By the time the first presidential debate was over on Monday night, the media consensus was clear: Hillary Clinton was poised and presidential, while Donald Trump was a raging mansplainer who interrupted his opponent 51 times, lied repeatedly, and bragged about not paying taxes and exploiting the housing crisis. Perhaps sensing he’d been trounced, the Republican nominee made a beeline from the stage to the spin room, where he portrayed himself as a hero for what he didn’t say. “I’m really happy I was able to hold back on the indiscretions in regard to Bill Clinton,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash. “Because I have a lot of respect for Chelsea Clinton.” When Bash asked him to clarify, he replied, “Maybe I’ll tell you at the next debate.”
Following Trump’s lead, surrogate Newt Gingrich told Fox News, “That may have been the best moment of the debate for Donald Trump because it showed that unlike Hillary Clinton, for whom nothing is too mean or despicable, he actually was willing to set a standard of being decent. And I’m very proud of him.” And Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Monday, “I have to say, certainly as a woman, I appreciated the restraint at the end. I am not sure I would have been able to exercise it myself. But restraint is a virtue, and it’s a presidential virtue.” She added that Trump exhibited “great temperament and restraint” by not attacking Clinton, “after she accused him of being terrible with women.”
There’s a word for this rhetorical device: apophasis, or the art of raising an issue by saying you are not going to talk about it. It’s a major instrument in Trump’s toolbox, one he’s relied on to slyly attack his opponents. At a rally in January, for instance, Trump said, “I was going to say ‘dummy’ Bush. I won’t say it. I won’t say it.” At a rally the following month, a woman yelled that primary opponent Ted Cruz was a “pussy”—a remark not audible to the entire audience. “You’re not allowed to say it, and I never expect to hear it from you ever again. She said that he’s a pussy,” Trump said into the microphone, thereby amplifying an insult that most attendees—not to mention the media and its consumers—never would have known about.
Apophasis is part of Trump’s broader tendency to keep controversial issues afloat through reversals and innuendo, as he’s done for many months on the subject of Bill Clinton’s infidelity. Just last weekend, in response to the Clinton campaign’s invitation of Trump detractor Mark Cuban to the debate, Trump tweeted:
Conway later insisted that Flowers, one of Bill Clinton’s former lovers, was not formally invited, while running mate Mike Pence insisted that Trump was just “mocking” the Clinton campaign. By then, the story had dominated half of the 24-hour political news cycle.
Whether Trump’s tweet was part of an explicit strategy or the result of his impetuousness is, as always, not entirely clear. Perhaps there’s uncertainty inside the Trump campaign on how to raise Bill Clinton’s infidelity, or perhaps they’ve decided to raise it in exactly this weird way. Unofficial advisor Roger Stone (author of The Clintons’ War on Women) wants this to become a central campaign message, believing Trump would benefit by alleging that Bill Clinton abused women and that Hillary was an accomplice in the abuse. But aside from fevered true-believers like Stone, who represents the most partisan and conspiratorial anti-Clinton wing of the Republican Party, there might not be much appetite in the Trump camp for taking on this issue directly.
That’s probably wise, given that it’s a minefield for Trump. History shows that whenever Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior comes to light, as it did in the 1990s with his affairs with Flowers and Monica Lewinsky, the overwhelming reaction of the American public is to feel sympathy for Clinton. She’s seen as the victim in these stories, the wronged wife who is struggling to hold her marriage together despite her horndog husband. The narrative of Hillary Clinton as aiding and abetting in the abuse of women is beloved by the likes of Stone but has little traction with the general public. According to a Fox News poll from earlier this year 50 percent of Americans (and 55 percent of women) thought Bill Clinton was more respectful of women than Donald Trump. Only 37 percent of Americans (and 31 percent of women) thought Trump was more respectful.
Further, to bring up Clinton’s marital history would also make Trump’s own marriages fair play. His first two marriages ended in divorce, and he was bedeviled by accusations of infidelity and even, in the case of the second marriage, rape. Many of the men around him (Gingrich, Roger Ailes, Rudy Giuliani, Stephen Bannon) have sordid personal histories that would become fair game if the Clinton’s own history were brought up.
Lastly, one of Trump’s biggest liabilities is his unpopularity with suburban white women, which many consider the key to this election and who happen to loathe Trump. They’re not likely to warm to him if he taunts the first major-party female presidential candidate with the sins of her husband.
The Trump camp has a dilemma. They want to raise the issue of Bill Clinton’s sex life, but are wary of the consequences of doing so. They’ve attempted to resolve the dilemma with apophasis. Given that Trump isn’t known for his tact, it might seem strange that he is trying to get credit for what he didn’t say. But that’s the exactly why he’s doing it: to counter the notion that he can’t control his fire-breathing mouth.
The most effective way to prove one’s decency and restraint, of course, is simply to exhibit decency and restraint. Alas, Trump has proved yet again that he’s capable of no such thing.