Michael D'Antonio: Trump's claim Clinton will kill 2nd Amendment is like his use of "people are saying" to mislead
D'Antonio: People are rightly calling out Trump for the false things he says
It’s come to this. Donald Trump said on Tuesday that his opponent Hillary Clinton “wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks.” Trump followed his claim, which was not supported by any source or proof, with a not-so-veiled suggestion, adding, “although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is.”
For years fringe figures on the right have spoken of “Second Amendment solutions” in ways that leave little doubt they are talking about people using their guns to solve political problems. In the uproar that followed Trump’s remarks, his staff said he was only referring to the voting power of gun rights supporters. However, Clinton supporters believe Trump implied a threat of violence against her. The Secret Service, which is tasked with protecting both Clinton and Trump, may have to investigate the candidate’s statement. The agency recently looked into a Trump surrogate’s suggestion that Clinton be executed “for treason.”
No one should be mistaken about Trump’s intentions. He has consistently used rhetorical sleights of hand to say outrageous things without being held responsible for them. Trump’s Second Amendment statements came a day after he said he heard “many people saying” that Clinton was linked to the Iranian government’s execution of a scientist who aided the United States.
After the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub he said that “there are a lot of people that think” President Obama willfully ignores key facts about terrorism. For years he repeatedly talked about how he heard that many people thought Obama was not born in Hawaii and thus not legitimately president of the United States.
People are noticing that the GOP candidate uses the crutch of “many people are saying” to pass along outrageous and unproven assertions. There’s even a Twitter hashtag: #PeopleareSaying. But this is far from a new technique for Trump.
Throughout his own campaign for president, Trump has referred to unnamed sources, typically multiplied with terms like “a lot” and “many” to say outrageous things without taking responsibility for them. He has mentioned people who “think” Clinton administration aide Vince Foster, who committed suicide, was murdered and that “a lot of people are talking about” the possibility that his primary campaign rival Ted Cruz was not born in the United States.
Every time he uses this technique, Trump gives himself an excuse in the event he is proven wrong: He wasn’t saying something himself. He was merely talking about things he had heard.
This weaseling has been going on for a long time. In June 2015 Trump used his “people say” technique in the rambling address he delivered when he declared his candidacy. He noted that “people are saying, `Oh you don’t like China.’ I love China.” Other people, according to Trump, said they “want to cut the hell out of” Social Security, but he doesn’t. Still other “people” said Trump wouldn’t run for president, but he was proving them wrong. (When I first met him, in 2013, Trump told me that “a lot of people” were urging him to run for president.)
It may be harmless to claim nameless supporters who say you should run for president and unidentified critics who think you hate China. But by last autumn, when Trump was a leading candidate for the GOP nomination, he was willing to take the “people are saying” trick to a new and dangerous level.
When a man stood up at a rally in Rochester, New Hampshire, to spout a bit of conspiracy theory nonsense about terrorist training camps established in the United States, Trump replied, “You know, a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We’re going to look at that and plenty of other things.”
As he chose to inflame fears, rather than calm them, Trump demonstrated that his instincts run counter to those of Sen. John McCain. When he was running for president McCain faced a questioner who insisted then-candidate Barack Obama was an “Arab” and therefore not to be trusted. He corrected her, saying, “No ma’am.” When crowds at his rallies chanted derisively about his opponent, McCain said, “We will be respectful. I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments. I will respect him.”
How did Trump get into the habit of making ugly statements and unsubstantiated claims? I think it began back in the 1970s when he was a budding real estate developer and discovered he wasn’t going to be held responsible for things he said and did.
First he got away with deceiving the city of New York about his control of a valuable piece of property. Next came outlandish claims about how he was going to build the world’s tallest skyscraper and a football stadium. Neither of these projects came to pass, but Trump was forgiven the hype because in those days, he was just a businessman with big dreams.
As the Republican Party’s presidential candidate Trump occupies a position that comes with a greater expectation of accuracy and honesty. This would seem doubly true of someone who regularly criticizes the press as “slime” and “scum” and “disgusting, dishonest human beings” The one exception Trump has offered to this assessment of the media is the National Enquirer, which was the source he credited during a discussion about a supposed relationship between Ted Cruz’s father and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
“What I was doing was referring to a picture reported and in a magazine, and I think they didn’t deny it,” said Trump “I don’t think anybody denied it.” In truth Cruz had already condemned the Enquirer’s story as false, adding that a photo published with it did not show his father, as the paper claimed. Trump then doubled down on his statement saying, “You can’t knock the National Enquirer.”
As he praised the Enquirer, Trump may have been the first national politician to ever embrace a supermarket tabloid as a paragon of truth. More recently he has claimed to be acting like a journalist himself, “reporting” news to crowds at his rallies. When he erroneously claimed that he has seen a video of a plane delivering cash from America after a hostage release, he told a crowd, “I don’t think you’ve heard this anywhere but here.” He was correct in saying that no one else had reported that, and in fact Trump withdrew the claim soon after.
But even if Trump later drops a claim, it’s likely some of his supporters will continue believing the initial falsehood. This is how Trump’s game is played. Someone “hears” something and repeats it so someone else can “hear” it and soon enough, Vince Foster’s suicide becomes a murder and President Obama is foreign-born Muslim. (If you need help understanding how dangerous Obama is, just refer to Trump’s insinuation, made in June, that “there’s something going on” between the president and Islamic extremists who plot and carry out terror attacks.) Voters can be excused if they feel they can’t trust anyone to tell them the truth. If they listen to Trump, they certainly can’t expect to get the facts from the press.
History is full of candidates who shaded the truth, distorted an opponent’s record and sometimes told outright lies, yet Trump seems to revel in it. The respected fact-checking site Politifact has reviewed many of Trump’s claims and found that only 15% are “true” or “mostly true.” (This compares with 50% of Clinton’s statements.)
When combined with his loose sourcing for so many of his claims. the Trump record is so bad that it raises genuine concern about his ability to process information and speak plainly about things. This helps to explain why 50 foreign policy experts who have served Republican presidents have signed a letter saying they cannot support Trump. They wrote that Trump, “is unable or unwilling to separate truth from falsehood.”
The open letter from the foreign policy experts represents one way to check Trump’s methods and counteract them. Another has emerged in social media. The popular hashtag on twitter invites people to share their thoughts under the heading, ManyPeopleAreSaying. Among the entries so far are “@RealDonaldTrump is a secret Muslim” and “many people are saying I deserve a raise.”
Will the combination of social media mockery and serious criticism from experts change the way Trump speaks on the campaign trail? I’ve heard, and many people are saying, no.