Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Friday, March 2, 2018

What If Trump's Words Had Come Out of Obama's Mouth?: A "Ventriloquist Counterfactual"


In a sign of counterfactual bipartisanship, representatives of both the liberal and conservative news media this week critiqued President Trump by employing counterfactuals that asked people to imagine how they would respond to his policy proposals or behaviors if the same ones had been embraced by Democrats such as Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

I never thought I would ever quote Tucker Carlson on this blog, but in a television commentary the other night, the FOX News host objected to president Trump’s proposal to take guns away from potentially dangerous people without due process by declaring:
Imagine if Barack Obama had said that,” Carlson said. “Just ignore due process and start confiscating guns.”  He added that Obama would’ve been “denounced as a dictator” for making such a comment, and added: “We would have denounced him first, trust me….Congress would be talking impeachment right now. Some would be muttering about secession.”
The Daily Beast, meanwhile, ran a similar story by Rory Cooper, entitled “Seriously, Imagine If Obama Had Done What Trump Has.” (Thanks, btw, to CHR reader Heiko Henning for alerting me to this piece).
In the essay, Cooper touched on the conservative response to Trump’s gun comments, which were relatively mild, writing that the “NRA released a tepid statement of disapproval of the “bad policy” recommended by Trump while Sen. Ben Sasses (R-NE) registered his alarm that anyone, let alone the president, would trample on an individual’s constitutional right to due process so cavalierly….And…. that was about it.
Cooper then declared:
“The same conservative establishment that would have seethed at Obama had he backed such a set of policies was basically silent.
He then when on to ask readers to think about a related set of counterfactuals involving Hillary Clinton:
"Just imagine the reaction from “conservative” leaders to the following headlines had Hillary Clinton been elected president":
·      President Clinton Sends Congress $4.4 Trillion Spending Plan That Features Soaring Deficits 
·      Friday Will Be The One Year Anniversary of Hillary's First, Last and Only Formal White House Press Conference
·      Clinton Attacks FBI Director, Denies Asking Him Who He Voted for President
·      Clinton’s Fiscal Stimulus Could be Bigger Than Obama’s
·      Thirty to 40 White House Officials and Administration Political Appointees Are Still Operating Without Full Security Clearances, Including President Clinton’s Son-in-Law
·      Clinton Lawyer Used Private Company, Pseudonyms to Pay Porn Star
·      Clinton Blocks Release of Republican Russia Memo
·      FBI Director Contradicts Hillary Clinton’s Timeline on [Senior Aide’s] Abuse Probe
·      How Clinton Is Making Money in The White House, And Why Nobody Will Stop Her
·      Hillary Clinton Goes Golfing During Funerals for Shooting Victims 
·      Former Clinton Aide Pleads Guilty; Agrees to Testify Against Other Clinton Aide

Cooper summed up by writing: “But just imagine a world in which those headlines were reality? The speeches attacking President Hillary Clinton at CPAC would practically write themselves.”

The counterfactual claims by Carlson and Cooper reveal, once again, how “what if” scenarios can serve both analytical and rhetorical functions.  They shed light on how the response to a declaration would have been different if someone else had said it.  And they provide a powerful method exposing the hypocrisy about (and potentially shifting someone's perspective on) a given issue. 

I struggled for a while to classify this kind of claim.

It is not a “trading places counterfactual,” because there is no reciprocal relationship between the two parties in question (in this scenario, between Trump and Obama/Clinton; that is to say, while Trump’s words are imagined being voiced by his Democratic rivals, there is no imaginging of the latter articulating the ideas of the former).

It is not a “conversion counterfactual,” as the identity of one person is not being shifted into that of another.

It is not a “leopard spot counterfactual,” because having Trump’s words being voiced by Obama is perfectly plausible (and does not require us to suspend our disbelief that such a thing might actually happen).

So maybe it’s worth inventing a new type of counterfactual – perhaps a “ventriloquist counterfactual.”  It portrays a comment made by one person as emanating from another one.  Just like how Edgar Bergen related to Charlie McCarthy.


I will have to give this one a bit more thought.  And I will have to see if there are other examples I can locate in order to see whether it represents a larger phenomenon.  But it seems to merit consideration in my ever-expanding typology of counterfactuals.

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