One of Donald Trump’s favorite expressions is “who knows,” as in “Mrs. Kahn seems to have been prevented from speaking by her husband and her religion, who knows?” or “Hilary Clinton seems to be ill and lack stamina, who knows?” or (in reference to the charge that Putin is trying to influence the election), “Maybe the Democrats are putting that out, who knows?” or (and this goes back a while), “Barack Obama may not be a genuine American citizen, who knows?”
“Who knows?” is a question that can be inflected in several ways. It could be a straightforward request for information: “None of us is sure about this, so let’s ask someone who knows.” Or it could be an admission of defeat, a throwing up of the hands: “It would be good if there were a clear resolution to this controversy, but I don’t see one, so who knows?” Or it could be a maneuver that allows a speaker simultaneously to say something and avoid responsibility for it: “Some people are saying this, others are not, but who knows?”
It is this last version of “who knows?” that Trump performs again and again, especially when an interviewer is trying pin him down. When, after days of insisting that Obama and Clinton were in literal fact the founders of ISIS, Trump turned on a dime and announced that he was being ironic, he was playing another version of the “who knows?” game. The claim of irony allows him to make an assertion and deny it at the same time; he launches the little poison pill into the auditory atmosphere and then berates his hearers for taking him seriously. All the while the pill is still there doing its poisonous work. What a move!
How do you deal with an opponent who won’t stand still, who won’t venture an assertion without distancing himself from it, who won’t commit himself long enough to be rebutted?
It is a move particularly suited to an internet culture where the democratization of viewpoints is an article of faith. Unlike other media outlets where the flow of information is monitored by gatekeepers — editors, fact-checkers, libel laws ― the internet lets everything in and offers it to you without ranking. You don’t like the facts as reported by the New York Times, network news and the Encyclopedia Britannica? Well, just hunt around in the vast landscape of websites until something more congenial to your biases and fantasies turns up. In a world where opinions are indiscriminately authorized and there are no hard and fast criteria for distinguishing between them, why not go with the ones you find agreeable? After all, the opinion you like has just as good a chance of being true as any other, for who knows?
Trump is always telling his supporters that an elitist establishment is trying to impose its version of things on those whose values it disdains. It’s all rigged — FBI hearings, unemployment statistics, polls — don’t believe any of it; just believe what you want to believe. Aren’t your beliefs as worthy of allegiance as anyone’s? They may very well be the beliefs God would validate if he spoke to us, and in the absence of God’s authoritative voice, who knows?
Not only does this strategy protect Trump from the liability of saying anything he would have to own — he can just say I heard it on the grapevine ― it presents a problem (as his fellow Republican candidates discovered to their cost) to those who would debate him. How do you deal with an opponent who won’t stand still, who won’t venture an assertion without distancing himself from it, who won’t commit himself long enough to be rebutted? So far, the answer seems to be that you can’t, as Trump has escaped from more self-set traps than Houdini. Maybe Hilary will do better, but who knows?
Stanley Fish’s most recent book is Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom and the Classroom.
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