Recently, I was reading Brené Brown talking about the importance both of civility and of speaking truth to power. I think it’s important to be able to treat our ideological enemies as charitably as those we agree with. And on that note, I’ve seen a couple of Donald Trump’s tweets uncharitably interpreted in the last few weeks, and I’m sure there are more.

The Russia investigations

A few weeks ago, The Guardian had an article with the headline “Trump says Russia helped elect him – then quickly backtracks”. And it wasn’t the only one - various other news outlets had similar coverage. But the reason I looked past the headline was because I didn’t think the headline seemed likely.

It all started with this tweet:

To me, the reading of this tweet which is both obvious and charitable is “My opponents have said that Russia helped me to get elected. But it’s all a hoax and a witch hunt and it didn’t happen”.

That’s not a concession that Donald Trump believes Russia helped elect him - instead, it’s a complete rejection of all opponents’ criticisms of him. It’s also completely consistent with him denying Russian interference an hour later. Whether or not Russian interference affected the election, I haven’t heard anything from Trump suggesting he accepts it.

And yet The Guardian put this as:

Donald Trump has denied that Russia helped elect him president, less than an hour after he admitted Russia did help to elect him president.

This is based on a literal reading intended to make Trump look bad, and in fact a reading that I just don’t think makes sense. It then goes on to present a picture of Trump changing his mind which I just don’t think is accurate.

NASA programs to the moon and Mars

If possible, the interpretation of the next one was worse. Here’s the tweet:

Since I’m interested in NASA and space, I already knew a little about the different programs planned, so I read the tweet as “Returning to the moon is just a step towards Mars - it’s not an end mission in itself”. I think this is the obvious reading, because it’s consistent with the current NASA program, and it also matches another recent tweet from Trump:

However, it quickly became clear that lots of others were reading it as a sign that the president of the United States was completely stupid. And again, this line got picked up by lots of news outlets. For consistency with the previous one I’ll go to The Guardian: Trump attacks Nasa and claims the moon is ‘a part’ of Mars:

Followers of astronomy were in for a surprise on Friday, when Donald Trump announced that the moon is part of Mars.

This is clearly uncharitable, and in my opinion relies on a very strained literal interpretation of Trump’s tweet, solely to make him look bad. Yes, the tweet could probably have been phrased better, and perhaps Twitter is a poor medium for this kind of communication. But is it really so hard to see that, when Trump was talking about Mars as one of the “bigger things [NASA] are doing”, the return to the moon might be a part of the Mars project?

Then, having concluded that Trump is uniquely ignorant and thus worthy of mockery, the article doubles down on it, with comments like:

Trump’s declaration shocked many space enthusiasts, because the moon has not traditionally been regarded as part of Mars.

The White House did not immediately respond to a Guardian question about whether Trump’s statement should be considered official guidance. In ancient times the moon was worshipped as a god, while more recently some children’s stories have speculated that it is made of cheese.

This is definitely uncharitable, and I think completely wrong. Deserved mockery can be a useful tool, but undeserved mockery only rebounds on the originator.

My approach to reading charitably

The media narrative seems to be that President Trump is an impulsive liar who is fairly stupid and changes his mind frequently. And he may be all those things - but I don’t think these particular tweets show it.

I’m sorry if I’m missing something obvious, but it really doesn’t seem hard to me. I don’t think seizing every opportunity to score points off the opposition helps anyone, particularly if you’re risking getting it wrong. And jumping on out-of-context statements or reading individual tweets in isolation makes it much more likely that you’re missing important context.

I don’t think we should try to interpret such statements in a way that will make the “other side” look worse. Particularly if that interpretation seems inconsistent with the previous position they held. That is why I took a second look into these tweets rather than just reading the headlines - I didn’t think the interpretation made sense.

I’m not suggesting the tweets are perfect - they could certainly have been better worded, and I don’t like the persecution complex Trump seems to show in them. It bothers me that he continues to dismiss media he doesn’t like as Fake News. However, if some of his tweets are being misinterpreted by his critics, maybe that contributes to that persecution complex? Don’t fuel the fire by inaccurate reporting.

I didn’t have the heart to look into the interpretation of other Trump tweets. But given I saw these two cases within a few weeks of each other, I suspect I would find more tweets that I disagreed with the media about.

Why this matters

From early on in Trump’s presidency, it became clear his tweets could easily dominate the news cycle. Probably too much. It’s bad enough when this happens with legitimate tweets - I don’t think there’s any room for misinterpreted tweets.

By themselves, these two misinterpreted tweets aren’t particularly serious. However, I’m concerned they contribute to polarising the discussion. Maybe they help people who already don’t like Trump to feel smug about how terrible he is - but will they do anything to convince his base of it?

I’m not expert in US politics. But in 2016, I watched people underestimate Trump all the way through the primaries and the election campaign to the White House. Mocking him at every opportunity may feel satisfying - but will it really stop him being re-elected in 2020?

I don’t like polarised discussions because they can lead easily to misinterpreting the other side. For example, a couple of years ago I wrote this about the religious discussions I saw online:

And, much as I’d like “my side” to be the ones getting it right, I don’t think this problem is limited to one side. It seems to be a fundamental part of a polarised discussion that the opposing sides talk past each other rather than with each other. I’m probably not exempt from it (please - if you see it, let me know). (Source)

People who criticise Trump are much closer to being my side than people who support him. For that reason, I’d prefer valid criticisms rather than misinterpreted tweets - because, in my opinion, interpreting his tweets charitably is just the right thing to do.

But it also has practical consequences. I get the impression that some of his critics think all we need to do is show enough problems with Trump. Then, even if a few of the criticisms are wrong, some of them are sure to stick.

However, I’m not sure that approach is very persuasive. For myself, I know that spotting errors in a list of counter-arguments can be a deal-breaker. A few errors, and I may dismiss the entire list. As a result, I’d be very surprised if articles like the ones I’ve discussed have any effect on Trump supporters - other than confirming their opinion that he is being unfairly persecuted by the evil liberals.

So by all means criticise Trump, but criticise the right things. Otherwise I’m afraid the criticism will backfire, with disastrous results to our civility and possibly to the 2020 election.