There are few times when an English degree is helpful when it comes to understanding politics, but this –Sean Spicer’s Hitler comments — is one of those times. Brush off that old SAT list of literary devices, because we’re about to get analytical: one foot-in-mouth comment at a time. I’m going to try to figure out how Spicer constructed his arguments, what they mean, and why they failed or succeeded. I’ve taken these transcripts from fusion.net.
- “I think a couple things. You, look — we didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had — someone who is despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to the, to the, to using chemical weapons. So, you have to, if you’re Russia, ask yourself, is this a country that you, and regime you want to align yourself with?”
The original statement begins with “I think,” immediately lowering credibility. He is saying that this is not “fact,” necessarily, but only what he thinks, and he begins with this to lower the strength of his comment. The excessive “you knows” are clearly filler words used to fill time while he searches for the right (so to speak) words, but his choice of “you” is used to involve the listener, to try and convince the listener that he is on their side. He says “you know” as a statement, an affirmation before the objection. He is telling you, subconsciously, that that you already agree with what he is about to say.
Next we move on to: “someone who is despicable as Hitler.” This is the comparison that brought about all this fire. To give the man credit (we’ll come back to this) he *was* talking about in warfare, not in the concentration camps. He is using Hitler (as people too often do) as an easy replacement for the worst of the worst. The devil, essentially, wouldn’t stoop so low. This was the intention of this statement, as we all know, but it didn’t work because a) it’s never a smart idea to compare anyone with Hitler and b) Hitler obviously did use chemical weapons.
Spicer very quickly clarified:
2. “I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no — he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Ashad [sic] is doing. I mean, there was clearly . . . I understand your point. Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that. There was not, in the, he brought them into the Holocaust centers, I understand that. But I’m saying, in the way that Assad used them where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent, into the middle of town, it was brought. So, the use of it — I appreciate the clarification. That was not the intent.”
He uses “I” a lot, repeating over and over that this is his idea, his opinion, and shouldn’t be taken as very credible. He is also simultaneously trying to keep the attention on him and off his comments, trying to move quickly on.
The first trouble here is his use of the phrase “his own people.” Of course Hitler didn’t see the Jews (& etc.) as his own people, but it is so unthinkably wrong for someone of this day and age to agree that the German Jews were not German. The second problem is the misnomer of “Holocaust centers.” Ever since its coinage there has been concern around the use of the word “Holocaust,” as it has Biblical beginnings and suggests a holiness to the affair, which doesn’t sit well at all. However, it is not the use of the word Holocaust that is the true issue, it is the disuse of the phrase “concentration camp.” It is so baffling that the listener immediately assumes he forgot the word and used the next best replacement phrase he could think of. What this tells us is that Spicer very rarely studies or thinks about World War II. Forgetting a word now and then is one thing, but if what this suggests is true and Spicer doesn’t have a deep knowledge of World War II, then he has no authority comparing anything to Hitler, as he clearly doesn’t know enough about him or the atrocities he committed. To not have gas and concentration camps pop into one’s mind immediately when thinking of Hitler is concerning for anyone, never mind a politician. Spicer does clear up his intentions, but creates another debacle in the meantime:
3. “In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust, however, I was trying to draw a contrast of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on innocent people.”
This second clarification is a bit more well-constructed. He starts with “In no way,” making it clear that the most important thing is that what his comments seemed to be suggesting was wrong. The second most important thing was that he was not “trying.” This word again lowers the credibility of his first statement, rendering it only as an attempt, not a success. It admits defeat, while keeping dignity. Another big adjective, like his use of “despicable” earlier, comes next in “horrendous.” He is arguing here that he is smart and that he understands the Holocaust as being awful. He then repeats his thesis of comparing the two tactics, and this is an overall fine argument. He brings up the innocent people — important for evoking sympathy — and uses the harsh word “drop” pertaining to the airplanes, a small peek into his exasperation. This patch-up doesn’t last for long.
4. “In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust, however I was trying to draw a contrast of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers.”
The small changes here were made to shift focus from the airplanes to the “tactic,” strengthening the idea that the airplanes are not autonomous, but are sent by someone. He also changed “innocent people” to “population centers,” no doubt trying to shake off backlash of bringing up the death of innocents when he had earlier forgotten about concentration camps, the epitome of innocent death. These changes are small but strengthen his argument — or, they would, if we hadn’t seen his earlier draft. This rework is also significantly wordier, making him sound like he’s babbling and confused.
From an English student’s perspective, if Spicer knew how to express his ideas more clearly, this wouldn’t be the nightmare it is. I would suggest he take an English class, and maybe a History class while he’s at it.
Fourth time’s the charm, maybe, but it really is too bad that our leaders react to pressure like a flounder on a hot sidewalk.
(And that, Mr. Spicer, is how you make an effective comparison.)