Donald Trumps’s claims of sarcasm to mitigate his alarming comments inviting the Russian government to commit espionage against the U.S. are absurd. Don’t be fooled.
On July 27, Donald proclaimed: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
His words were widely interpreted as a directive for the Russian government to conduct cyber-espionage against Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party – an act which could potentially violate the US code on espionage and treason. Donald’s excuse?
“Of course I’m being sarcastic.”
Donald was not being sarcastic. Donald has never been sarcastic at any point during his presidential campaign. It is simply not a rhetorical tool he employs. Sarcasm is irony used to convey contempt. Donald’s rhetoric, on the other hand, vacillates between open contempt for and open mockery of his opponents.
This rhetorical strategy is the hallmark of his appeal. Donald’s followers have repeatedly applauded his bluntness, his willingness — in their words — to “tell it like it is.” Donald does not actually tell it like it is, of course, but tells you in an authoritative way how he would like you to believe it is. Sarcasm plays no part in constructing that narrative. Donald lies constantly, and when you lie constantly, you make the lies simple and strong.
Try to think of one instance when Donald has employed sarcasm in this campaign. You will not find it. Some may cite the use of “Pocahontas” to insult Elizabeth Warren, but that mockery rests on Donald’s perception of Warren’s own disingenuousness. It is not sarcasm in itself. Donald has never made a statement that is supposed to convey, through ironic nuance, the opposite of his intent. His intentions are clear.
When Donald is mocking someone, he wants them – and you – to know it.
World leaders generally do not employ sarcasm when interacting with foreign states, due to cultural differences and the potential for mistranslation. Donald was not being sarcastic, but even if he was, the ramifications of a comment like that, when presented on a global stage, would be severe, particularly when dealing with Russia.
Think of past translation controversies in US and Russian affairs – Khrushchev’s “We will bury you” (more accurately translated as “It’s your funeral”) coming to mind. There is no room for subtle sarcasm in an international dispute.
Finally, Donald is a professed admirer of Vladimir Putin, publicly wondering if he could be his “best friend,” praising him for his strength, applauding the Russian hacking of the Democratic party, dismissing NATO (which protects the Baltic states bordering Russia) as irrelevant, and hiring advisers who have close ties with post-Soviet dictators, most notably Paul Manafort.
If Donald’s statement was sarcastic – which it was not – it would mean he is mocking the power of the Russian government, implying it is weak. This is not only out of character for Donald, who admires strongmen and Putin in particular, but contrary to any characterization of Russia Donald has previously made.
Do not be fooled by claims of sarcasm. When everyday people make remarks that offend, they often try to rationalize them later as jokes. This was not sarcasm, and Donald’s threat is no joke.
UPDATE (8/12/16): Since this piece was published, Trump has continued to face criticism over his call for Russian cyber-espionage as well as skepticism that his statement was sarcastic. He has also made several inflammatory remarks which he subsequently justified as “sarcasm” or “kidding.” This abrupt switch in rhetoric is a political ploy.
There are two reasons Trump is suddenly spouting “sarcasm.” First, he needs to distract Americans from his comments on Russia – which are a possible violation of the US Code – by making sensationalist statements to shift media focus. Second, he needs to create the impression that sarcasm is his usual rhetorical style, thereby making his comments on Russia part of a pattern of sarcasm that can summarily be dismissed.
This “pattern” is a recent creation, and his remarks should not be dismissed.
Trump’s first use of “sarcasm” came at an August 2 rally in Virginia when he was interrupted by a crying baby. At first he claimed he loved to hear babies cry, but then he abruptly said:
“Actually I was only kidding, you can get the baby out of here. I think she really believed me that I love having a baby crying while I’m speaking. That’s OK. People don’t understand. That’s OK.”
Many have wondered why Trump would feud with a baby – an act so bizarre and against all basic rules of politics (and etiquette) that it seems purposeless. But the incident, which occurred as he was under heavy scrutiny for his remarks on Russia, was an attempt to establish a record of sarcasm in a public forum. When critics analyzing the Russia remarks try to come up with other times Trump was “kidding,” the baby incident will now come to mind.
Trump’s second use of the “sarcasm” excuse came when he tweeted: “Ratings challenged @CNN reports so seriously that I call President Obama (and Clinton) ‘the founder’ of ISIS, & MVP. THEY DON’T GET SARCASM?”
This tweet was in reference to Trump’s allegation that President Obama founded ISIS, which – much like his birther conspiracy theories – he stated with full seriousness. When pressed by interviewers on whether his claim was shorthand for claiming Obama helped facilitate the conditions that led to the formation of ISIS, Trump doubled down and stated that he meant what he said: Obama actually founded ISIS. There was no hint of sarcasm in this comment. Trump seemed offended that anyone would even challenge its veracity or his sincerity.
For Trump to now claim that this allegation was “sarcasm” adds another entry to his new list of sarcastic statements. As I noted in my original article, Trump’s excuse that he was being “sarcastic” about Russia fell flat because there were no other examples of him being sarcastic during the campaign. Now, in the span of two weeks, we have two.
Do not let Trump fool you with rhetorical tricks. Remember the timing of his remarks, and when this new veneer of “sarcasm” emerged. It is a ploy to distract from and justify the original comments about Russia — and an indication that those comments should be taken very seriously.