Donald Trump has a simple formula for smearing his opponents and pushing his desired outcomes.
Step one: Find or create a baseless rumor and/or make a vague, thinly veiled threat.
Step two: Tweet the rumor, attributing it to a nameless source (e.g., “People are saying . . . ”), or tweet the threat, sometimes — in mob-boss fashion — framing it as a consequence beyond his control.
Step three: Assume — correctly — that the media will weave it into their election-season narrative.
We’ve seen Trump use this technique effectively, most recently to retaliate against an anti-Trump super-PAC ad featuring a risqué modeling shot of his wife, Melania, by threatening to “spill the beans” about Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi. Though Cruz has no connection to the super PAC, Trump tweeted:
Lyin' Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin' Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2016
Cruz replied by calling Trump’s attack “classless” and denying any connection to the ad. Two days later, after Trump had shared an unflattering photo of Heidi, Cruz tweeted, “Donald, real men don’t attack women. Your wife is lovely, and Heidi is the love of my life.”
Of course, Trump has no beans to spill about Heidi, and Cruz responded like a gentleman. And, of course, Trump employed one of his favorite tactics: “Be careful, or I’ll . . . !” Just like that, the mainstream media turned these Trump antics into a story about the shameful campaigns of the entire Republican field. The real story is that Trump blathers childish, conspiratorial B.S. that his targets are obliged to treat as actual politicking from a presidential front-runner.
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Since Trump’s cheap attacks receive disproportionate coverage from journalists glued to his Twitter feed, and since his formula ensures plausible deniability, he can generate destructive, mendacious controversy at little cost to himself.
Though Trump slightly varies his formula, usually his hints begin with the baseless rumor and end with the veiled threat, often punctuated with an earnest exclamation point.
Here’s a tweet that contains both a rumor from a nameless source (“reports from many voters”) and ends with his nebulous word of caution:
We are getting reports from many voters that the Cruz people are back to doing very sleazy and dishonest "pushpolls" on me. We are watching!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 11, 2016
He also begins this tweet with an anonymous rumor and ends it with a warning:
I hear the Rickets family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $'s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 22, 2016
When Bernie Sanders denied sending protesters to Trump rallies, Trump responded again with a rumor and a threat — a threat of consequences implicitly outside his control:
Bernie Sanders is lying when he says his disruptors aren't told to go to my events. Be careful Bernie, or my supporters will go to yours!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2016
#share#It seems the only threat Trump can fulfill is one to tweet more baseless rumors. Several days before the Florida primary, he threatened to use Twitter to “expose” Marco Rubio as dishonest.
Just before Rubio suspended his campaign, Trump was doubling down on him with Trump-formula tweets, featuring rumors about the Florida primary: “Word is-early voting in FL is very dishonest. Little Marco, his State Chairman, & their minions are working overtime-trying to rig the vote”; “We are asking law enforcement to check for dishonest early voting in Florida- on behalf of little Marco Rubio”; “A lot of complaints from people saying my name is not on the ballot in various places in Florida? Hope this is false.”
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Of course, his insinuations about the integrity of the Florida primary were false, and he crafted his suggestions in order to avoid accusations of outright lying. After all, he didn’t state that the vote was rigged — just “word is”! Trump went on to win that primary by nearly 19 percentage points; what say you now, Mr. Trump?
Trump is not so much a pathological liar as he is pathologically unconcerned with the truth.
The day after the primary, addressing rumblings of a possible brokered convention, Trump told CNN, “I think you’d have riots. I think you’d have riots.” Is he condoning violence? Encouraging it? Just stating the facts? It’s impossible to tell solely from his elliptical comment, but given his past nonchalance about violence at his rallies, one might reasonably infer another self-serving threat of consequences — that aren’t his fault, of course.
As in this last case, one senses that even when Trump isn’t lying outright, he intends to deceive about his motives. He wasn’t inciting riots, his defense goes, just saying what he fears would happen! He wasn’t claiming voter fraud in Florida — just expressing concern about complaints! Or consider his self-parodying exclamation: “Sad!” Trump is the ultimate concern troll, always “just saying.”
#related#Trump resembles the “bullsh** artist” of Harry Frankfurt’s classic essay, adapted from a book of the same name, “On Bullsh**.” This artist “may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.” Unlike the liar, Frankfurt’s B.S. artist hides not the fact that he is trying to mislead about reality, but the fact “that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him. . . . This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.”
I am persuaded that Trump is not so much a pathological liar as he is pathologically unconcerned with the truth, a fact he conceals behind exclamation points and lamentations about Cruz’s alleged violation of voters’ trust. It would also explain why he has reversed himself on positions he held days before, not seeming to care about subsequent fact checks. As long as his supporters believe he cares about their interests, rather than merely his own, it doesn’t much matter what he says.