Innuendo: The Adventures of Donald J. Trump

Innuendo seems to be one of his most successful political strategies. 

Posted Oct 09, 2019

Pixabay/cco Public Domain
Source: Pixabay/CCO Public Domain

I’ve been thinking about the usefulness of innuendo as a political strategy. It can hint or suggest without making an overt statement or commitment. As such, it offers the protection of deniability.

For instance, if you do not explicitly tell someone to commit an act of violence, but only imply that some folks (if pushed too far) might take matters into their own hands, then you can claim that you are not responsible for what anyone might actually do. You have only alluded to such a possibility--without endorsing it.

President Trump is a master of this form of innuendo.

Consider the following tweet (quoted in New York Magazine) based on the possibility of impeachment:

If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they will never be), it will cause a Civil War-like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal. 

Here is another example, quoted by Slate from a Breitbart News interview on March 13, 2019: 

You know the left plays a tougher game, it’s very funny. I actually think that the people on the right are tougher, but they don’t play it tougher. Okay? I can tell you that the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump—I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough—until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.

While Trump’s detractors point to the implied threat in pronouncements like this, his defenders claim that he has never explicitly called for a popular uprising of this, or any, kind.  

Innuendo lets you have it both ways.

Here is a famous historical example. When Henry II of England quarreled with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, over a struggle between church and state, he reportedly said: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

A group of loyal knights, regarding his angry outburst as a call to action, assassinated Becket—in the very cathedral over which he presided. This 12th-century story achieved the status of legend in its own time and has come down to ours in the form of T.S. Eliot’s verse play Murder in the Cathedral, which portrays Henry as a master of realpolitik and Becket, who was canonized soon after his death, as a martyr.

It is frustrating to deal with someone who communicates his thoughts and intentions through innuendo, as such people can never be held to account. When Trump announced his candidacy for election, he was far more direct. Then, he claimed that his border wall would prevent illegal aliens from entering our country. Referring specifically to Mexican immigrants, he declared:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending its best…. They’re sending people that have lots of problems…. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. (CBS News, June 16, 2015)   

No ambiguity there. As President, he has modified his rhetoric somewhat to refer to an “invasion” on our Southern border, which threatens Americans in their personal lives and employment. Declaring a “national emergency” is vague and unspecific—nothing you can be held directly accountable for. 

As I listened to Michael Cohen’s testimony to Congress, one of his comments caught my ear. His boss, he said, did not exactly tell him what to do, but knowing Mr. Trump as he did, he understood his intentions and acted accordingly:

Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates. In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing. In his way, he was telling me to lie. (New York Times, February 27, 2019)

Cohen acted on implicit, rather than explicit, orders. In other words, he understood his boss’s use of innuendo. He is now paying a steep price for his loyalty, but Trump can claim deniability. He cannot be held responsible for Cohen’s interpretation of his words.

Henry II ultimately regretted his invitation to see Becket disposed of and publicly repented by walking barefoot to Canterbury Cathedral, wearing sackcloth and ashes (medieval signs of penitence). Perhaps this performance was an expression of realpolitik, as he realized how Becket’s death had only served to enhance his rival’s reputation. As Becket’s star rose, Henry’s fell.

President Trump, in contrast, has an aversion to apology, and even more to making amends. It is also possible that he does not imagine that any of his words may return to haunt him.

Innuendo appears to be the politician’s friend. I give President Trump credit for being rhetorically canny. He keeps touting himself as having a higher IQ than any of his opponents. In fact, that is one of his favorite terms of abuse—calling someone who opposes him “low” or “very low IQ.”

I do not subscribe to the notion that he is a “f*cking moron" (attributed to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson) nor do I imagine him as an “idiot” (attributed to former Chief of Staff John Kelly). Yet I do believe that he is a master of political rhetoric and that innuendo is one of his most successful political strategies.  

Now consider the following excerpts from the exchange between President Trump and the newly elected president of Ukraine, as released by the Office of the President and quoted in the New York Times (September 26, 2019):

The President: “I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine. We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time…. The United States has been very good to Ukraine. I wouldn’t say it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very very good to Ukraine.”

President Zelensky: “Yes, you are absolutely right. Not only 100 percent, but actually 100 percent.

The President: “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike…. The server, they say, Ukraine has it…. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.”

Trump claims that there was absolutely no “quid pro quo” in his conversation. But put yourself in the shoes of Zelensky, a man with no prior political experience tasked with charting a path for his country between two heavily armed super-powers—one of which has annexed a part of his country and invaded his eastern border.

How would you read this message, and how might you respond?  

On a lighter note, the word “innuendo” cannot help but remind me of the Marx Brothers’ film Monkey Business and Groucho’s famous quip: “Love flies out the door when money comes innuendo.” This, too, may prove relevant to the further adventures of Donald J. Trump.