Trump recently tweeted a comparison between his impeachment process and lynching. Since “lynching” carries a bloody and brutal historical burden in the United States, this ignited the usual firestorm. Critics of the president chastised him for using the term, some Republicans expressed mild dismay at his word choice and others insisted that the president was spot on in his comparison. In addition to the specific matter of Trump’s use of the term, there is also the broader issue of the use of such terms in political discourse.
Trump could certainly be defended by asserting that he is ignorant of the connection of the term to racial violence in the United States and was simply using the term in utter innocence. Given the level of cognitive capacity Trump exhibits in his rambling, nonsensical speeches and his difficulty with language, it would be reasonable to accept that Trump really had no idea of the significance of the term. As such, the ignorance defense would be a plausible move.
Trump could also be defended by contending that he is not ignorant, but that he was merely using the term in a commonly used way. After all, one might argue, people do refer to metaphorical “lynch mobs” being after them or someone else. On this defense, the critics are reading too much into “lynching. Trump was simply using it the same way he uses phrases like “witch hunt”—a hyperbolic expression of his rage at others following due process to address his high crimes and misdemeanors.
Trump is obviously using the term incorrectly—lynching involves a parody of justice: mob violence inflicted without a trial. While one might disagree with the Democrats, they are operating well within the framework of the Constitution and in accord with the established processes for impeachment. One could argue that the whole point of hyperbole is to exaggerate—which is true. But to defend Trump’s use of the term by asserting he is right would be an error. The rage is, of course, not over Trump’s hyperbole but because of the connection of the word to brutal violence against African-Americans.
Some of Trump’s critics allege that Trump intentionally used the term in the hopes of triggering a response—if so, that strategy worked. Trump does enjoy attention and he certainly seems to delight in creating controversy around race. Critics have also argued that Trump intentionally chose the term because doing so would be an act of vicious racism—claiming that a lawful procedure against a corrupt white President is akin to the brutal lynching of blacks. This interpretation is certainly consistent with Trump’s past actions. His defenders could argue that Trump did not intend the tweet to be racist and those who see racism in it are the racists. Taking this view requires that one either be ignorant of the connotation of the term or believing that the president is ignorant. Or pretending to not understand how language works. This tactic seems very popular with his supporters. It seems that one must conclude that Trump is either utterly ignorant of the term’s connotation and history or that he engaged in yet another racist tweet. Now, what about the general use of such charged terms in political rhetoric?
While hyperbole is a standard rhetorical device, using such terms when they do not properly apply is morally problematic. First, such usage is inaccurate and serves to obscure the facts of the matter. Second, such usage appeals to emotions, usually in a negative way and this has no good use in resolving a matter rationally. Third, the frivolous usage of such terms is an insult to those who suffered and died. Fourth, it is also a lazy approach—if the matter is important, one should put some work into picking words. As such, terms like “lynching” should not be used in discourse except when one is referring to an actual lynching.