The Rhetoric of Evasion: What Trump’s White House Has Done to the Language of Lying

Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway. Photo: Alex Wong; Mark Wilson/Getty Images

“We’re putting conundrums on top of hypotheticals on top of conjecture here. We take it all very seriously, but I think we’re having the same conversation seven different ways, respectfully, and ignoring all the other things that the national security adviser, president, the vice-president, and this administration are doing together,” Kellyanne Conway said on February 13 to MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki. At issue was the phone chatter between Michael Flynn and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and whether they talked about sanction relief in the late days of the Obama administration, but really Conway could have been talking about any of the things she goes on television to talk about because she was using her three favorite rhetorical tactics. First, she casts doubt on the verifiable reality of the question at hand, painting the attempt to get at the truth as a Sisyphean task; then paints herself as the polite and respectful one, implying that her interlocutor is the one violating codes of civility; and finally claiming that the reporter is ignoring the day’s real events of substance, in this case the president’s meetings with Shinzo Abe and Justin Trudeau as well as phone calls with heads of state from South Africa to Nigeria. In the end, the administration is always the victim along with the hardworking disenfranchised American families who are being denied heralding of its good works on their behalf. Except, by the end of the day, Flynn had resigned.

It would be exciting to be able to trace a lineage for the language of the Trump administration from the modernists through deconstruction’s destabilizing of the text, but the truth is, Conway & Co. engage so much in the simple act of lying that there are simpler models at hand, like Jonathan Swift’s “The Art of Political Lying” or Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man. As the administration grinds into its second month, Trump’s flacks have made increasing use of a variation of Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to”: “I can’t speak to that.” Or, as I like to translate it, “I haven’t prepared any lies to respond to that question.” The irony of Flynn’s termination is that he was fired for lying while working in a house full of liars. Among Swift’s requirements of a good political liar are that “he ought to have but a short memory,” that he be ready and willing to swear to “both sides of a contradiction,” and that he never consider “whether any proposition were true or false, but whether it were convenient for the present minute or company to affirm or deny it.” The listener, faced with such a liar, is best served by abandoning any effort at verification or interpretation or sorting the true from the false: “[T]he only remedy is to suppose that you have heard some inarticulate sounds, without any meaning at all.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t work on Twitter.

Of course, some statements are plainly untrue without quite being lies. For these we have Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s 2005 treatise On Bullshit and its great forebear, Max Black’s “The Prevalence of Humbug.” This is how Black defined humbug: “deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” The administration set an early standard for humbug with Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s first press conference, which took place two days after the Woman’s March, on January 21. “This is what makes our country so beautiful is that on one day you can inaugurate a president, on the next day people can occupy the same space to protest something,” Spicer said. “But [the president] is also cognizant to the fact that a lot of these people were there to protest an issue of concern to them and not against anything.” This is pure bullshit, in that by virtue of the fungibility of “a lot” it falls short of being a lie because it’s nonfalsifiable. It’s simply in pure violation of common sense. Of course all the protesters were against something: the president. Perhaps there were “a lot” of other people there, too, T-shirt hawkers, Christian preachers who turn up wherever there’s a crowd, or Nazis waiting to get punched — I mean, white nationalists waiting to get punched. (What’s the difference again?) Spicer’s pretentious initial patriotic avowal and the twisted syntax of “cognizant to the fact” are tells that he probably doesn’t believe what he’s saying: He hates the protesters and he knows there were hundreds of thousands of them and that he was at that instant becoming a national laughingstock.

You get the sense with Spicer that his own awareness that he’s bullshitting (not very convincingly) at his boss’s behest is the reason for his hostility to the reporters in the room. (“You have been part of the confusion!” he told a reporter for NBC News during the “ban is not a ban” briefing mocked by Saturday Night Live.) Conway seems to take pleasure in her evasions, and their boss seems to believe many of the false things he says. It must have been hard for Spicer the day after the inauguration to perform the postmodern two-step of denying that the crowds could be quantified and then asserting that they were the biggest ever. He’s been a flack for two decades and must be used to having jobs that put him in closer proximity to the truth or required him to spread misinformation that was harder to expose. He also seems ill-adapted to the age of social media. When asked about the president’s tweets about Nordstrom’s dropping Ivanka Trump’s clothing line and his contrasting Twitter silence about the attack on the Quebec City mosque, Spicer leaned on his own statements almost two weeks earlier, expressing sympathy on the president’s behalf, to suggest that his comment had put the matter of Trump’s sympathies entirely to bed. “You’re equating me addressing the nation here and a tweet? That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.” This is what your therapist calls projection: @realdonaldtrump is the pure product, digitally mainlined to his base; Spicer, with his constant assertions that Trump isn’t doing anything different than Thomas Jefferson or Barack Obama did before him, is a pawn placed between Glenn Thrush and the facts. Spicer’s predicament is absurd.

Equating Trump and Obama isn’t the sort of move that White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller would make. He eschews the evasions and projections of Conway and Spicer in favor of pure zealotry, in a style true to his roots as a high-school debater and teenage right-wing talk-radio pundit. “[W]e have a president who has done more in three weeks than most presidents have done in an entire administration,” Miller told George Stephanopoulos in deflecting a question about Nordstrom, Kmart, and Sears dumping Ivanka. This is an instance of bullshit that stops short of lying if for “done more” you substitute “inspired more protests.” Miller’s preferred rhetorical moves are absolutist: “… Sean Spicer, as always, is 100 percent correct and that what he said is true and important. And I agree with it.” “George, it is a fact and you will not deny it … And I’m prepared to go on any show, anywhere, anytime, and repeat it and say the president of the United States is correct 100 percent.” Here, the speaker’s enthusiasm and willingness to repeat the assertion (of voter fraud in New Hampshire, but it could be anything) stand in for evidence, and Miller’s “100 percent” catchphrase masquerades as a quantifiable truth claim.

But Miller’s more dangerous rhetoric falls outside the realm of bullshit and instead takes the form of a false binary: “This is an ideological disagreement between those who believe we should have borders and should have controls and those who believe there should be no borders and no controls.” Miller is a passionate nativist, and here he’s groping toward the sort of argument about structural injustice we usually hear from the left, whether from feminists, civil-rights activists, or anti-interventionists. In denying that between his proposed poles of intolerance and borderlessness there’s a substantial constituency who would favor both a secure border and humane treatment of the undocumented, he lacks a convincing term for the pervasive, impersonal power of his opponents, along the lines of “patriarchy,” “white supremacy,” or “the military industrial complex.” When he and his colleagues come up with something better than “globalist elites,” those on the side of moderation will be faced with something harder to beat than bullshit.

*This article appears in the February 20, 2017, issue of New York Magazine. This article has been corrected to show that Stephen Miller is the White House senior policy adviser, not the chief policy adviser, and that Sean Spicer’s first press conference took place two days after the Women’s March, not two weeks.

Consider the Rhetoric of Evasion in Trump’s White House