Suckered into a brief, but unnecessary waste of time? Maybe. But I’ve been provoked by a specific use of the word “interpretation.”
Tuesday, 8 August 2016, Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, was in the midst of throwing red meat to gun-rights supporters by warning that the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, was committed to abolishing the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights. He said the following:
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks, although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
To many, this became a “What the . . . ?!?” moment as Clinton supporters, Trump haters, and many others, including a number of sitting congressional Republicans either criticized or wondered if Trump had inferred that Clinton ought to be assassinated should she be elected.
Trump has responded, dismissively, that he has been misinterpreted, saying, “This is a political movement [referring to ‘Second Amendment people’]. This is a strong powerful movement, the Second Amendment. Hillary wants to take your guns away. She wants to leave you unprotected in your home. And there can be no other interpretation. I mean, give me a break.”
“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,” Trump said. “But I tell you what, that will be a horrible day, if Hillary gets to put her judges in, right now we’re tied.”
The phrase that gives me pause is, “there can be no other interpretation,” as if “nothing you can do folks, although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is,” is crystal clear in its meaning. Really?!? Is his statement so obvious about his intention?
As a pastor who specializes in Biblical theology, I spend a great deal of time interpreting things said and written. So, if I may offer an interpretation of Trump’s statement, “nothing you can do folks, although the Second Ammendment people, maybe there is” . . .
(1) I tend to always begin with the larger context, which in this case is a part of Trump’s speech in which the topic was gun rights per the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights. He was seeking to characterize his opponent, Clinton, as someone whose intention is to abolish the right to bear arms.
(2) “If she gets to pick her judges . . . ” — The only way Clinton could set the composition of the judiciary is as the President of the United States. Thus, we may reasonably begin to interpret the clause in question to set the scene for his upcoming main point by asking us to consider the possibility of a Clinton presidency. However, “pick her judges” is less obvious. Let us, for now, take this to refer to the appointment and successful approval of judicial appointees. Furthermore, given the context, we might also reasonably infer that Trump is referring to the appointment of Supreme Court justices and the Supreme Court’s future potential to change the legal interpretation of the Second Amendment.
(3) “. . . nothing you can do folks” — Should the Supreme Court take on a case that challenges the current legal interpretation of the Second Amendment, then whatever ruling they make would be the law of the land. The inflection of this phrase, along with its context, implies that, should a future Supreme Court ruling change the legal interpretation of the Second Amendment to become more restrictive of the rights of gun ownership, then there would be no recourse but to live with that change. Less clear, but hinted at, is a stoking of anxiety about such a change.
(4) “although” — This word implies an upcoming statement of an alternative to a prior description of a state of affairs.
(5) “the Second Amendment people” — Ironically, this is ambiguous enough that it could refer to scholars of the Second Amendment, people committed to preserving the current legal interpretation of the Second Amendment, people who have committed themselves to changing the legal interpretation, the NRA, or, most likely, gun owners with who support the extant legal interpretation of the Second Amendment. This latter group is concerned with maintaining and possibly expanding gun ownership rights. In other words, gun owners who will not give up their firearms unless pried from their cold-dead fingers.
(6) “maybe there is” — “Maybe there is” . . . what? This ambiguous phrase is the interpretive trouble-maker. Syntactically it is unconnected to the rest of the sentence. It could be the beginning of the next thought (“although the Second Ammendment people; Maybe there is a fly in my coffee”), or a clause attached to the previous in an awkward way. The most likely interpretation involves associating “maybe there is” with “nothing you can do folks” as the thought seems to be “nothing you can do folks [but] maybe there is [something that can be done]”. Furthermore that something would be done by “the Second Amendment people”.
(7) If “the Second Amendment people” could do something to preserve or enhance gun ownership rights that those whom Trump was addressing could not, what is that something? Trump’s audience and “Second Amendment people” can both vote, so the something must be other. If “Second Amendment people” are the NRA then we might reasonably infer that they could lobby lawmakers, something the NRA has been quite successful at doing. However, if “the Second Amendment people” are simply gun owners who resist any notion of further gun control, then a more sinister possibility arises. “Maybe there is” something they could do with their guns: threaten, maim, or kill.
Having observed the ambiguity and dark possibilities of “nothing you can do folks, although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is”, we should look again at Trump’s rebuttal, vis
“This is a political movement. This is a strong powerful movement, the Second Amendment. Hillary wants to take your guns away. She wants to leave you unprotected in your home. And there can be no other interpretation. I mean, give me a break.”
“This” is ambiguous. The Second Amendment is not actually a “strong powerful movement” but a clause in the Bill of Rights. He changes subject to an opinion about Clinton’s intentions. Then he says “there can be no other interpretation”, which, in this context, is ambiguous as he has not delineated the interpretation to which he refers.
This interpreters conclusion is that Trump has said something that is dangerously ambiguous and open-ended. There are indeed several possible interpretations that can be made. If he wanted to be clear about what he meant and that what he meant was that action should be taken in the voting booth or in lobbying visits with lawmakers, then he should have spoken with such clarity. As it is, he has left dangling an ambiguous call to action that could also be taken as a call to arms and even assassination.
What then did he really mean?