By Patrick Blanchfield
“She won’t utter the words, he won’t utter the words. Unless you know the words unless you know what’s going on, you’re never going to solve the problem.”
– Donald Trump, Fox & Friends, June 13
“Don’t hurt the person. Don’t hurt the person. Do not hurt the person. Don’t hurt’em. Get’em out!”
– Donald Trump, Rally in Bethpage, NY April 7 2016
Whatever his stances on policy, whatever he actually “believes,” one thing about Donald Trump is undeniable: his existence in the political limelight has thrown norms and expectations for what can be said into a shambles.
Trump is all about labeling, about handing out names, and about proudly daring (as he sees it) to speak what others cannot or will not say. In his wake, journalists and commentators struggle with Stylebooks, agonize over norms of “objectivity,” and reach doggedly for analogues in apparently never-ending meditations over what to name him. Is that statement “controversial”? Was it “racially tinged”? Can we call him a racist? How about “racialist”? Is it accurate (and by whose technical standards?) to call him a “Fascist”? These debates all seem underwritten by a desperate hope that, if only what Trump is can properly be named, then what he represents can be controlled, like knowing the True Name of a Demon might give an exorcist power to banish him. Inevitably, though, these exercises take on the feel of the Mother Superior’s song in The Sound of Music, only in a dirge-like minor key (“How do you solve a problem like Trump?”). Because while Trump may well be “a flibbertijibbet, a will-o’-the-wisp, a clown,” the struggle and failure to “pin him down” indexes something much more sinister than playful.
Trump, for his part, sails on, with no such hang-ups about naming, classifying, and pinning-down. “I have the best words,” he’s said, with typical modesty. But in fact it’s more accurate to say that he has the best devices. His stump speeches and pronouncements on Twitter display a practically Homeric mastery of the epithet. Where Homer had swift-footed Achilles, cunning Odysseus, ox-eyed Hera, rosey-fingered Dawn or the wine-dark sea, Trump offers a smorgasbord of sobriquets with which he repeatedly hammers those he deems contemptuous. To take but a small sample, for other politicians: Goofy Elizabeth Warren, Lying Ted Cruz, Crooked Hillary, Heartless Hillary, Crazy Bernie, Little Marco Rubio, Low-Energy Jeb, Failed Candidate Mitt Romney, Lowly Rand Paul, and Dummy John McCain. His stable of epithets also extends to media figures and critics: Crying Glenn Beck, Crazy Megyn Kelly, Total Fool Karl Rove, Sad Case Bill Kristol, Broken-Down Pundit George Will, Dope Frank Bruni, Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd, Warmonger Krauthammer, and Disgraceful David Brooks. Trump’s got epithets for institutions, too, from publications that displease him (Dying NRO, Failing NYT, Worthless Daily News, Money-Losing HuffPo, Dying Union Leader, Failing WSJ), to disfavored entities including the Little-Respected Club for Growth and (oddly) Disloyal Macy’s, with which he has maintained an oddly longstanding feud. Naturally, Trump doesn’t give himself an epithet – because his own name is one, a brand he’s litigated extensively to protect, which denotes his own consubstantiality with “success” and “winning.”
But the most distinctive device in Trump’s arsenal is something else. If you’ve heard Donald Trump speak, or read any of his pronouncements online, you’ve probably seen him do it. Here’s an example of him using it twice, back to back, in a single speech in May:
“But I won’t talk about Jeb Bush. I will not say — I will not say he’s low energy. I will not say it. I will not say it. And I won’t talk about Lindsey Graham, who had like one point, you ever see this guy on television? He is nasty. … He leaves a disgrace, he can’t represent the people of South Carolina well.”
This structure – where a speaker announces that they will not say something and then promptly goes own to say it – is a classic rhetorical device. The Greeks called it paraleipsis (a setting-aside), the Romans, praeteritio (a going-beyond). The feint of passing over something as unworthy of attention actually flags and underscores it, even as the speaker preserves the pretense of discretion and the position of taking the moral high road. Sly transgression is garbed in the appearance of probity; finger-pointing mixes with handwashing. Modern TV audiences may associate paralipsis with courtroom dramas, something right out of Law & Order (Prosecutor: “Without mentioning the Defendant’s previous affairs –” Defense Lawyer: “Objection!” Judge: “Sustained! The Jury is instructed to disregard that statement! McCoy, one more time, and you’re in contempt!”). The association of paralipsis with courtroom drama is accurate – its forensic pedigree is ancient. Cicero favored it heavily, and it features prominently in Sophocles’s Antigone (“Were you not my father, I would say you were perverse!”). Shakespeare hinges Mark Antony’s Brutus-is-an-honorable-man speech in Julius Caesar on the device (“Let but the commons hear this testament / Which, pardon me, I do not mean to read), and it recurs in Chaucer, Swift, Dickens, and beyond. Of all the ways to say #sorrynotsorry, paralipsis is, as it were, the classiest.
But as inevitably with Trump, “classy” implies all the subtle dignity and restraint of a bathroom with gilt fixtures and a leather toilet seat . “I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct,” he’ll tweet. “Instead I will only call her a lightweight reporter!” Never mind that, in referring to Rubio, Trump may also observe that “I’m not going to call him a lightweight, because I think that’s a derogatory term” – when it comes to the derogatoriness of (not) calling Megyn Kelly a “bimbo,” Trump will go the extra mile to emphasize how such language would be terribly beneath him by promptly retweeting statements from several followers who call her a bimbo on his behalf. Which highlights a specific and troubling dimension of Trump’s use of paralipsis. Sure, some of his deployments of the device are more-or-less textbook political jibes: demurring to say anything negative about Carly Fiorina, like, for example, mentioning how “terrible” she was as a CEO; denying ever criticizing Rand Paul for his looks while simultaneous noting that doing so would be easy; or casually slamming Scott Walker: “His state is a disaster, but I won’t say that.” But many of Trump’s paralipses are something else. Connecting the dots of their unsubtle innuendos activates, legitimates, and encourages the worst racist, misogynistic, conspiratorial, and otherwise despicable conclusions. Trump accompanies such allusions by coyly disowning his obvious implications as he smiles upon those with ears to hear them and lets them know he’s in on the “joke.” Thus, in West Virginia this past May:
“Let me tell you something – the Clinton administration, of which Hillary was definitely a part.”
“She was part of it almost everything. Almost. I say, not … everything.”
“I didn’t think the people of West Virginia thought like that. That’s terrible! You should be ashamed of yourselves! Terrible, terrible people.”
Writing elegantly about the ostensibly contradictory bawdiness and religiosity at Trump’s campaign events, the comingling of appeals to imperial grandeur with violent vulgarity, Jeff Sharlet observes: “Nobody minded the contradiction, sex and the sacred, because it wasn’t a contradiction; it was like the completion of a thought they had all been thinking but hadn’t known how to say out loud: greatness, the end of shame.” Yes, you terrible people, with your dirty minds. You should be ashamed of yourselves. Wink.
Such gestures from Trump bring his audiences into a kind of pact. He acknowledges a taboo while breaking it, allowing them to simultaneously revel in his ersatz gravitas while savoring the thrill of transgression. As with the Megyn Kelly episode, the taboo par excellence for Trump is “political correctness.” Oftentimes, Trump invokes “political correctness” as a kind of Left-imposed mode of oppression that prevents people from saying what everybody’s just thinking already (read: misogyny and bigotry). Thus, in California, talking about Hillary Clinton, Trump will vow: “I’m not going to say it. I refuse to say that I cannot stand her screaming into the microphone all the time.” A moment later, describing watching her on TV, he’ll say he had to turn the set off because “I just couldn’t stand it…But I won’t say it because we’re not allowed to say it, right?”
But of course, Trump is saying it, there’s nothing to stop him, and the compliance of a humiliated Republican party and the ever-accommodating norms of an access-hungry, ratings-driven media mean he’s actively being rewarded for doing it. Mitt Romney remerging from obscurity to woodenly condemn Trump for his rhetoric was a definitive, pathetic milestone: when a 1%er plutocrat who notoriously wrote off nearly half the electorate as shiftless welfare-grubbing parasites critiques you for your “trickle-down racism,” that’s a sign that we’ve passed the point of no return. Romney, a gilded canary in the mineshaft, was protesting too much and too late: Trump’s racism isn’t so much trickling down as it is cascading in Niagara-esque torrents. For all Romney nostalgia for the good all days of more subtly divisive language, Trump’s willingness to speak the unspeakable effectively constitutes a final abandonment of dog whistle politics in favor of a Souza marching band of bagpipes, tubas, and twenty-one cannon salutes.
But “political correctness,” for Trump, is also synecdoche for everything restraining America from becoming great “again.” At no time has this been clearer than in the past month. To listen to Trump tell it, if only various politicians were to speak the right shibboleth, the problems posed by Salafi-Takfari jihadist violence and ISIS/ISIL would apparently be magically solved. Any reticence on the part of politicians to meet ISIS/ISIL on the rhetorical battleground it prefers – that of bloodthirsty cosmological war – is met with Trumpian innuendo at its most ugly. Appearing on “Fox & Friends” on Monday, June 13th, less than 48 hours after the carnage in Orlando, Trump thus announced that President Barack Obama was not only morally culpable for the attack, but that his complicity might run deeper. Imparting deep significance to the fact that the President “can’t even mention the words radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump said: “He doesn’t get it or he gets it better than anybody understands—it’s one or the other, and either one is unacceptable.” Trump declined to expand upon the implications of this either/or proposition, other than to say “And the something else in mind, you know, people can’t believe it… There’s something going on, it’s inconceivable.”
This is more than paralipsis – it is an example of apophasis. Although the two words are occasionally used synonymously, paralipsis is, technically, a subspecies of apophasis, a Greek word for “denial.” In Aristotelian formal logic, apophasis simply implies negation: Not X, not Y. Or, for our – and Trump’s – purposes: Not American, not a Christian, not One Of Us. Speaking with the ever-helpful cast of “Fox & Friends,” who nodded and encouraged him to talk about “political correctness” instead of pressing him on his meaning, Trump didn’t even bother to offer the first half of a paralipsis (“Setting aside that the President might be a secret Muslim with an anti-American agenda…”). In some ways, it was unnecessary – it’s not as though Trump hasn’t more or less said exactly this in the past. In other ways, it feeds off the same suggestive mechanism of his conspiracy-friendly paralipses – his ominous refrain that “Something Is Going On.” And thus, when asked on the show about Hillary Clinton’s stance on terror, he suggested she was complicit too: “Because you know why.”
For scholars of religion, apophasis has a further significance. A phenomenon found in many religious traditions, apophasis involves juxtaposing affirmations with negations as part of mystical practice. Often termed “negative theology,” apophasis in this sense often takes the form of listing the many ways in which God cannot be contained by the categories of human thought. This approach thrives on paradox. For an example, an apophatic theologian might write that God is not good, not because they think God is actually bad, or lacks in goodness, but to indicate that the goodness of divinity is not simply a mere extension of the human idea of goodness; it is of a different order altogether, something beyond everyday language. Plotinus, Proclus, Pseudo-Dionysius, Maimonides, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Marguerite Porete, Dante, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and more all employ it. Writers, baroquely erudite and deceptively simple, who push theological and devotional language to its most poetic limits in attempts to somehow approach, however asymptotically, the ineffability of the Godhead, the Good-Beyond-Being, the Whole – whatever their tradition denotes as that Ultimate which human language and thought grasp at, but cannot narrowly predicate. “Go where you cannot go; see where you do not see,” writes the Christian mystic Angelus Silesius (Johannes Scheffler, 1624-1677), “Hear where nothing sounds or rings, so you are where God speaks.” Although writers who employ apophasis do so in a variety of ways, and universalizing claims are inevitably reductive, a certain sensibility emerges as fairly common. Contradiction, beyond the senses and beyond sense itself, is the essence of apophatic speech; only through straining language to the outer limits of signification can we insinuate something that exceeds our all-too-human blinders.
But contradiction and insinuation are defining tools of religious apophasis only inasmuch as they are deployed with the goal of bringing the seeker closer to something sublime, an exhaustion of language that leaves behind a glow that thinkers in many traditions unhesitatingly speak of as “love.” The contradictions and insinuations of Trump’s apophasis, however, are not deployed to quiet the chatter of language in favor of stillness and awe. They work to generate fetid speculation, slander, and libel. They leave behind not the glow of love and tolerance, but a kind of sickly residue that makes you want to take a shower. “Something is Going On.” “You Know Why.” What wonder, then, that so many succumb to the temptation to insist, despite constant evidence to the contrary, No, he can’t possibly have meant that! And Trump himself is the first to take umbrage – whether faux-chidingly (“You ought to be ashamed of yourselves”) or aggressively (revoking the offending media outlet’s press credentials). And, on another level, Trump’s very vision of the future, his appeal, is, in a certain sense, apophatic: “We can make this country so rich again.” “I will make our military so big, powerful & strong that no one will mess with us.” Trump’s sheer force of affirmation that America will be great obviates any need to explain how or why. All we need to do is accept him as a vessel for our fears, rage, and wants, to abandon “political correctness,” and to embrace his promise of a world where taboo can finally be done away with once and for all, where forbidden hatreds and desires will finally be celebrated, and where the previously unspeakable made sayable. Use the right words, his words, the best words, and when we get there, it’ll be so incredible, you just won’t believe it.
 Perhaps the most beautiful of all apophatic literature is found in the Muslim tradition, in Sufi poetry, the Persian of Rumi (1207-1273), the Arabic of Ibn`Arabi (1165-1240). To modern eyes, especially ones jaded by a decade-and-a-half-long-running of a cosmological War on Terror, their radically iconoclastic character can be shocking. Thus, writes Ibn`Arabi:
My heart has become able
To take on all forms.
It is a pasture for gazelles,
For monks an abbey.
It is a temple for idols
And for whoever circumambulates it, the Kaaba.
It is the tablets of the Torah
And also the leaves of the Koran.
I believe in the religion
Whatever direction its caravans may take,
For love is my religion and my faith.
The human limitations such apophasis undermines are not just those of our bodily senses or language – they are the divisions that pit peoples and traditions against each other, hatreds that undo us even now.
Patrick Blanchfield is Visiting Assistant Professor in Religion at Swarthmore College. He
holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Emory University and is a graduate of the Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute. He writes about US culture, guns, and politics at carteblanchfield.com and is on Twitter as @patblanchfield.