By Zane Wubbena | Last updated May 2, 2019
The Washington Post reported on Jan. 12, 2018 that during a bipartisan immigration meeting on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018, U.S. President Trump said, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”.
Trump was referring to immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa. Although both Democrats and Republicans confirmed this comment, Republican Senator, David Perdue has denied it was said on national television.
Here, I inquire into Senator Perdue’s denial because it has the potential to impinge on public trust and accountability. To do so, I provide a linguistic analysis to the following question:
Did Senator Perdue lie to the American public about Trump’s “shithole countries” comment in his interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week, Sunday, Jan 14th?
The answer is not so straightforward.
Let’s get straight to the point. Technically, Perdue was deceptive while still telling the truth—a conclusion we can call, Perdue’s Performative.
What’s a performative?
According to the social psychologist, Dr. James Pennebaker:
“When people tell the truth, they usually use I-words at high rates. The one big exception is the performative. When people start a sentence with something like ‘I want you to know that…’ or ‘Let me be perfectly clear…’ then anything that follows can’t be judged as false or truthful. Performatives are a delightful way to deceive while technically telling the truth.”
So, what’s Perdue’s Performative?
To understand Perdue’s Performative, let’s take a look at what exactly Senator Perdue said in response to George Stephanopoulos’ question on This Week.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you saying the president did not use the word that’s been so widely reported?
SENATOR PERDUE: I’m telling you, he did not use that word, George. And, I’m telling you, it’s a gross misrepresentation. How many times do you want me to say that?
So, let’s break down Perdue’s response to see if it follows the linguistic structure of a performative, as outlined by Dr. Pennebaker. We’ll focus our attention on his first sentence: “I’m telling you, he did not use that word, George”.
The first step is to identify the premise part of the sentence. A premise is basically a statement or proposition that expresses a judgment from which other things can be inferred. It is the essence of a logical argument. So, in Perdue’s case, the part of his statement that says “I’m telling you, …” is the premise. Yes, he is telling us, and yes, he is being truthful. If he weren’t, he wouldn’t have said anything at all.
The second step is to deal with what’s being inferred. In the second part of the sentence, Purdue says, “… he did not use that word”. This part of the sentence is false—a claim supported anecdotally by other lawmakers who attended the meeting about immigration policy and who heard Trump make the derogatory comment.
What can we conclude from Perdue’s statement as a whole?
Perdue’s response was deceptive, but he was still telling the truth even though he lied. We can call this deception, Perdue’s Performative.
The identification of Perdue’s Performative is important. The public trusts that policymakers and public officials alike will work for and represent their interests. When public officials are deceptive, as in the case of Perdue’s Performative (what would normally just be called a lie), they jeopardize the integrity of public trust.
By identifying Perdue’s Performative, we have come one step closer to holding a government official accountable for deceptive communication.
*This article was peer-reviewed by Dr. James Pennebaker from the University of Texas at Austin on Wednesday, January 17, 2018.