Responsibility and Evidence in Trumpian Discourse

It started as an innocuous press conference in the White House Rose Garden. The President and Senate Majority Leader would meet with reporters to emphasize, with typical Trumpian overstatement, that they were “closer than ever before.” Then Trump got that question about the death of four soldiers killed in Niger: “And what do you have to say about that?” He replied that he had written letters to the families, which would be “going out tonight.” Then, he said he would “call the parents and the families—because I have done that, traditionally.”

Never one to let a moment pass (even one of apolitical solemnity) without engaging in his favorite game of one-upmanship, he added that “if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it.” Later in the press conference, a reporter followed up by asking how Trump could make that claim. Trump responded, “I was told that he didn’t often.”

This exchange not only exemplifies Trump’s constant need to puff himself up by denigrating others, but it also illustrates the way he exploits what linguists call evidentiality—the semantic marking of an information source—to wrap innuendos in the sheath of truth claims while avoiding responsibility for the veracity of those claims.

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Responsibility. Helen K. / Flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In Handbook of American Indian Languages, Franz Boas (1911) observed how some languages require speakers to indicate an information source when speaking. For example, in Kwakiutl, Boas found four “suffixes denoting the source of information,” whether by hearsay or other means. Boas was particularly interested in the way languages like Kwakiutl encoded sources of information as obligatory grammatical elements (Boas 1938), something not done in more familiar European languages like English or French. Linguists since Boas have refined and elaborated the concept of evidentiality (e.g., Jakobson 1957, Chafe & Nichols 1986, Aikhenvald 2004).

Although some linguists consider it a subcategory of epistemic modality, others argue that evidentiality is “a category in its own right” (Aikhenvald 2004). Linguists like Alexandra Aikhenvald also insist on using the concept of evidentiality solely to refer to obligatory grammatical items that indicate an information source, like the verbal suffixes Boas found in Kwakiutl, rather than optional lexical expressions like the one Trump used to qualify his information source (“I was told”). But even though English lacks obligatory verbal elements to encode evidentiality, information sources can be encoded in discourse through the use of adverbs (e.g., apparently, reportedly) and other expressions (e.g., It seems to me, It looks like, Sounds like).

Verbs, adjectives, and adverbs function as evidential markers in conversational English, and Barbara Fox (2001) argues that speakers may choose evidential marking to distance themselves from claims or, conversely, employ “zero marking” (the absence of an evidential marker) to lay claim to greater authority or responsibility. Trump’s use of evidential marking provides an interesting case in point.

Trump uses evidential markers to avoid taking personal responsibility for the veracity of claims, like his statement that “I was told that he [Obama] didn’t often [call families of fallen service members].” Crucially, instances like this represent strategic usages for a man otherwise eager to assert authority and take responsibility for everything and anything that can be perceived as flattering to himself. How many times have we heard him take responsibility for creating millions of jobs since he took office?

Trump exploits what linguists call evidentiality—the semantic marking of an information source—to wrap innuendos in the sheath of truth claims while avoiding responsibility for the veracity of those claims.

Rather than using a zero-evidential marker (in Fox’s terminology), Trump opts to use overt-evidential markers in situations like the Rose Garden press conference to slip in innuendos while distancing himself from the truth value of the claim. This works because evidentials merely supply the information source without indicating whether the statement attributed to the source is true or not. In other words, the truth value of a statement is unaffected by the evidential marker.

Take, for example, the way Trump fueled the birther movement. On August 6, 2012, Trump tweeted: “An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud.” By including the evidential marker X told me to mark the claim that Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud, Trump is able to act as a conduit for a lie without actually taking responsibility for the lie. The statement that X told me may be true even if the claim that Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud is false. As Aikhenvald (2004) writes, “Linguistic evidentials can in fact be manipulated in rather intricate ways in telling lies.”

Trump is quite good at these types of manipulative linguistic moves, as a number of political journalists have noted. New York Times columnist Charles Blow points out that “Trump has found a way to couch the lies so that people believe they don’t emanate from him but pass through him.” He does this through the strategic use of evidential markers and what Jenna Johnson of The Washington Post calls “Trump’s they-said-it-not-me tactic.” Johnson explains how he “frequently couches his most controversial comments this way, which allows him to share a controversial idea, piece of tabloid gossip or conspiracy theory without technically embracing it. If the comment turns out to be popular, Trump will often drop the distancing qualifier—’people think’ or ‘some say.’ If the opposite happens, Trump can claim that he never said the thing he is accused of saying.”

Discursive moves that employ overt-evidential marking provide Trump with that all-important political cover known as plausible deniability, allowing him to peddle everything from fringe conspiracy theories to outright lies. A seasoned con artist couldn’t play the game any better. But, then again, I was told that Trump is a con artist. If that’s true, and I’m not saying it is, it would mean he has really pulled the con of the century by becoming president.

Adam Hodges is a linguistic anthropologist specializing in political discourse. His books include The ‘War on Terror’ Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality (2011), and his articles have appeared in Discourse & Society, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Language & Communication, and Language in Society.

Cite as: Hodges, Adam. 2017. “Responsibility and Evidence in Trumpian Discourse.” Anthropology News website, November 3, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.676

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