There are times when language matters. There are times when what’s said, and how it’s said, and by whom—and what’s not said, and by whom—all matter a lot.
And you can trust an old English teacher to notice those times. This is one of them.
The president’s first statement about the violence in Charlottesville, as lots of people immediately noted, contained an ad-libbed escape clause for his alt-right constituents: he blamed the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” Looking up from the prepared statement, he repeated “on many sides.”
There were, of course, only two sides—the alt-right “rally” participants on one side, and the counter-protestors on the other. But words like “alt-right,” “white supremacist,” “K.K.K.” and “neo-Nazi” never crossed the president’s lips.
The criticism of that rhetorical failure was pretty close to universal, with the only notable exceptions being the supremacists themselves. And yet it took another two days for the president to condemn those groups by name (something like twenty times longer than it took him to condemn Ken Frazier when the Merck CEO resigned from his manufacturing council).
He identified them, reading robotically from the videoprompter, as “criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”
And people immediately started lining up to give him credit for finally doing the right thing.
But he did not do the right thing. His delivery was wooden, expressionless—in marked contrast with his usual rhetorical excesses. He was, as several people have noted, clearly speaking in the manner of a hostage with a script his captors have demanded he recite as the price of his continued survival. Sort of like those old movies in which the American POW cleverly inserts some code words that tell the home folks he doesn’t really believe what he’s being forced to say.
In fact, there were code words—even in this second statement. There was yet another escape hatch for the white supremacists—more subtle in its wording, but still an escape hatch. He blamed the violence on “the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups.”
“Other hate groups”? Doesn’t “the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists” kind of cover it? Who’s left?
Oh, right. The same ones as in his first statement. The counter-protestors. He still doesn’t deserve an attaboy—from anyone but the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, and white supremacists.