic Terrorist” namers contend that the adjective “radical” clarifies the difference between good and bad Muslims. They reject politically correct nuance and sensitivity in order to gin up motivation to fight the war that needs to be fought to win. The “he won’t say it” trope signifies the belief that failure to say the words stands for all the errors of omission and commission that the current administration has committed in its Middle East oratory, policy-making, and use of force.
Obama, by contrast, regards the fight as one best waged through clandestine operations; to be open is counter-productive online, on the battlefield, and in the crowded spaces where terrorist mass shootings occur. And for someone named Barack Hussein Obama, careful word choice in this regard must be deeply personal as well. He is not Muslim but he has been persecuted as such. He gets the three name treatment from his detractors, not just to include the word Hussein but to echo the normal convention of triple-naming violent perpetrators, although not in this instance (it’s just Omar Mateen). One can see how he would care about how others with Muslim names and persons of that faith suffer absent his capacity to speak and fight back. All the more since Trump has stuck to his claim that Obama sides with the enemy, through negligence or conspiracy. Obama’s palpable anger, a rarity for him, was noticed by the media and tweet-taunted by Trump.
Hillary Clinton is no wordsmith but she has been an accomplished locator of a political center in confrontational situations. She has a chance now to mint a middle position on this issue.
3. “The days of deadly ignorance will end.”
With the comfort-the-families visit to Orlando yesterday by Obama and Biden (the president’s fifteenth such experience in his tenure), the media ritual comes to an end until the inevitable next time. The partisan narrative pushes onward, apparently to Trump’s delayed attack on Clinton and her husband and a big targeted ad buy on her behalf.
Gains for Trump among LGBT voters, with whom he has also allied on the bathroom issue, seem unlikely. Given its superior data operation, the Clinton campaign will spot any signs of such a voter migration sooner and more precisely than the Trump campaign, and counter with reminders of the two parties’ record on LGBT issues.
Meanwhile, that which politics divides by ideology, identity, and interests, shared tragedy unites in civil society. Gays and Latinos, whose cultures clash by tradition, have mixed and huddled in Orlando, first in terror, and then in solace and healing with persons of all faiths, races, and origins.
We all can hope and work to make a reality of Trump’s prophetic remark about the days of deadly ignorance, perhaps in ways he has not intended.