Essay #8: Least Charitable Interpretation

If you are looking for the road less traveled, seek the high road. On the day that I am writing this, Donald Trump (you may have heard of him), was diagnosed with Coronavirus and has been helicoptered to Walter Reed military hospital. The trends on Twitter are some of his supporters wishing him and his family good health but are mostly people who do not like him tossing things he has said about Coronavirus in his face. A handful of these trends are based on people’s least charitable interpretations of things he has said.

To define the phrase that lends itself to the title of this essay, the least charitable interpretation is an assumption made about the meaning of something that is negatively biased by a previously held perception. In this case, a negative opinion of Trump causes people to interpret what he says negatively. If Trump said “I love kids”, people might guess that he is a pedophile or that he thinks that kids can vote and is trying to pander to them, and they do not consider that perhaps he just meant that he is fond of children. Trump does himself no favors. He seems to prefer doing press conferences and debates off the cuff and, although he is aggressive and confident, I find that he is oft unprepared and will be unable to explain important things. I am not interested in sticking up for Trump when he says dumb things, but I could write pages on things that he has said that have been poorly interpreted by large numbers of people. For the sake of brevity, let’s just talk about the moment in the debate on Tuesday evening when he was asked to condemn white supremacy.

Before we talk about Trump’s “stand back, stand by” response to Chris Wallace’s question about condemning white supremacist groups, let’s talk about the premise it was based upon. Wallace directed the question to Joe Biden first, referencing Trump’s press conference after the Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville. In that press conference, Trump uttered the phrase “there were fine people on both sides”, and that line was immediately parroted by every news outlet and consumed unquestioned by every single American with a negative opinion of Trump and has been repeated relentlessly ever since. The least charitable interpretation of what Trump is saying is that he believes the white supremacist groups at the rally were peacefully protesting and some of them were good people. However, in this situation, there is no need to interpret what Trump meant, because he tells us in clear terms in all the parts of that press conference that were not deemed newsworthy (quotes below taken from transcript of the press conference)

“Well, I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family, and this country. And that is — you can call it terrorism. You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want. I would just call it as the fastest one to come up with a good verdict. That’s what I’d call it. Because there is a question:  Is it murder? Is it terrorism? And then you get into legal semantics. The driver of the car is a murderer. And what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.

“Those people — all of those people – excuse me, I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee.”

“Excuse me, excuse me. They didn’t put themselves — and you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. You had people in that group. Excuse me, excuse me. I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”

First, Trump needs to stop tiptoeing around and explicitly condemn White Supremacy and Neo-Nazis. The press is going to take things that he says out of context 9/10 times. He would be well served giving a very short and easy to consume soundbite that can be played of him empirically condemning the groups that need condemning. It is not hard, and I’m not sure if he knows this, but he would not lose supporters (at least not enough to matter in terms of an election) and he may even gain some supporters by making himself more palatable.

Second, notice how he does not explicitly support the preserving of the statue of Robert E. Lee, and carefully notes that the cause is important to those protesting. I found this small moment very admirable and representative of what a president is supposed to do. He/her should advocate for the people, not their causes.

Third… HE WAS NOT SAYING THAT WHITE SUPREMACISTS ARE “FINE PEOPLE”. He is admonishing the people (on both sides) that came to the protest and engaged in violence and acknowledging that both “factions” were not completely comprised of those people. I have seen this “very fine people on both sides” phrase quoted again and again. Joe Biden claims that he decided to run for president in response to it! I see it everywhere and I just feel hopeless.

To quickly address Trump’s “stand back, stand by” statement. The least charitable interpretation: Trump has told violent activist groups loyal to him to await his command. Another interpretation: Trump was just being repetitive and meant the same thing with “stand back” and “stand by”. I can think of reasons why this interpretation is likely and why it is not. It is likely because Trump does not need to communicate to his violent followers in this way. The Proud Boys, as an example, have been banned to the fringes of the internet and the forums on which they operate would make them easy to contact and give orders to discretely. On the contrary, there are many people who hypothesize that Trump is an expert communicator and such an attribute would not lend itself to unintentional meanings.

Regardless, it is unwise to always select the least charitable interpretation, even if you are judging the behavior of someone you find to be terrible. You will miss some things. You may be thinking, “So what? I misunderstood Trump at Charlottesville, but he still did not strongly condemn white supremacists. Isn’t this just splitting hairs?” I don’t have an answer to that. I cannot think of a good reason why it is important for you to know the context of what Trump said in his press conference after Charlottesville, other than the fact that it is the truth. The point of this blog is not to provide answers, but to provide alternatives to orthodox thinking so that you can actually make a choice about what you think.

P.S. We will see how well this essay ages by Sunday evening when it is scheduled to be published. I don’t know obviously, but I don’t think Trump would agree to go to a hospital unless he was in serious imminent danger. I feel like people who despise Trump are a bit too confident in the succession plan for Donald Trump. The American political system is well protected against turmoil following a president’s death with clearly defined succession plans. However, I think Trump is a lot more than president. To many of his followers he is a hero, and much of their attention and devotion belongs to him. With his death, how might these devout followers react? Is half of the electorate ready to just let go of what Trump started?

P.P.S. Well I’ll be damned. The original reason I wanted to write this essay is because so many people were tweeting the newly diagnosed president about how he called the virus a hoax. I knew the speech they were referring to, and I went back and watched the relevant part. Sure enough, there was the statement and it was along the lines of what I remembered. I watched it again, and I decided not to include it in this essay because Trump muddies the water quite a bit and I knew there were more clear examples out there. Later on in the week, I saw a news story with a fact check that determined that Trump DID NOT call coronavirus a hoax. Here is the kicker: it was on CNN! I think they did a good job, but while looking into this I also found a much earlier fact check from Snopes that I thought was even better. If you were not aware, I do not have much faith in these self-proclaimed fact checking organizations. Unreliable media creates a desire among the populace for more plain, fact-based reporting and so you get fact checkers. But who fact checks the fact checkers? I think it just side steps the problem.

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