When you hear Trump's message of safety, prosperity, and unity for America, it's important to remember it comes from a heart of PURE HATRED.
— Hillary PR Team (@OnMessageForHer) July 22, 2016
Lots of people attacking Trump are willfully misinterpreting stuff he says because they are political hacks.
However, I think there is some amount misinterpretation that is genuine, and can be explained by a similar sort of phenomenon I’ve seen on Fallible Ideas List. Essentially, the mistake involves applying one’s conventional ideas about the non-literal meaning of statements in a context and to a person where those conventional ideas are inappropriate.
Let’s consider a recent example of something Trump said regarding NATO:
SANGER: But I guess the question is, If we can’t, do you think that your presidency, let’s assume for a moment that they contribute what they are contributing today, or what they have contributed historically, your presidency would be one of pulling back and saying, “You know, we’re not going to invest in these alliances with NATO, we are not going to invest as much as we have in Asia since the end of the Korean War because we can’t afford it and it’s really not in our interest to do so.”
TRUMP: If we cannot be properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost of our military protecting other countries, and in many cases the countries I’m talking about are extremely rich. Then if we cannot make a deal, which I believe we will be able to, and which I would prefer being able to, but if we cannot make a deal, I would like you to say, I would prefer being able to, some people, the one thing they took out of your last story, you know, some people, the fools and the haters, they said, “Oh, Trump doesn’t want to protect you.” I would prefer that we be able to continue, but if we are not going to be reasonably reimbursed for the tremendous cost of protecting these massive nations with tremendous wealth — you have the tape going on?
SANGER: We do.
HABERMAN: We both do.
TRUMP: With massive wealth. Massive wealth. We’re talking about countries that are doing very well. Then yes, I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.”
SANGER: That suggests that our forward deployments around the world are based on their interests — they’re not really based on our interests. And yet I think many in your party would say that the reason that we have troops in Europe, the reason that we keep 60,000 troops in Asia, is that it’s in our interest to keep open trading lines, it’s in our interest to keep the North Koreans in check, you do that much better out away from the United States.
TRUMP: I think it’s a mutual interest, but we’re being reimbursed like it’s only in our interest. I think it’s a mutual interest. …
Some people are reading this to mean something like, Trump will immediately stop defending countries that aren’t pulling their weight in NATO, or something similar.
I think that’s a really unfair reading of what he actually says. Now, I could go into why, and also go into background context about Trump’s PUBLISHED strategy of being willing to walk away from the table in order to get a better deal, but that’s not the point of this post.
The point of this post is to talk about why various people might mishear/misinterpret/misunderstand Trump’s statement. Trump’s statement is it is not what a normal POTUS candidate would say. Any candidate from like the past 60 years or so would never say of a member of NATO (even with a bunch of qualifiers and talk about hoping we make a deal) that they might hear “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.” This is very blunt, and direct, and concretely describes a consequence in a specific circumstance. These are things many people find frightening!
The conventional political world is filled with excessive politeness, lies, doublespeak, evasion, understatement, etc. In the conventional political context as defined by conventional politicians and diplomats and those kinda people, Trump’s statement almost amounts to an announced intention to start cutting people out of the NATO right away if he thinks they aren’t pulling their weight. Since if a conventional politician said that kinda thing, that’s what it would mean. And political reporters are part of this world too (since these are the people they cover) and so that’s how they interpret the Trump stuff as well.
I think if a lot of regularly people heard this exchange though, they’d think “Well, it sounds like he really wants to make a deal and just wants other people to pull their own weight. What’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t they be pulling their weight?”
The lying/evasion/doublespeak culture of the political ELITES actually prevents them from hearing the simple meaning of Trump’s stuff. They interpret it according to what it would mean if one of *them* said it. But that leads to big mistakes.
The thing I was reminded of on Fallible Ideas List was the phenomenon of various people (in particular Elliot) just making blunt, honest statements with no intent of malice and no anger, and people interpreting those statements as malicious and angry. Because in conventional social interaction world, if someone made a similar kinda statement, that’s what it would mean.
People bring their conventional social stuff to Fallible Ideas List and get all confused. And people bring their conventional politician stuff to Trump and likewise get confused.