“I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you, just to see what would happen,” Trump told reporters Friday afternoon. He repeated the word “sarcasm” four times to be sure that reporters would use his framing in their news stories. Trump wanted to make sure that reporters noted that his defense wasn’t that he had erred, but that he was being clever at their expense.
But Trump wasn’t being sarcastic. On Thursday, he’d been recounting a conversation that he had with Homeland Security official William Bryan about what the president hoped was a promising new development and wondering out loud about the possibilities of finding some way to “clean” the virus out of the lungs. And then when it became clear by the next day how absurd the idea was, he declared he hadn’t meant it at all.
That Trump isn’t a medical doctor and doesn’t have deep knowledge of science or medicine (or, apparently, household poisons) isn’t a surprise. He could have acknowledged as much and moved on, but he didn’t. Instead, he denied responsibility for his words by claiming that the joke was on the reporters in the room, who simply didn’t get it.
Trump’s “sarcasm” ploy is part of a larger rhetorical strategy of outrage, distrust and polarization that he has used successfully since 2015 to attract and keep the nation’s attention and convince his supporters that they’re either with Trump or against him, and that they should believe no one but him.
Trump has used the “sarcasm” excuse before. Most notably, “sarcasm” was his defense against the uproar that occurred after Trump’s July 27, 2016, news conference in which he asked, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
Like other demagogues, Trump relies on deceptive rhetoric to prevent us from holding him accountable for his words and actions. Calling something “sarcasm” when it clearly wasn’t is a way of invoking plausible deniability — it gives Trump and his supporters the wiggle room to believe whatever they want. This time, the line from the White House and Trump-friendly conservative media was that mainstream reporters irresponsibly took him out of context to generate negative headlines. Back in 2016, Trump used the “sarcasm” excuse to explain that he wasn’t really inviting Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails but was only joking.
Claiming he was being sarcastic after the fact also allows him to turn the question back on his critics — “What, can’t you take a joke?” Trump did the same thing in August 2019 when he claimed that he was just being sarcastic when he called himself “the chosen one.” He was “kidding, being sarcastic, and just having fun,” Trump tweeted: “no more trust!”
That plays into the whole worldview of Trump and his supporters, which relies on distrust, polarization and outrage to make sense of political information. Trump doesn’t make mistakes, actually, but the lying mainstream media says that he does (a frame of distrust). The lying mainstream media hate Republicans, which is why they never tell the truth about them (a frame of polarization). And the lying mainstream media are just trying to distort Trump’s words and turn them into something else to “get” Trump (a frame of outrage).
And sure enough, Rush Limbaugh invoked all these frames to explain away Trump’s comments Friday.
“Now, another controversy that sprung up out there that happens — I don’t know — at least once a week. The Drive-By Media is attempting to persuade and convince people that Donald Trump told people to drink Drano at the White House press briefing yesterday,” Limbaugh told radio listeners. “That Donald Trump told people to go out and get a syringe and inject Clorox in their arms, and that this could be dangerous, that Donald Trump is killing people now in the White House press briefing. … Now you can’t watch mainstream media for 10 minutes without hearing about how some conservative or some network had somebody on it that said something that a bunch of doofus, dunce Americans listened to and now they’re dying.”
Limbaugh’s version of the story was outrageous and absurd; it was tailor-made to reinforce distrust and polarization. Of course Trump didn’t tell people to go out and get a syringe, and reporters didn’t say he did, but that doesn’t matter: Limbaugh’s story was outrage bait. It was designed to reinforce the “us vs. them” frame — they make up stories and say that we are “doofus, dunce Americans,” when we’re just the victims. Limbaugh said that this kind of ginned-up, slanderous controversy happens at least once a week.
Yet even people inclined to buy Trump’s “sarcasm” defense might have to admit that Trump picked an inopportune moment to make a sarcastic joke at reporters’ expense. A presidential news briefing in the middle of a national crisis in which more than 50,000 Americans have died would usually call for the most reliable information that science can provide — not “sarcastic” trolling.
Trump is unusually successful at spinning his way out of any situation in which he could potentially be held accountable for his words and actions — it’s almost like a superpower — but even his most reliable allies couldn’t quite rescue him this time. Fox News personalities warned their viewers not to take Trump’s suggestion seriously or literally, and they challenged the ex-post-facto sarcasm defense, too.
Trump’s strategies of distrust, polarization and outrage are poison in our public sphere. These strategies are useful for Trump to paper over inconvenient truths, but they erode democratic decision-making and, ultimately, democracy. Trump asked in all sincerity if doctors could test the possibility of “cleaning” the virus out of the lungs by perhaps injecting disinfectant. That’s an uncomfortable fact for Trump. Now he refuses to be held accountable for his words and actions. He’s a demagogue. That’s an uncomfortable fact for us.