As a culture, we are fine-tuned to hearing innuendo. We like nuance, suggestion and hints. In stories, innuendo gives rise to intrigue and mystery. In politics, it gives its messengers the protections of ambiguity and plausible deniability. But innuendo is clear as day for people attuned to it, and that is where Donald Trump’s suggestion that Second Amendment supporters could “do something” about Hillary Clinton if she is elected joins a long line of thinly masked threats in American politics.
To be fair, innuendo has an effective place in politics. It has been used by mainstream politicians to walk a line between indicating general support for a group without having to publicly commit to their views on one particular issue or another. For instance, George W. Bush is believed to have used language in a speech before a religious group to signal his support for a “culture of life,” while avoiding explicitly addressing abortion. Bush’s religious inferences startled some as conspiratorial at the time, but may have been an honest attempt to manage a relationship with an important political constituency with whom he shared many core beliefs.
Since the country’s inception... innuendo has also been used to express radical, sometimes violent political ideas.
Since the country’s inception, however, innuendo has also been used to express radical, sometimes violent political ideas. For example, in 1787, Daniel Shays led a populist uprising in western Massachusetts against the newly-minted U.S. government. Today, the event is taught as a small, but important symbolic insurgency that helped push the founders to create the Bill of Rights. At the time, however, Shays and his followers terrified officials, not least because of the innuendo conveyed by their only identifying mark: a sprig of hemlock in their hats. Hemlock is also a poison, once used to execute people. There’s a message in that.
In our own time, innuendo has been used by mainstream politicians to appeal to violent fringe groups and radical individuals. When Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign for president in Neshoba County, Mississippi, the place had only one claim to fame: three Civil Rights activists had been killed by the Ku Klux Klan there in 1964. The inference was understood. There was no other reason for a major party candidate to make such an important announcement from Neshoba. A master of staging events in symbolic places, Reagan knew that the speech was just barely masked enough to stop opponents from calling it what it was: a strong nod in the direction of racist whites who had propelled him to his first primary victory four years earlier.
As with Trump, politicians have also used violent innuendo against fellow politicians. Fourteen years after Reagan’s speech in Neshoba, Senator Jesse Helms suggested that President Bill Clinton “better watch out,” when traveling to North Carolina. “He better have a bodyguard,” Helms continued. In his subsequent retraction, Helms walked the threat back by throwing it on the perception of listeners, saying that he did not “expect it to be taken literally.” As Thomas Friedman writes in today's New York Times, it was precisely such innuendo, taken literally, that led to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination.
Should Clinton prevail, Trump's comment will linger as a persistent, unfortunate threat for years to come.
A day after his outrageous "do something" comment, Trump, like Helms before him, is claiming to be the victim of the "dishonest media" who, he says, manipulated his comment. The problem is, when innuendo is used with the language of political violence, it is no longer simply the responsibility of the listener to distinguish between the literal and the figurative, because the two are one and the same. Trump's words play brinksmanship with the notion of assassination in a country that has a long history of dangerous innuendo, political violence and murdered public figures — including presidents.
Trump's irresponsible speech cannot be cast as some benign, speculative game of telephone between a desperate political candidate and a constituency he hopes to win over in order to claw his way to the presidency. Delivered offhand, with comfort and ease, his words are as direct an incitement we need to hear to understand the means by which he will attempt to take office. Should Clinton prevail, Trump's comment will linger as a persistent, unfortunate threat for years to come.