the national interest

Bill O’Reilly Is Surprisingly Bad at Making Threats

Bill O’Reilly is warning you. Perhaps too bluntly.

It is not remotely surprising that Bill O’Reilly would threaten a New York Times reporter who was covering his misstatements about his reporting history. The surprising thing is that O’Reilly — a longtime rageaholic who we would expect to issue threats as part of his daily routine, the way you or I might order lunch — seems to have no idea how it’s done. O’Reilly told the Times, on the record (!), “ “I am coming after you with everything I have,” and then followed up, “You can take it as a threat.

This violates one of the most important rules in threat-making: you never actually say you’re issuing a threat. The usual method is to couch the threat in terms of a deal. Here is something I can do for you in exchange for what I want:

The protocol is well understood enough that, if the subject of your threat asks if you are threatening them, you deny it:

The art of good threat-making involves casting the terrible thing you’re threatening to do as lying somehow out of your own control. That’s how John Boehner successfully jacked up President in Obama in 2011. He didn’t want a breach in the debt ceiling, but you never knew what these crazy conservatives in Congress would do, so the best thing for all involved was for Obama to hand over a trillion dollars or two in spending cuts to keep them happy. That worked.

On the other extreme, you can’t deny the consequence you’re threatening too persuasively, or else the threat doesn’t work. Mitch McConnell is about to give up on his threat to shut down the government over Obama’s immigration policies because he admitted from the beginning that under no circumstances would he allow the government to be shut down. Are there any Republicans left who know how to make a good threat?

Bill O’Reilly Surprisingly Bad at Making Threats