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It’s called “equivocation.”
What Trump was doing in those two press conferences since Charlottesville – the rhetoric he’s using is called equivocation.
Equivocation is a logical fallacy that uses vague language to hide meaning or to avoid committing to a point of view or stance. You see it used frequently in politics when a politician is trying to appeal to everybody, or – more frequently (and most certainly in this case) – afraid of upsetting a significant number of their supporters.
It also allows the equivocator to avoid counterarguments, to dance around hard questions like “was it terrorism” without giving a committed response.
Let’s look at just a couple of examples from the August 15th press conference*:
“There was terrible violence. On many sides. On many sides.” Equivocation.
“You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now.” Equivocation.
“So, this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?” More equivocation, with a side of slippery slope fallacy thrown in for good measure.
Equivocation waters down statements made about a specific issue. By talking about violent acts coming from the counter-protesters in the same breath as those coming from the alt-right, it lets him avoid the real subject: that the rally and its resulting violence were driven by the organized actions of white supremacists.
Some of his equivocations centered on who was perpetrating the violence. Others were attempts to create uncertainty about the real point of the rally, namely the comments regarding the statue of Robert E. Lee. Recognize statements like these for what they are: misdirections and clumsy red herrings thrown out to lure our attention away from what really matters.
Trump’s brand of equivocation also seeks to absolve or diminish the actions of one group by pointing the finger at someone else and chanting, school-boyish, “see, but they’re doing it too!” It’s like a five-year-old tattling “Bently hit me!” after he first pushed Bently over and kicked sand in the kid’s face.
Trump and his mouthpieces will attempt to hide these equivocations by saying that he’s just telling the truth, looking at facts, or – to steal the tagline of one of Trump’s preferred sources of infotainment – presenting the “fair and balanced” view.
You don’t need to equivocate to look at both sides of a story, to tell the truth, or to look at facts. You don’t need to absolve one group of inappropriate or harmful actions to condemn another. With situations like this, it’s important to keep the focus where it belongs, clearly, plainly, and with absolute sincerity.** And in this case, with the abundance of videos evidence of what was going on at this event, it is very clear where our focus should be.
Within politics, equivocation is the tactic of cowards and deceivers. It’s the slippery way out, the easy road when a leader’s beliefs, fears, or position makes the hard path too intimidating to stomach. Sometimes it’s a difficult tactic to spot. In this situation, however, it stood at a podium and brayed angrily for all the world to see.
So see it, and recognize it for what it is.
**That was a big strike against Trump’s August 14th statement. His distinct personal style and habit of saying whatever pops into his head (along with the pride he takes in his undisciplined speeches) makes it painfully obvious when he’s reading something prepared for him by his staffers…and even more obvious when he doesn’t really buy what he’s reading.