There is a genre of website that is predicated on fooling the visitor. You've probably been fooled by it: You see a headline on Facebook or Twitter that seems impossibly funny, a combination of provocative elements that seems almost to have been custom-tailored to your political or social leanings. You click it; it looks like a local news website; you share it. Then people start replying: "FAKE," "not real," etc. The story is trash; the website, at the very bottom, notes that it's "satire."
It's not satire in any meaningful eighth-grade-English sense of the word, of course. That's just the term that these hucksters have seized upon as a blanket of protection, in the way that people who upload clips from TV shows to YouTube use the descriptor "fair use." Their goal isn't to make an ironic point or to raise awareness on a subject — it's to get traffic. It's to get attention so they can sell ads.
On an unrelated note, something happened in politics this week.
At a rally in Florida on Wednesday night, Donald Trump offered a weird accusation: President Obama had founded the Islamic State (ISIS, in his phrasing). He'd said similar things in the past about how Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton had helped create the terror group, but the fervor with which he made the stronger claim stuck out.
Over and over, to increasing applause, the Republican presidential nominee repeated the claim: "He is the founder of ISIS. He's the founder of ISIS, okay? He's the founder. He founded ISIS. And I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton." Cheers. Applause.
This seemed like a by-now-familiar example of Trump being hyperbolic, taking a rhetorical point to its extreme. On CNBC on Thursday morning, though, he didn't exactly embrace that idea.
Obama "was the founder of ISIS, absolutely," Trump said, according to a transcript. "The way he removed our troops — We shouldn't have gone in. I was against the war in Iraq ... We shouldn't have been in Iraq. I would not have been in Iraq if I was president, but that mistake was made; it was one of the worst mistakes in the history of our country. We destabilized the Middle East. We've been paying the price for it for years."
(It is not true that Trump opposed the war in Iraq.)
He continued: "He was the founder of ISIS and so was [Hillary]. I call them co-founders.... Because of the way he got out.... He shouldn't have gotten out the way he got out. It was a disaster what he did. Is there something wrong with saying that? Are people complaining that I said he was the founder of ISIS? All I do is tell the truth. I am a truth teller."
Radio host Hugh Hewitt got Trump to commit to that view even more strongly.
HEWITT: Last night, you said the president was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum; he lost the peace.
TRUMP: No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the Most Valuable Player Award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.
HEWITT: But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them.
TRUMP: I don’t care. He was the founder. His, the way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay? ...
HEWITT: I know what you’re arguing …
TRUMP: You’re not, and let me ask you, do you not like that?
HEWITT: I don’t. I think I would say they created, they lost the peace. They created the Libyan vacuum, they created the vacuum into which ISIS came, but they didn’t create ISIS. That’s what I would say.
TRUMP: Well, I disagree.
There was no "Right, I was making a point" or "I misspoke" in that. Trump said that, no, he really meant that Obama had founded the Islamic State and that Trump had to "disagree" when Hewitt said that wasn't the case. (Do we need to point out at this late hour that, of course, Obama didn't found the Islamic State? Well, he of course didn't.)
On Friday morning, at long last, Trump explained his rationale.
It was sarcasm, guys.
But it wasn't, as you know. Sarcasm is being ironic for the purposes of mockery. A guy trips and breaks his nose, and you say, "Nicely done." That's sarcasm. It is saying the opposite of what is expected, making it not a particularly sophisticated form of humor but a popular one.
In this case, Trump saying he was being sarcastic means that he was, what? Mocking the idea that Obama had a role in fostering the Islamic State? Is that what Trump means? He said that Obama founded the Islamic State for the purposes of making it clear that, in truth, he, Donald Trump, didn't believe that Obama was in any way responsible for the emergence of the group? He was mocking those who might be inclined toward hyperbolic characterizations for the purposes of scoring political points? Is that what Trump is doing here?
It's a nonsense excuse. Why Trump decided at this late hour that the comment needed excusing isn't clear. Of all of his various verbal transgressions, this one doesn't seem significantly more detrimental to his campaign than his past comments. Is it related to this upcoming meeting between his campaign and Republican Party leaders? Was it an attempt to, for some reason, keep the subject in the news for yet another day? Who knows?
Stuart Stevens, who worked on the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, makes an excellent point: The only metric on which Clinton and Trump are tied is on how much time each has until polls close. Trump's comment means that he's spent another 24 hours of fewer than 90 days until the election litigating a point that doesn't seem like it will do much to close the gap between him and his Democratic opponent.
We do know why he did it, though. It was very clear in the moment that he hammered the point at that rally because he enjoyed the reaction. Saying Obama created the Islamic State formed a nice little feedback loop of applause.
It wasn't sarcastic. It also wasn't satire. It was Trump wanting and getting attention, a process he has mastered. That doesn't make the statement true or insightful — and it doesn't seem to have done much to smooth his path to the presidency.