The ‘Slugfest’ is Back!

As a student studying for the bar at Inns of Court, Gray’s Inn, London, back in 1969, we were warned by Francis Cowper, a senior member of the Inn, who had a special interest in those of us from the Celtic fringes, to be careful not only about what we say about others but how we say it.

He gave us the example of one of the most famous defamation lawyers some fifty years earlier, Timothy Healy, who, on appointment as Governor General of Ireland left the Inn and the law courts in London without anyone to say goodbye to. He couldn’t resist a quick quip or barb at the expense of others when the opportunity arose. It was a sad situation, Cowper told us, and there was a lesson there for us; resist the temptation of a quick remark, as it may come back to bite us. It shows a lack of respect. Interesting enough, you may say, but what about that ‘slugfest’ that is about to take place in the United States in the up-and-coming presidential debates? Every day we will listen to what Trump and Clinton have to say about each other and about each other’s supporters and it certainly won’t be complimentary.

But this is nothing new in our public life. Cicero was famed for his barbed remarks and witticisms mostly at the expense of his more liberal opponents. I suppose some of the most notable episodes involved the clash with Clodius (plebeian spelling), when the aristocrat was the tribune of the Plebs. This was a time when revenge was seen as the manly reaction to personal insult. There were huge consequences for quips against the wrong people.

One such case, towards the end of Cicero’s career, was when his allies questioned his support for the young Octavian against Marc Antony. To calm some of their fears he famously quipped, “raised, praised and erased”, a remark Octavian took seriously and which may have contributed to Octavian’s later decision to agree to Cicero’s murder. But for Cicero these sorts of cynical remarks or witticisms were an everyday occurrence and were made many times merely for effect: a play with words which amused him. The problem was they were often perceived as personal insults and caused hostility and even revenge.

Turning briefly to Donald Trump’s use of language, he speaks in a boisterous, indirect and circuitous fashion, the opposite to Hilary Clinton’s lawyerly direct manner. This clash of styles will produce a series of colourful debates with misunderstandings, passion and personal barbs.

In an article analysing Trump’s language published in the Huffington Post, it concludes that the media has either misunderstood his manner of communicating or decided to take it literally. For example, Trump says, “Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment.” The writer of the article points out he first just says “abolish,” and then hedges by adding “essentially abolish.” But having said “abolish” twice, he has gotten across the message that she wants to, and will be able to, change the Constitution. We all know that the president alone cannot change the Constitution, but the Supreme Court could rule that certain laws relating to guns are unconstitutional. It is this that Trump is talking about. He infers that a future President Hilary Clinton will get to pick the new judges to replace those retiring. So, in a curious way, Trump gets his point over to his potential supporters about the Second Amendment.

The point here, according to commentators, is that Trump’s use of language is anything but “word salad”*. They continue, “His words and his use of grammar, are carefully chosen and put together artfully, automatically, and quickly.” Trump’s style is circuitous, and therein lies the danger for the Clinton camp.

Recently Hilary Clinton, using more direct and lawyerly type language, stated “You can put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of the deplorable. They are the racists, sexists, homophobic, xenophobic”, she said. The problem here is that many assume that Mrs. Clinton meant exactly what she said. So when Mike Pence replied “Hilary, they are not a basket of anything. They are Americans and they deserve respect”, the sting hurt Mrs. Clinton, as a Clinton friendly media raced to explain it.

We have two different styles of speakers. They will be essentially adversarial. Yes, we are in for a series of colourful ‘slugfests’. Mrs. Clinton’s history of public debating is that of her debates with Barack Obama, and shows when she is on the back foot she has a tendency to go to the bone. Her message will be “Trump is not a suitable candidate”. Mr. Trump will be boisterous and circuitous in his use of language, and with no script or teleprompter to guide him, we can expect anything. His principal message will be “Hillary can’t be trusted”. The American electorate and the rest of us will, most certainly, have some interesting viewing time ahead with the prospect of three of the most divisive debates of any US elections in history.

*”Confused or unintelligible mixture of seemingly random words and phrases”