What do Donald J. Trump and J. Gresham Machen have to do with each other? Not much, I imagine. But in my reading of Machen’s classic Christianity and Liberalism I came across a passage with peculiar application to the recent controversy sparked by the President’s allegations of wiretapping.
In his chapter on Christ, Machen discusses how the liberals (he’s speaking of theological liberals of his day, not the left-wing political types of today) used the language of Christianity, for instance, “Jesus is God,” yet meant something quite different from orthodox Christianity. Since they did this without showing their cards as it were (i.e. defining their terms), the liberals were not being truthful. He explains,
“[The liberal] offends, therefore, the fundamental principle of truthfulness in language. According to that fundamental principle, language is truthful, not when the meaning attached to the words by the speaker, but when the meaning intended to be produced in the mind of the particular person addressed, is in accordance with the facts. Thus the truthfulness of the assertion, ‘I believe Jesus is God,’ depends upon the audience addressed. If the audience is composed of theologically trained persons, who will attach the same meaning to the word ‘God’ as that which the speaker attaches to it, then the language is truthful. But if the audience is composed of old-fashioned Christians, who have never attached anything but the old meaning to the word ‘God’ (the meaning which appears in the first verse of Genesis), then the language is untruthful.” (95)
Machen was not espousing some kind of reader response theory of meaning, but he makes an important point about honesty, defining terms, and truth-telling.
Enter President Trump’s tweets. Just so we’re clear on what the President said, here are the four tweets from the morning of March 4th.
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism! (6:35 AM)
Is it legal for a sitting President to be “wire tapping” a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW! (6:49 AM)
I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election! (6:52 AM)
How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy! (7:02 AM)
Here’s the troubling and puzzling thing about these tweets: the President either wasn’t or isn’t being truthful. Because either: 1) the President knew that a normal reading of these statements would mean one thing, but he meant another; or 2) the President meant exactly what a normal reading of these statements would be, but is now trying to change what he originally said/meant to conform to the facts. If situation 1 is the case, then the President may have been correct by the skin of his teeth but was untruthful; and if situation 2 is the case, then the President was incorrect and is now being untruthful. Neither situation engenders trust in the word of President Trump.
Now, while I think the President is savvy and subversive enough that situation 1 may be the case, everything seems to indicate situation 2 is. In that way, this isn’t exactly the situation Machen described, but the principle he articulated applies. For, in the days and weeks since the President tweeted, these remarks have been defined (i.e. spun) by the President, his administration, and his supporters, attempting to show “the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones” is, in fact, a fact.
First, “wiretapping” became “surveillance”. With the recent revelations of Devin Nunes, this now also appears to include “incidental collection” – which isn’t even a crime! People have pointed to the President’s use of quotation marks around “wires tapped” and “wire tapping” to justify this. But they only appear in the first two tweets! If his intent in using the quotation marks was to imply that “wires tapped” meant surveillance, why didn’t he use them in the latter two tweets? Did “tapping my phones” (without quotation marks) seem a more obvious substitute for surveillance than the buzzword “wire tapping” (with quotation marks)? Sorry, Mr. President, that dog won’t hunt.
Then, the alleged agent of this alleged scandal, “President Obama,” became “the administration,” or even, “I don’t know” (see TIME interview below). While we often use a president’s name as a stand in (i.e. a metonym) for his entire administration, President Trump clearly did not mean that. The dead giveaway is calling President Obama out as a “bad (or sick) guy”. Again, sorry, Mr. President, that dog won’t hunt.
Finally, “October” and the “election process” became the “transition”. That is, prior to the election became after the election, because (if I may speculate for a moment) the only evidence of surveillance, or rather, incidental collection, produced thus far shows it taking place after the election, not beforehand as the President alleged. Like his comments about Sweden, the President has grasped at anything (even chronology!) to possibly prove himself right. But for the third time, sorry, Mr. President, that dog won’t hunt.
The challenge to either clarify what the President actually meant or change the original meaning of what he tweeted, so as to square it with reality, appears insurmountable. If President Trump wants to, as Machen said, attach different meanings to the terms he uses (either at the time of speaking or after the fact) than those the average person attaches, then he’s going to have a hard time keeping the trust of the American people – and possibly, others around the globe. That is, unless everyone falls for his semantic rouse.
For further reflection, I very much encourage you to check out the interview the President gave to TIME magazine. You can find it here: http://time.com/4710456/donald-trump-time-interview-truth-falsehood/. It is a revealing and, at times, dizzying look into the President’s self-understanding, his views of truth, virtue, and success, and his allegedly prescient intuition.