Last night, President Trump and Former Vice President Biden were on stage at the first presidential debate. While there were plenty of notable exchanges during the 90 minute program, many people today are talking about a specific moment regarding the President condemning (or not condemning) white-supremacists and far-right militia.
To many, it was clear as day. The President refused to condemn white supremacy. And this morning, this viewpoint was trending on twitter.
To the right, however, the President has consistently condemned white supremacy and condemned it twice during the exchange last night.
This moment, as you can watch below, is muddled with plenty of cross-talk, and is far more ambiguous than one might first expect.
Here’s a quick look at the transcript, with highlights to indicate what aspects of the exchange either side is emphasizing.
There are two plausible interpretations of the President’s use of the word “sure.” And it’s mostly in this single word that the narratives diverge.
To the left, “sure” meant, “Yes, I will condemn them.” However, the President never says “I condemn white supremacists,” therefor, although he said he would, he did not— even when asked repeatedly.
To the right, “sure” meant “Yes, I condemn white supremacists.” By this meaning, the President condemned white supremacists twice in this exchange.
The President said, “Proud boys, stand back and stand by.” To many, “stand by” means “at the ready.” That is to say, the President was telling a right-wing street-gang to prepare.
But on the right, some are saying that “stand by” was merely a misspeak, emphasizing the “stand back” part of the sentence.
The two interpretations emerging today are:
1) Stand back and get ready.
2) Stand back and stand down.
Symbols are Multi-Valent
You might think that someone taking a charitable interpretation of the President’s statement must be intentionally running cover for him. Perhaps. There certainly are plenty of unscrupulous types always trying to shape narratives for politicians.
Yet, the meaning of a given statement, action, or symbol isn’t fixed in any cold, hard, universal sense. Words—as uttered symbols—can have many different subjective meanings depending on the producer, the receiver, the context, etc. Even the slightest of symbolic gestures, like a wink—to take Clifford Geertz’ famous example—may be a proposition, a conspiracy, a joke, or a mere twitch depending on different contexts and one’s cultural, political, and moral framework.
And our political frameworks are the interpretive lenses with which we perceive political symbols.
To put this another away—Your prior assumptions and perceptions about political environments and political actors affect how you perceive and interpret future actions within those environments and by those actors.
So if you already believe that Trump is a racist who panders to white supremacy, your perception of his statements will be inclined to fit that narrative. “Sure,” does not mean “I condemn white supremacy.”
And on the other hand, if you believe that the President has consistently condemned white supremacy and that the left often erroneously levels accusations of racism and bigotry, your interpretation will be inclined to fit that assumption.
Whatever side of this you fall on, I hope I’ve been able to show the ambiguity in this exchange. People on either side of it have fair reasons to interpret it the way they do, and, if we wish to aim towards the truth, we would do well to understand how our ideological opponents see the other side of the same symbol.