Donald Trump, Deniability and Figleaves

Jennifer Saul on Trump’s surprisingly careful linguistic choices, and why they matter.


Donald Trump’s utterances are shocking, indeed often horrifying. But it would be wrong to think that they are careless or blunt. Quite to the contrary, they appear to be carefully constructed in some interesting ways. It is, in fact, quite rare for Trump to make a shocking utterance which doesn’t also include some sort of qualifier that allow for a measure of deniability, or that functions as what I have called a “figleaf”, covering (slightly) for an otherwise socially unacceptable attitude. These linguistic manoeuvres help his words (and those of others) to powerfully and disturbingly shift our societal norms.

Take Trump’s recent remarks about gun activists and Hilary Clinton, widely reported as a threat. These remarks were actually fairly oblique. (Non-US readers need to know that “Second Amendment people” refers to pro-gun rights activists.)

“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the second amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Importantly, these remarks are not an explicit threat, or even an explicit invitation to assassinate (though they are closer to the latter). One result of this is that there is room for both Trump and his supporters to explain away the comments as not making threats. These efforts have been notably unconvincing, in part due to the poor quality of the explanations offered. Another element, though, is that we have long accepted – both legally and in ordinary life – that threats are often oblique. We all know that the mobster who notes, “it would be a shame for something bad to happen to your lovely family” is not simply expressing concern, and this is legally recognised as a threat. Trump’s remarks are just a bit more indirect than this, which is probably what has kept him out of prison (even though his poll numbers have suffered).

Another tactic Trump uses to gain deniability is to attribute comments that he wants to repeat to “many people”, as in “many people are saying that the Iranians killed the scientist who helped the US because of Hillary Clinton's hacked emails." He needn’t defend this claim, since he hasn’t asserted it, but it has been entered into the national discussion. This is an astute way to give currency to conspiracy theories, while being able to deny (truthfully) that one is endorsing them.

Some of Trump’s most important conversational manoeuvres, though, are what I have called “fig leaves”. These are additional utterances added to ones that would otherwise be clearly unacceptable. Most commonly, these are cases in which what is being said would otherwise seem to violate what Tali Mendelberg calls the Norm of Racial Equality. I have argued elsewhere that this is a very thin norm, mandating that one avoid racism, but leaving room for this to be interpreted as requiring a very high bar for something to count as racism. Many white people today accept this norm, but also display high levels of what psychologists call racial resentment, measure by their agreement with claims like: “Irish, Italian, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.”.

If this is right, then many people who adhere to this norm but are nonetheless racially resentful will allow such fig leaves to conveniently cover for what would otherwise be seen as clearly racist. This is what is going on with Trump’s famous remarks about Mexicans: “They’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.” The second part of this sentence is really quite baffling, unless we realise that it is a figleaf, providing cover for one who might worry that Trump is racist. Those who think a racist must condemn all members of a group – and this is a popular view – can use this to reassure themselves that Trump is not a racist.

Another kind of fig leaf is a “mention fig leaf”, which discusses a comment that someone else has made, or might make, thus avoiding commitment to it. Trump’s “many people say” utterances are like this, as are Glenn Beck’s comments in an interview with Muslim congressman Keith Ellison:

"And I have to tell you, I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.' And I know you’re not. I’m not accusing you of being an enemy, but that’s the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way."

A final kind of fig leaf worth noting is an especially clever one, in which an anti-racist comment can provide cover for racist comments. In December 2015, I was surprised to see Donald Trump speaking out against racism. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had just weighed in on an affirmative action case, suggesting that affirmative action might be bad for African Americans, as it would allow them in to universities that were too difficult for them. Trump criticised this:

"I thought it was very tough to the African-American community, actually," Trump told CNN's Jake Tapper in an interview that aired Sunday on "State of the Union."

"I don't like what he said," Trump added. "No, I don't like what he said. I heard him, I was like, 'Let me read it again' because I actually saw it in print, and I'm going -- I read a lot of stuff -- and I'm going, 'Whoa!' "

This utterance serves as a fig leaf for both past and future utterances. It provides evidence of anti-racism, and can therefore be used to defuse accusations of racism, thus giving cover for utterances or behaviours that might otherwise be seen as racism. (Interestingly, there seems to be a correlate of this in the self-licensing that makes racially resentful people more willing to explicitly favour whites over blacks after expressing support for Barack Obama.)

Fig leaves matter, because they allow people to introduce into public discourse statements that would otherwise be more widely rejected. (A bit of time spent on pro-Trump online discussions confirmed for me that his supporters do pay attention to these, and cite them to reassure each other that he is not racist.) This has at least two important effects. One is that they raise the racist associations to salience, a salience which is not easily removed, and which is likely to continue to affect behaviour. Another is that they change our ideas about what sorts of things a non-racist might say. If a fig leaf works, it convinces us that despite the somewhat dodgy words, the person who spoke them is not really racist. (“He’s not actually racist – he went on to say that some of them are good people!”) This means that “Mexicans are rapists” becomes, in the minds of those who accept the fig leaf, the sort of thing that a non-racist might say. And this leads to changes in our conversational – and other – norms. We start to accept more and more outrageous things as not really racist. And this is a terrible direction to move in.

Although my main focus in this article has been on US politics, and especially Trump, it is important to note the relevance of this to the UK. The recent Brexit campaign very much played upon immigration concerns, some of this definitely linked to racism. However, this mostly remained at the level of dogwhistles rather than the sort of explicit statements that usually require figleaves. These dogwhistles, however, were obvious enough that they were reported on, as was explicit racist and violent behaviour by Leave supporters. It will undoubtedly have been useful to Nigel Farage, then, that he condemned Trump’s Mexican border wall as a step too far. It was certainly useful for Janet Daley to able to point to the “real racism” of Donald Trump. Condemning Donald Trump provides a readymade figleaf that can be used to distance oneself and one’s causes from accusations of racism. Even more worryingly, this fig leaf can help to shift the goal posts so that anything less than Trump’s utterances can count as not racist. So, while it remains vitally important to condemn Trump’s racism, it is at least as important to bear in mind that his is not the only form racism can take – and to remember what’s just beyond the figleaves, whoever is speaking.

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Jennifer Saul is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield, where she was Head of Department 2011-2015. She works in philosophy of language and philosophy of gender and race. Her most recent books are Lying, Misleading and What is Said and (co-edited with Michael Brownstein) Implicit Bias and Philosophy, Volumes 1 and 2. Currently, she is working on a cluster of issues at the intersection of philosophy of language and politics. Her plan for her 2015-16 research leave was to explore subtle and implicit racism in the US presidential campaign, a plan which has been somewhat disrupted by the rise of Donald Trump.