In a court filing on Tuesday, Donald Trump's lawyers argued that a defamation lawsuit brought against the president should be dismissed because, when he described women accusing him of sexual misconduct as "liars," Trump was simply expressing a political opinion. Trump's attorneys supported this argument by pointing to cases which grant strong first amendment protections to candidates for political office.
However, Trump has had a fraught relationship with the idea of "politicized" events. Consider, for a moment, what unraveled after the fatal Las Vegas shootings early in October.
One day after the Oct. 1 massacre, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters, "There's a time and place for a political debate, but now is the time to unite as a country." A day later, when asked about the need for potential gun control legislation, Trump said that it was too soon to discuss such matters. "That's for — at a later time," he told reporters. In the wake of the shooting, the prevailing Republican notion seemed to be that the tragedy was too fresh; people were in too much pain for politicization.
But in filings made by his attorneys, politicization seems to have become a safety blanket. Some context: The lawsuit against Trump is being brought by Summer Zervos, a former contestant on The Apprentice. Last October, Zervos publicly accused Trump of allegedly sexually assaulting her in the Beverly Hills Hotel, where she said she was meeting him to discuss potential employment opportunities. Zervos alleges that as their meeting began, Trump began to aggressively kiss her and reach for her breasts. Zervos was one of almost a dozen women who came out with sexual misconduct allegations toward the then-candidate Trump last October. Trump has denied all of these claims.
Soon after, Trump responded to the accusations in a campaign speech in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania:
Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign. Total fabrication. The events never happened. Never. All of these liars will be sued after the election is over.
Yet, a year later, Trump's camp is sending out two messages that seem to contradict themselves. First, his press team argued that the gun violence in Las Vegas should not be politicized because it was impertinent to do so. Several weeks later, his legal team is arguing that the politicized nature of his comments about those accusing him of sexual violence are protected on the very grounds that they were political.
It's a backwards argument that makes it sound like diminishing victims of sexual violence isn't that bad. So why not politicize it? Shootings — by white men, at least — in Trump's world, shouldn't be politicized though because they caused too much pain. This places a value judgement on types of violence.
Trump's lawyers argued in Tuesdays briefing that every statement which Zervos is alleging was defamatory was merely an opinion:
All of the Statements occurred on political forums — a campaign website, on Mr. Trump's Twitter account, in a presidential debate, and at campaign rallies — where the listeners expect to hear public debate, taken as political opinion rather than a defamatory statement.
In effect, Trump and his teams are rendering the idea of politicization meaningless. The notion of politicization is thrown around in whatever context appears to be the most convenient for his political agenda.
In a broader context, this might be one of the most alarming effects of the Trump administration. To alter the meaning of language in this way, where to politicize is both good and bad, is Orwellian logic. (Orwell, who wrote the dystopian novel 1984, created a fictional totalitarian community in which people speak in intentionally ambiguous ways, sometimes even using made-up words.) It ascribes false meaning to terms that should, in any other context, carry a lot of weight.
Trump may have no idea what he's doing when he treats the idea of politicization so liberally, but it has an effect on his constituents and other policymakers. In the case of Tuesday's New York attack, it makes room for potential Islamophobia, and in the case of Zervos, it places a value judgement on allegations of sexual assault. And neither one, it goes without saying, should be tolerated.