How Donald Trump Changed the Meaning of Gaffes

5 minute read

Hillary Clinton was arguing that it was “awfully good” that someone with Donald Trump’s temperament wasn’t in charge of the country’s laws. Trump, standing nearby at the second debate, burst in. “Because you’d be in jail,” he said, earning cheers from the audience.

The next day, Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, went on “Morning Joe” to explain it away. “That was a quip,” she said. His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, later told NBC News that the line was taken “out of context,” echoing the argument that it was just a joke.

It was a classic play in the game of gaffes: Claim the candidate was misunderstood and blame the media. But in this case, the candidate didn’t want to play along. His social media team ran dead-serious ads on Facebook with the phrase. Later that week, he responded to chanting supporters with a “Lock her up is right,” said at a rally that Clinton “has to go to jail” over her private email server and tweeted that she “should be in jail” already.

It was just the latest example of how Trump has undermined our understanding of how gaffes work in 2016, accidentally revealing some deeper truths about how American politics really work. Again and again, he’s turned remarks that would have been considered gaffes by any other candidate and turned them into a central part of his campaign message.

At its simplest level, a gaffe can be defined as a time when a candidate says something off-script that appears to undermine their campaign message. It could be a simple misstatement, like when Trump told supporters to vote on November 28, a full 20 days too late. Or a more serious factual error, like when he said Vladimir Putin would not go into Ukraine, even though he already has. Or an inartfully worded statement that rivals can easily attack, like when Trump said his father gave him a “small loan of a million dollars.”

In an age of tightly scripted campaigns, the gaffe is supposed to be unintentionally revealing, a window into what the candidate really knows and thinks. Political reporters covered gaffes the way umpires call foul balls: The campaign was supposed to be hitting over there, and instead it hit over here.

But over time, the concept of the gaffe grew to encompass a broader set of missteps. If a candidate said something offensive to a group of voters–like when Ohio Gov. John Kasich said that women “left their kitchens” to support his first campaign—it was covered as a gaffe. Or if they violated some long-held norm, like when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney trash-talked the London Olympics while on a visit there in 2012, it was handled as a gaffe by both campaigns and the reporters covering them—an approach that was validated when the candidates inevitably apologized or tried to clarify their remarks.

In some cases, Trump followed that formula, walking his remarks back—a key tell that something was a gaffe. He tweeted that he was wrong about seeing a plane carrying ransom money to Iran on TV. He argued that he was being sarcastic when he said President Obama founded ISIS and called for Russian hackers to unearth Clinton’s emails. He claimed that he was only talking about additional guards when he said people at an Orlando club should have been armed and that he was referring to future moves in Ukraine by Putin. His campaign put out a statement that he believed abortion doctors—and not women—are the ones who should be punished.

But in other cases, he refused to back down from remarks that would have been considered gaffes if they came from any other candidate. Instead, he turned them into central parts of his message, and got even more attention as a result.

During the course of his campaign, Trump attacked prisoners of war (“I like people who weren’t captured.”), Pope Francis (“I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President.”), a rival’s spouse (“Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!”), a rival’s father (“His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being — you know, shot.”), a reporter with a disability (“You ought to see this guy, ‘Ah I don’t know what I said!'”), a federal judge (“The judge … happens to be, we believe, Mexican.”) and a Gold Star mother (“Maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.”), among others.

Most traditional candidates would have eventually disavowed the remarks, tried to spin them or argued that they were misunderstood. But by doubling down, Trump exposed that these particular remarks weren’t really gaffes, even though they were often covered that way at the time.

The gaffe, after all, is not on message. While these remarks weren’t often scripted, they were in line with his campaign’s main arguments that America has grown weak and too obsessed with being politically correct and that his political opponents are either feckless or undermining America.

Like every other politician in the 2016 cycle, Trump has made his fair share of gaffes. But his most well-known and outlandish remarks this year weren’t off-script. They were the script.

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