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Apophasis and Trump

September 29, 2016


“Apophasis” is defined as a rhetorical technique which enables a speaker to bring up a topic in the very process of denying that they are bringing it up.

It is a staple of a very traditional kind of stand up comedy.

“Now I wouldn’t say my mother in law is fat but…”

It is also used sometimes in the cut and thrust of political debate.

“I will draw a discreet veil over the latest deplorable machinations of Alcibiades…”

In such a usage it is obvious that the curtains are being opened – not closed. To tell someone to forget the deplorable machinations of Alcibiades is akin to telling someone to stand in the corner and not think about a purple dragon.

And Donald Trump exhibited the same technique after the debate on Monday.

“I was going to say something extremely rough to Hillary, to her family, and I said to myself, ‘I can’t do it.”

Essentially, says Trump to massed ranks of reporters – “I was going to publicly insult Hillary’s family and everybody should publicly applaud my incredible restraint.”

This use of Apophasis, which involves Trump drawing attention to the chequered Clinton family history in front of the mass media, while demanding he, Trump, should be praised for his restraint in avoiding the topic, creates a sub-category for this rhetorical figure…

“Cowardly School Bully Apophasis”.

This occurs when the school bully has just been stood up to and publicly humiliated and the bully has to address his dwindling band of followers only after he’s sure that the person who has bested him is now a safe distance away.

“I could have killed them. If I’d wanted to.   I thought I’d be nice to them for once.”

Cowardly School Bully Apophasis in this precise context can be unpacked even further.

“I am far too much of a gentlemen to insult a lady’s domestic situation.  Especially a calm determined lady who looks capable of defending herself.  I prefer to wait until she’s left the room and do it then.   That’s the kind of gentleman I am.”

School bully apophasis is not of course a deliberate oratorical technique.  It is side effect of having been a school bully for many decades.  It is a self-defeating rhetorical habit that cowardice produces.  Trump  wants credit for being a street fighting tough guy one minute and for his genteel “restraint” the next.   But like all school bullies, what he really avoids is the kind of contest which involves an opponent hitting back.



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