A rhetorical war of words

Clinton.2Paul Waldman of the Washington Post reports in the Happy Hour Roundup that some “lefties” had an anxiety attack on Monday when Hillary Clinton seemed to say that she is willing to use the phrase “radical Islamism.” A Clinton aide emails over clarification:

She was calling him out. She insisted today that she won’t declare war against an entire religion the way that Trump has, but she isn’t going to let us be distracted with semantic games. The real question is, what’s your plan? And he clearly doesn’t have one.

If you actually read her quote, it seems likely that Clinton meant to use the phrase more in the spirit of, “I’ll repeat this phrase to show how meaningless it is.” This is hardly the “break” with Obama that is being portrayed. Clinton’s point, in multiple interviews this morning, was that Trump’s formulation (“radical Islam radical Islam radical Islam”) risks being seen as an attack on an entire religion and plays into ISIS’s hands.

Steve Benen adds, Clinton explains, ‘Rhetoric is not going to solve the problem’:

Donald Trump is absolutely convinced that the key to counter-terrorism is religion-specific rhetoric. Somehow, if officials ignore the conclusions reached by the Bush and Obama administrations, and repeatedly use the phrase “Islamic terrorism,” then Americans will magically be safer.

It’s a child-like approach to national security, but according to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, it’s also the pillar of his campaign’s counter-terrorism policy.

And as of today, Trump believes he’s won over a high-profile convert: Hillary Clinton. The GOP candidate boasted this morning that the former Secretary of State “just broke” and “said she would now use” the phrasing that makes Republicans happy.

Politico seemed willing to play along, publishing a provocative headline: “Clinton breaks from Obama, calls Orlando attack ‘radical Islamism.'”

Is this true? Not exactly.

On NBC’s “Today” show, co-host Savannah Guthrie reminded Clinton this morning about Trump’s interest in word choice and asked why she doesn’t use the language the right is so desperate to hear. Here’s the full response, according to the transcript:

“Well, look, I think Trump, as usual, is obsessed with name calling and from my perspective, it matters what we do, not what we say. It matters that we got bin Laden, not what name we called him. But if he is somehow suggesting I don’t call this for what it is, he hasn’t been listening.

“I have clearly said that we face terrorist enemies who use Islam to justify slaughtering innocent people. We have to stop them and we will. We have to defeat radical jihadist terrorism, and we will. And to me, ‘radical jihadism,’ ‘radical Islamism,’ I think they mean the same thing. I’m happy to say either, but that’s not the point. All this talk and demagoguery and rhetoric is not going to solve the problem.

“I’m not going to demonize and demagogue and declare war on an entire religion. That’s just plain dangerous and it plays into ISIS’s hands.”

For Trump, some pundits, and some of Clinton’s progressive detractors, this was apparently some kind of dramatic rhetorical shift. I didn’t hear it that way.

Far from endorsing Trump’s rhetoric-first approach, it actually seemed like Clinton was taking the opposite line, explaining that the preoccupation with rhetoric is pointless and that picking the right partisan phrasing doesn’t make any substantive difference.

And while Trump is intent on basing his candidacy on anti-Muslim animus, Clinton also explained – accurately – that this is precisely what ISIS wants Western politicians to do, and she knows better.

It the Republican candidate thinks he’s somehow badgered Clinton into adopting his preferred framing, he seems to have the entire story backwards.

President Obama today weighed in on this rhetorical war of words. Obama shreds Republicans’ terror talking points:

After a meeting of the president’s National Security Council, Obama spoke at some length, not just about where things currently stand, but also about the misguided rhetoric coming from the far-right.

“For a while now, the main contribution of some of my friends on the other side of the aisle have made in the fight against ISIL is to criticize the administration and me for not using the phrase ‘radical Islam.’ ‘That’s the key,’ they tell us. ‘We cannot beat ISIL unless we call them radical Islamists.’

“What exactly would using this label would accomplish? What exactly would it change? Would it make ISIL less committed to try to kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this? The answer is none of the above. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away.

“This is a political distraction…. There is no magic to the phrase ‘radical Islam.’ It is a political talking point. It is not a strategy.”

The president went to explain that he’s “careful” in his language, not because of political correctness, but because of a practical security strategy.

“Groups like ISIL and Al Qaida want to make this war a war between Islam and America, or between Islam and the West,” Obama explaining, highlighting facts Republicans choose not to understand. “They want to claim that they are the true leaders of over a billion of Muslims around the world who reject their crazy notions.

“They want us to validate them by implying that they speak for those billion-plus people, that they speak for Islam. That’s their propaganda, that’s how they recruit. And if we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims as a broad brush, and imply that we are at war with the entire religion, then we are doing the terrorists’ work for them.”

The president then turned his attention to Donald Trump’s ideas directly.

“Now, up until this point, this argument of labels has mostly just been partisan rhetoric, and sadly, we have all become accustomed to that kind of partisanship, even when it involves the fight against these extremist groups.

“That kind of yapping has not prevented folks across the government from doing their jobs, from sacrificing and working really hard to protect the American people.

“But we are now seeing how dangerous this kind of mind set and this kind of thinking can be. We are starting to see where this kind of rhetoric and loose talk and sloppiness about who exactly we are fighting, where this can lead us.

“We now have proposals from the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States to bar all Muslims from immigrating into America. And you hear language that singles out immigrants and suggests entire religious communities are complacent in violence.

“Where does this stop? The Orlando killer, one of the San Bernardino killers, the Fort Hood killer – they were all U.S. citizens. Are we going to start treating all Muslim-Americans differently? Are we going to start subjecting them to special surveillance? Are we going to start discriminate them, because of their faith?”

The fear, of course, is that Trump may very well believe people of minority faiths should be treated differently, should be subjected to special surveillance, and should face discrimination.

Which is why Obama explained that such policies will actually make America less safe, by telling the world that ISIS is correct.

There’s also the matter of history. ”We have gone through moments in our history before when we acted out of fear, and we came to regret it,” the president added. “We have seen our government mistreat our fellow citizens, and it has been a shameful part of our history.”

* * *

Regrettably, because Trump understands these issues so poorly – he literally said the president should resign his office over word choice – Obama’s message today will probably go over the Republican’s head.

5 responses to “A rhetorical war of words

  1. Sen. John Kavanagh

    Doesn’t the term “radical Islamism” only apply to people who hold radical Islamic viewpoints and not to the overwhelming number of people of the Islamic faith who do not hold extreme views?
    You know, just like religious extremist only applies to religious people with extreme views and not Mother Theresa.
    Am I missing something or am I hopelessly politically incorrect and properly grammatically correct?

    • For Sure Not Tom

      I’ll give this a try.

      You know how President Obama gave the speech about re-building America’s infrastructure, something that would put tens of thousands of people back to work?

      And Fox News and the Tea Part took parts of his speech out of context? The part about “You didn’t build that?”.

      He was talking about how other people built the roads and bridges and ports you used to build your business, that no one built their business without using the things that government had provided.

      And his words were twisted around for political reasons.

      So imagine how ISIL or Al Qaeda would use his words if he wasn’t careful?

      They already use Trump and half the Tea Party politicians in their recruitment propaganda.

      That he doesn’t use the exact phrase you folks want him to use is really your problem, he has bigger things to do than to make you happy.

      Which wouldn’t happen no matter what he said, if you would be honest about it.

  2. For Sure Not Tom

    The words used by the President of the United States matter. They can move markets. They cause wars.

    Unlike some fat blowhard on AM hate-radio, or Faux News, or the hillbilly at the gun range, or the reality TV personality running against Hillary, Obama uses his thinking brain.

    • It would be nice if, just once, those of you on the left, including the TelePrompTer-in-chief, would direct some of you vile rhetoric at those that are the actual problem, radical Islamists, rather than your fellow Americans. The problem is not Limbaugh, the “blowhard” to whom you refer, Fox, the “hillbilly”, or Trump. Neither is the problem three initials, NRA. It’s the group with four, ISIS.
      As to the question posed, “what’s your plan?”, I would think that step one in the fight against radical extremists would be to clearly identify that which you are fighting. In this case it is radical Islamists. That is a fact and not, as the un-indicted criminal claims, “semantic games”.

      • For Sure Not Tom

        There’s just one problem with everything you said.

        What we’re learning today, and I know it may change, but as of this minute, the killer appears to have been a homosexual, raised to hate homosexuals by his father and his religion.

        He claimed support for three different groups, all three of which hate each other. It’s convenient for him to claim to be a jihadist, the facts do not seem to bear this out.

        ISIS had nothing to do with the Orlando killings that we know of right now.

        FYI, Limbaugh is one of dozens of fat, useless, mostly draft dodging right wing parrots that want other people to get all worked up so they get ratings.

        My plan is to make it so mentally ill people and terrorists don’t have access to assault weapons.

        That would seem to be pretty straightforward.

        Tele-promter in Chief. Sick burn, dude!