Deliberate Ambiguity: How Trump Appeals to Both Moderate and Radical Conservatives

12 mins read

Photo from Flickr by Fibonacci Blue at reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Since Donald Trump first announced his candidacy in June 2015, I have wondered how he was able to appeal to both the moderates as well as the far right fringes of conservative America. Trump’s rhetoric and actions are certainly in line with the Republican ideology of the last 100 years.

Both Trump and moderate Republicans adhere to a philosophy that says the United States thrives when government interferes the least with capitalism and free enterprise. Thus moderates support Trump’s advocacy of environmental deregulation and tax cuts for corporations as drivers of job creation, while they believe repealing ACA would reign in government control over health care. In regard to social issues, they applaud Trump’s commitment to appoint conservative judges who adhere to the principle of originalism, which is the interpretation of law based on the framers’ intent.

Trump asserts the party’s ideal of asserting American rights on a world stage. Moderate Republicans support his tough stance on trade with China, Europe, Mexico and Canada, although they may feel uncomfortable with his inclinations to disrupt strong ties with post–World War II western allies. They generally believe Trump’s economic policy lifts all boats – minorities, women and men – therefore, they assert Trump is not a racist or misogynist.  

Moderate Republicans are uncomfortable with, but tolerate, what they see as idiosyncrasies of this president, such as when he lashes out at others on Twitter or makes irrational, contradictory or controversial statements. They take many of his more outrageous statements figuratively, not literally, reinterpreting them to minimize offensiveness or falsehood. You often hear Republican defenders of Trump say, “What the president really meant was…”

Another segment of Trump supporters, who see Trump as an advocate, are far more dangerous, disruptive and radical. Although they reside outside the Republican mainstream, they are becoming more visible and normalized in spite of their opposition to democratic principles. These Republicans are anti-egalitarian, believe in the superiority of the white Judeo-Christian race, and see non-white, non-Christian immigration to the U.S. as a threat to their race and culture. Championing suppressive, authoritarian leadership, they commend leaders like Vladimir Putin for his fight against both “western liberalism” and “radical Islam.” They value group uniformity and are cultish in their devotion to Trump. They turn a blind eye to hate crimes against racial minorities, which they may deem a necessary “cleansing.” They reject scientific thought and critical thinking and often promote unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that support their ideology. They use propaganda to coerce others into accepting their agenda, and bully, threaten and intimidate their opposition. Through lawsuits or outright conviction and incarceration, they view the courts as a means to suppress dissent.

The question I ask myself is: How can Trump appeal to both moderates and radicals, who at their very core do not necessarily share the same values? I believe one of Trump’s most effective ways to blind both of these groups to his intended message is through deliberate ambiguity.

Many of his assertions, particularly his tweets, are open to interpretation. This tactic allows Trump to appeal to different mindsets without alienating himself and also lets his supporters read into his statements whatever supports their ideology. There are countless examples of this deliberate ambiguity. One example is when he announced his candidacy for president:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Moderates latched on to his qualifier about some Mexicans being “good people” to make the case that Trump was not stereotyping all illegal immigrants but was sounding a legitimate call for following the rule of law. Radicals, by contrast, highlighted the idea that illegals were rapists and drug dealers, assigning them a much higher degree of responsibility for mayhem and lawlessness than was warranted. That mindset encouraged fear, vigilantism and hate crimes.

Here are more examples from Trump’s speech and tweets:

  • Tweeting “Liberate Michigan”: Moderates saw this as a call for citizens to ensure that state government would not infringe upon civil liberties. Radicals, however, interpreted it as a call for violence and the overthrow of liberal governments that deny basic freedoms.
  • Labeling the press the “enemy of the people”: To moderates, this was a reminder to be critical in their consumption of media because of bias and tendencies to mislead, but to the radical right, it justified threats of violence to journalists who intended to incite revolution.
  • Calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus“: To moderates, this name represented the legitimate recognition of COVID’s origins, while to the radical right, it promoted fear and hatred of China as well as American immigrants from China.
  • Blaming “both sides” after the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville: To appeal to the moderate, Trump acknowledged that the violence in Charlottesville came from radical right groups but also from similar groups on the left. To appeal to the radical right, Trump created a moral equivalency between white supremacist groups and those who oppose them, thus legitimizing white supremacy.
  • Tweeting during the NFL national anthem protests: For moderates, Trump was calling for greater respect for honored democratic principles and traditions. But the radical right believed that Trump was appropriately advocating for squelching dissent, particularly around issues of racial inequality. 
  • Retweeting a video of an elected official who declared, “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat”: Moderates chose to interpret this action as a call for the political death of Democrats. For the radical right, however, it was a call for violent opposition, if necessary, against those who adhered to Democratic Party principles.

Sometimes Trump is not subtly ambiguous but outright contradictory. In a June 12, 2020, roundtable discussion in Dallas with faith leaders and law enforcement, Trump’s prepared script appeals to moderates; responding to the protests around racial inequality and police shootings of Black Americans, he states that he will be addressing economic and health care disparities in the Black American community through executive action. Still on script, he asserts, “We’re working to finalize an executive order that will encourage police departments nationwide to meet the most current professional standards for the use of force, including tactics for de-escalation.”

But off script, Trump seems to be talking to the more radical right, chastising Washington’s governor and Seattle’s mayor for failing to address lawlessness, particularly in regards to a Seattle neighborhood that has become an “autonomous,” or self-governing, zone. He continues:

And they [the the National Guard] went in, and it was like a knife cutting butter — right through. Boom. I’ll never forget. You saw the scene: on that road, wherever it may be, in the city — Minneapolis. They were lined up. Boom — they just walked straight. And, yes, there was some tear gas and probably some other things, and the crowd dispersed, and they went through it. By the end of that evening — and it was a short evening — everything was fine and you didn’t hear too much about that location having problems anymore; they went to other locations.

And the same thing would happen. As an example, Seattle would be so easy to solve. It would be so easy to solve. We have a governor here of a great state; it’s called Texas. He would solve it very easily — (applause) — as would — as would other of your — as would other of your political leaders, including your lieutenant governor. They would solve it very easily.”

So in the same speech, even the same breath, Trump targets the moderate voter by calling for the de-escalation of tension and then the radical right supporter by advocating for heavy-handed solutions.

From the very beginning of Trump’s candidacy, supporters said not to take his statements literally. Adhering to this rule allowed Trump’s statements to be even more ambiguous than he often intended them. Both groups of Republicans accepted his statements and even follow-up interpretations. The radical right justified Trump’s more moderate interpretations knowing Trump had to play a political game to stay in power. The moderates justified Trump’s more radical rhetoric as simply provocative, an attempt to get attention, but not to be taken literally and therefore not dangerous.

Regardless of interpretation that “explains” or minimizes Trump’s most radical rhetoric, I believe taking his words literally exposes where his true inclinations lie; which is undermining our democratic principles and creating a radically right authoritative regime. While right now he isn’t in a position to do so, if he establishes a stronger power base in Congress, the courts and military, he will have no need to tone down his rhetoric, and we will have no need nor even the freedom to reinterpret it. At that point in time, he will have free reign to usurp our democratic principles and establish what he truly desires, an authoritative kleptocracy. And that is not meant figuratively. 

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