Donald Trump communicates in unfinished thoughts, and this week’s inchoate pronouncement was a disaster. “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat,” he told reporters on Tuesday, “I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
No one quite knew what to make of it. Was Trump saying that Jews who would vote for a Democrat are disloyal to Israel, to their Jewishness, to the Republican Party, or to him? On Wednesday, he explained that he was referring to Jews and Israel.
But this only left additional confusions: Does Trump believe that Jews are loyal to Israel above all else? Or that they aren’t but should be? Was his statement anti-Semitic? Was it, in its twisted way, a refutation of the anti-Semitic charge of dual loyalty? Or was he simply stating what he saw as common sense—that there’s a rising tide of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment in the Democratic Party, and it’s bad for the Jews—without giving any consideration to the vexed issues around Jewish politics in America?
I’m certain the last interpretation is the correct one. For Trump, the only logic is transactional logic, and all games are zero-sum. He said what he said while criticizing the absurdity of those who suggest that the United States should punish Israel for banning Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from entering the country. Whatever Trump’s skills as a businessman and president, he’s talentless as an anti-Semite.
But the ugly confusion that followed his comment is more than understandable. In order to talk about what Trump means when he speaks, we often have to flesh out his words so that we’re analyzing complete thoughts. This means adding dimensions and considerations that were never part of his original statements. Trump’s critics complete his thoughts by introducing frightful but plausible themes into their translations. His supporters translate his unelaborated instincts into noble declarations. And then everyone else argues about those translations. But the man himself speaks in semaphore.
Trump’s detractors like to think that his rhetorical ambiguity is a sly wink to his bigoted supporters, who can fill in the blanks as they see fit. But the truth is he almost never misses an opportunity to be vague. No matter the subject, Trump usually relies on a shorthand that’s suspiciously short. In Trump’s mouth, for example, the Iran nuclear deal, the viability of nuclear submarines, and the future of nuclear energy are all nounized as “nuclear.” As in, “I know too much about nuclear, a lot about nuclear.”
And when he recounts something that he himself has experienced, he’s no clearer. In a June interview with Chuck Todd, Trump explained his decision to pull back from a strike on Iran: “We had something ready to go, subject to my approval. And they came in. And they came in about a half an hour before, they said, ‘So we’re about ready to go’… And things would have happened to a point where you wouldn’t turn back or couldn’t turn back.”
Trump never says who “they” were, what that “something” was, or what “things would have happened.” He leaves it up to everyone who’s listening to fill in details with which he can’t be bothered.
Bizarre as it is in a president of the United States, Trump’s imprecision hasn’t hindered him much up to this point. But, as we saw this week, it has the potential to do a good deal of harm.