Bad-Faith Speakers Like Trump Let Audience Fill in the Blanks

Way back in 2007, a GOP political strategist on a cable news discussion show said of the then-longshot presidential candidate, “I don’t think the Republicans have anything to fear from Barack Hussein Obama.” His voice emphasized the word “Hussein.” The meaning was obvious–or somewhat obvious, and that was the point. The American people would never elect a candidate for president whose middle name was the same as the surname of an enemy of the U.S., and an obviously Muslim name. Because actually saying that would have been uncouth, the speaker could always plead that they hadn’t said it. They were able to claim the credit, and avoid the liability, for the argument. 

Donald Trump has insulted hundreds upon hundreds of people, places and things. 

Among them are a few instances where he makes half an argument. Speaking of Chief Justice John Roberts, he said “my judicial appointments will do the right thing, unlike . . . Roberts.” Missing is the premise that the “right thing” is to uphold the administration’s agenda through their aspirationally neutral jurisprudence. Trump doesn’t need to say that part. The audience figures it in. 

These political figures, polemicists, and commentators are literally using one of the oldest tricks in the book, rhetorically speaking. They are using enthymemes. An enthymeme is an argument with a “suppressed premise” that is filled in by the audience, or expected to be filled in by the audience, in order to make them participants in the rhetorical process that culminates in reaching a common conclusion. It’s the invisible portion of an argument that acts as a wink, a nudge, and a psychic prompt to the audience. It’s less scientific than a data append, but more powerful because of the seed it leaves with the listener.

As scholar of political communication Kathleen Hall Jameson points out, enthymemes can often come in the form of visual arguments: Because pictures convey nonverbal or unstated meanings, the very act of showing those pictures can be enthymematic, and in the case of Bill Clinton’s race against Bob Dole, such picture-arguments can convince audiences that the party putting them out is more values-aligned than the other party with the observer. 

If it seems like enthymemes are great for racist or other prejudicial arguments, well, consider the concept of “prejudice.” For one to pre-judge, one must already agree with the framework under which the target of the racism, or whatever, is to be judged. There’s actually a word for this that’s a lot less loaded than bigotry, and provides a bigger tent of meaning: topoi, or “the common places.” These are conceptual, historical, interpretive, and yes, provincial and often biased “spaces” of shared values, meaning, and history. 

When that shared meaning is benevolent, or appeals to deeply held and sacred non-hateful values, the experience of co-creating meaning between speaker and audience can be beautiful. I might invoke a phrase like “the greatest generation” or “they gave their last full measure of devotion” when describing heroes not literally affiliated with the Second World War or the union side of the Civil War, and my audience will know that I am implying that the people I am describing are incredibly heroic. 

But when, as it so often is, the enthymeme is used by cynical speakers to cover their tracks while still otherizing or dehumanizing their political enemies, the enthymeme can be a frustrating method of evasion. I might try and point out that the speaker implied that members of a certain race might be lazy or corrupt, or unworthy of full constitutional protections, but the speaker’s defenders can always say “he never said that–this must be your problem.” In this way, the enthymeme is the tool of alt right irony-purveyors or the old boys network—spaces that feign non-seriousness in order to justify real atrocities. It’s that non-seriousness, that possibility that the arguer doesn’t actually believe what they are halfway implying, that makes dialogue impossible. “Where a statement is explicitly made in a clear way by an arguer,” writes one philosopher in the Journal of Applied Logic, “either as an assertion or part of an argument, normally the commitment rule operates in a clear and precise fashion. But there are all kinds of borderline and dubious cases when it comes to dealing with implicit commitments. There can be all kinds of problems, for example when an argument has not been quoted but paraphrased, or where an implicit assumption may be needed to make the argument valid, but where the proponent may not only have not stated that assumption, but may even disagree with it.”

This, then, is the very definition of arguing in bad faith. The hate monger will deliberately slide in a nuanced racial epithet or violent threat (letting the audience do that heavy lifting, because they won’t take the blame either) and then deny making it. “I never said members of the Democratic Party should be killed. I only said that George Washington knew what to do with traitors!” 

Modern ad distribution tactics that rely on deeply personal behavioral data to build targeting models—including Facebook political advertising—have allowed bad faith arguments and misinformation to reach just those most likely to accept them. This is in some contrast to the larger political mail runs or income and job-based data supported by append vendors like Accurate Append (client).

There is no easy way to combat this kind of rhetoric head-to-head, although it’s refreshing to see people try. Instead, political candidates, speakers and advocates who do not want to be affiliated with bigotry or intolerance may need to do the correct-but-awkward and somewhat fantasy-dashing thing: speak in plain and sincere language and repeatedly reaffirm your good intent–and call out enthymemes that are being used to spread racism and other bad arguments, even when the calling out is answered by half-smiling denial. Rhetorician Matthew Jackson writes that “the mercurial quality of whiteness works more insidiously as a morphing sphere of shifting and dynamic power relations with a political commitment to white supremacy . . . one might ask, ‘Then how do we fight it?’ I think part of the answer, as activists have suggested for centuries, is in not allowing arguments for white supremacy to continue unidentified, unanswered, unresolved, and therefore efficacious.” That’s difficult work, but it seems to be the only alternative to letting those hidden premises slide.

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