An Analysis of ‘What Second Amendment People Maybe Can Do’

Introduction

There is talk by Republicans to invoke Rule Nine of the GOP to get Donald Trump out of the presidential race based on the fact that he went way too far with his, as many people perceive, proposal to assassinate his political opponent Hillary Clinton by “Second Amendment people”. The rule allows the Republican leadership to fill presidential candidate vacancies “which may occur by death, declination, or otherwise”. They argue that the “otherwise” is applicable to Trump.[4] If the “otherwise” would cover gross incompetence, inexcusable ignorance and borderline insanity, they would have a strong case. On the other hand, they might not have to do anything as the Trump campaign is in an ongoing mode of self-destruction, intentionally or not, and the chance of winning the White house is dramatically shrinking.

But did Trump really utter such a violent and totally illegal proposal? Is it not possible that such an interpretation is manipulatively offered by the allegedly totally corrupt establishment press which is whipping up an anti-Trump sentiment because they and their class are afraid of what might happen to their privileges, power and wealth if he becomes president? To get some grip on such questions I propose first to apply some meaning-analysis of what Trump said and go from there.

Digging up some Philosophical Tools of the Trade

In the tradition of Analytic Philosophy a great deal of attention is focused on the analysis of language and meaning. One very useful idea, coming from the eminent philosopher John Perry, is to make a differentiation between a) an utterance and b) its propositional content.[1] His example is his son telling him over the phone “It is raining” (the utterance), which full meaning only can be established if the context is taken into account, which was that his son was in Palo Alto and therefore the meaning of the utterance was “It is raining in Palo Alto” (the propositional content). The idea is that in our communications we very often use ‘short-hand’ to express ourselves with the tacit assumption that one’s counter-part will understand your meaning because of an implicit understanding of each others’ believes and intentions and the context in which the utterance is made.

In a more technical vocabulary one can say that certain parts of the propositional content (background facts of time and place and the speaker’s intentions and beliefs; Perry calls these parts ‘constituents’) are not expressed in the corresponding utterance and have to be derived from the context. Perry calls the elements of the utterance ‘components’ which might be or might not be present. If absent, Perry calls these the ‘unarticulated constituents’. In his example “Palo Alto” is the unarticulated constituent of the proposition because there is no corresponding component in the utterance “It is raining”. You just have to derive it from the context. As I shall do later, one can re-construct the propositional content by adding the unarticulated constituents to the utterance even while placing them in square brackets to indicate the difference. In Perry’s simple case it would look like this: “It is raining [in Palo Alto]”.

The importance of this kind of analysis is twofold. First it helps to determine the intended meaning of an utterance, and secondly, when the meaning is determined, one can check with reality if the utterance is true or false.

This hopefully simple and straightforward framework can be quite useful when dealing with double entendres, innuendo, metaphors, unfinished sentences and other expressions which have an underlying propositional content which is not immediately clear and therefore need careful interpretation by contextualizing and analysis so that the intended implicit meaning can be brought into an explicit formulation. It is the skill of “reading between the lines”, but more systematic.

 What Second Amendment People Maybe Can Do

I propose to apply this framework to a recent controversial–for some even shocking–statement by the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who at a campaign rally on Tuesday August 9 in Wilmington, North Carolina, said the following off the cuff remark:

Hillary wants to abolish, … essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick, … if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know. But I tell you what, that will be a horrible day, if … if …. if Hillary gets to put her judges in. Right now we’re tied.[2]

There are now three positions with different claims and evaluations about what Trump really meant, i.e. what the intended propositional content actually was.

1) Many commentators from all political persuasions think he expressed a half-veiled incitement to violence in the form of proposing the assassination of his opponent, the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (or maybe even her picked Supreme Court justices) by some, or just one, gun-loving, pro-Second Amendment gun owner(s).

2) Some defenders of Trump think he was indeed referring to an act of assassination, but was making a very bad joke.

3) Then there is Trump himself, his campaign spokesperson, the NRA and other Trump supporters who state that he was not referring to killing Clinton but to the great electoral power of those who love and own guns who can prevent Clinton from becoming president by voting for Trump.

 What can ‘They’ do?

To figure out who might be right in this discussion I propose to plug in the unarticulated constituents into Trump’s utterance (and filling out and correcting some factual and grammatical elements) first guided by the ‘assassination interpretation’ and then by the ‘political power interpretation’. In the first case the underlying proposition would approximately read as follows:

“[I believe that] Hillary wants to [hollow out] the Second Amendment [through packing the Supreme Court with liberals, who would rule in favor of gun control legislation]. If she gets to pick her [preferred Supreme Court] judges [by nominating them and leave it to the Senate to confirm them], [then there is] nothing you can do [about that process which will lead to the hollowing out of the Second Amendment]. Although [for] the Second Amendment people [of gun-loving gun owners], maybe there is [something they uniquely can do after Hillary wins the election and that is to use their guns to assassinate Clinton {and/or even the judges}], [though] I don’t know [how passionate those people might feel about committing such an illegal, violent deed]. But I tell you what [I do know and that is], that [it] will be a horrible day if [the criminal, violent assassination of Clinton would take place] … if [eh … correction] … if Hillary gets to put her judges in, [because] right now we’re tied [and therefore we need all the electoral help we can get from the pro-gun movement to legally and non-violently defeat her].”

The crucial sentence is of course “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know” and how to interpret that utterance, i.e., what are the exact unarticulated constituents of the underlying proposition. Guided by the ‘political power’ interpretation the proposition expressed is approximately as follows:

“Although [for] the Second Amendment people [of gun-loving gun owners], maybe there is [something they uniquely can do before Hillary wins the election and that is to use their political power to defeat Clinton at the ballot box, [though] I don’t know [how passionate those people might feel to come out in sufficient numbers to make the electoral defeat of Clinton happen].

What seems to be the central, pivotal, decisive word in the crucial sentence is the temporal preposition governing the sequence of events. Is Trump referring to what some gun lovers can do “AFTER Hillary wins the election”, which would shift the whole meaning of the paragraph towards the ‘assassination’ interpretation, or is Trump referring what they can do “BEFORE Hillary wins the election”, which would shift the meaning to the ‘political power interpretation’.

Again, the crucial utterance to be interpreted is this:

” … if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know”.

Reasons to believe the Assassination Interpretation

Though the ‘political power interpretation’ is not impossible, I think it is far more probable that the ‘assassination interpretation’ is the correct one for the following reasons.

1) Trump has displayed a reckless tendency to incite violence and breaking the law. The casual reference to the possibility of someone assassinating Clinton for political purposes fits the pattern.

2) The temporal sequence of events as depicted in the sentence is such that it is governed by the conditional “… if she gets to pick”, which choice she can only exercise if and only if she wins the election. Trump seems to muse that, even if legally nothing can be done to prevent her from nominating judges after she is elected, “maybe there is” a way out with the help of those who have guns.

3) His expression of uncertainty about his proposed action–“… maybe there is. I don’t know”–obviously expresses some doubt. But doubt about what? Probably not about the political power of the pro-gun movement. Everybody agrees on that. Has he doubts whether that political power is enough to deliver him the election? That’s certainly possible, but, if that is the case, a presidential candidate would be amiss by merely and lightly acknowledging that possibility with a shrug of the shoulders kind of “I don’t know” and should instead inspire his target audience with a fierce “Yes, we can [defeat Clinton at the ballot box with the help of the Second Amendment people!]”. The third possibility is that he doubts if any pro-gun person would follow up on his projected possibility of political assassination and if that would be such a great idea after all. His “I don’t know” seems to have the sub-text of saying “I do not want to make the impression of condoning such a deed”. To me it looks that he has the assassination option on his mind while expressing his doubts.

4) The previous idea–that Trump is thinking about the assassination option while composing his half-formed utterances–can also account for him saying directly after that: “But I tell you what, that will be a horrible day …” and thereby more or less abjuring the assassination proposal because it would be horrible, maybe even unacceptably so. Of course he qualifies in the same sentence what would constitute that “horrible day” and that is “… if Hillary gets to put her judges in”, but the two parts are not fluently connected. There is a pause in which he seems to ponder while he is repeating “if” three times, maybe realizing he was going too far with his assassination proposal and decided to deflect his train of thought into discussing the prospect of Clinton choosing judges. If one is imprecise with words then it is easy to change one’s guiding thought (the propositional content), even in the midst of a sentence.

5) If you carefully analyze the reaction of his audience when he utters “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is”, one can see quite a few people reacting as if something quite unusual was expressed by Trump. I think they are getting the assassination drift of his remark and either react a bit shocked or amused or just looking around to others to find a clue how to interpret it. Especially the reaction of the bearded gray man in the red shirt at shoulder height on Trump’s left is quite telling. When he was tracked and interviewed he said he was “absolutely taken aghast” and that, because “we don’t make jokes like that in public”, the proper reaction would have been that “We would have taken Mr. Trump to the shed”.[5]

In short, it looks very plausible that Trump is very concerned about the fate of the Second Amendment if Clinton becomes president and suggests that those who would be most affected could take matters in their own hand with the tools they are so afraid of losing.

Of course Trump is denying that he expressed the assassination proposal, but in his interview with Fox News Sean Hannity he surrounded the denial with so many dubious and outright incorrect statements that it looks like that his denial is a lie needing support from more lies, like a) “… nobody in that room thought anything other …”; b) “Hillary wants to take your guns away. She wants to leave you unprotected in your home“; and c) “And there can be no other interpretation“, after which he begs “ … give me a break”.[2.b]

 Some Related Issues

There are other aspects of this proposal which makes it actually an unnecessary or ineffective course of action. First of all the premise that Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment is false. She wants to reduce gun violence, plug some legal loopholes and maybe institute a voluntary buy-back program.[3] Second, if Clinton would die in office she would be replaced by her vice president Tim Kaine, which probably would not change anything as they both were rated “F” by the NRA.

One has to ponder then if Trump’s assassination proposal is really motivated by concerns about the Second Amendment and not by something more personal or more sinister. Though they were more or less close and friendly as members of the same upper class circles in New York, which is illustrated by the fact that their daughters are good friends, it is possible that Trump came to hate Clinton because he was infected by that sentiment by his increasingly prejudiced followers. The sinister angle is that, according to some intelligence experts, Trump is played by Russian President Putin, who himself is a trained intelligence operative, which makes it possible that Trump now identifies with Putin’s relative fear of pro-NATO and somewhat belligerent Clinton.

Personally I definitely felt a chill when I contemplated the implications of his statement and thought it very possible that just one lone nut might feel sufficiently inspired to go after Clinton with a gun. I also think Trump expressed in this proposal not only a reckless disregard for the rules of the political game, but also a shocking disregard for another person’s life. It was already clear to me that he suffered from either a curable narcissistic personality trait or even from irreversible narcissistic personality disorder, but now there seems to be reasons to think he is possibly a sociopath. And that brings this back to the possibility of invoking Rule Nine of the GOP in which the word “otherwise” might cover sociopathy.

Sources

[1]. Perry, John & Blackburn, Simon (1986). “Thought without Representation”. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary. Vol. 60. Pp. 137-151. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4106900

[2]. The quote with its particular punctuation is a combination of a) how CNN wrote out the quote; b) how it was reproduced by Trump’s campaign; and c) my own careful listening to a clip of the performance.

a) Jeremy Diamond and Stephen Collinson. “Donald Trump: ‘Second Amendment’ gun advocates could deal with Hillary Clinton“. CNN. 9 Aug 2016.

b) “Donald Trump Discusses Second Amendment Rights On Hannity.”

c) Haines, Tim. “Trump: Maybe “The Second Amendment People” Will Have To Stop Hillary’s Supreme Court From Banning Guns“. RealClear Politics. 9 Aug 2016.

[3]. Qiu, Linda. “Donald Trump falsely claims Hillary Clinton ‘wants to abolish the 2nd Amendment‘”. PolitiFact. 11 May 2016.

[4]. Cheney, Kyle. “Former GOP senator pleads with RNC to replace Trump“. Politico. 9 Aug 2016.

[5]. Kirell, Andrew. “Trump Fan: ‘I Would’ve Taken Him to the Shed’ for Joking About Hillary’s Murder“. CNN. 10 Aug 2016.

 

2 Responses to “An Analysis of ‘What Second Amendment People Maybe Can Do’”

  1. Ron Pawasarat

    The assignation of Robert Kennedy; was there a similar background/motivation ? If so, your analysis becomes in-fact, Scary !

    Reply
    • Govert Schuller

      The parallel most commentators make is with the assassination of Rabin by a right-wing Israeli who was whipped up by demonizing comments about Rabin and then killed him. Sirhan Sirhan might also have been motivated by pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli propaganda.

      Reply

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