Many responses echoed Trump’s own framing of the search. In his Aug. 8 message he claimed his residence was “under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of FBI agents.” In the statement, replete with war metaphors, Trump alleged that executing a legal warrant was “the weaponization of the Justice System” and an “assault” that “could only take place in broken, Third-World Countries.”
The impulse to hastily legitimize Trump’s perspective illustrates a dangerous rhetorical strategy frequently employed by GOP politicians during the Trump era: message laundering.
Conditioned to accept violence
Message laundering occurs when inflammatory language and/or unsubstantiated claims are mixed with mainstream partisan communication and presented to the public with an air of respectability. Just as money laundering enabled mobsters to disguise their ill-gotten gain as the profits of a legitimate business, message laundering presents dishonest and dangerous speech as credible, innocuous or persuasive.
As a political communication scholar, I study how rhetoric strengthens or erodes democratic institutions. The aftermath of the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search illustrates how message laundering can undermine democratic processes and gradually condition its audience to expect and accept violence.
After Trump released his statement, conservative politicians echoed key aspects of his message. Some sanitized Trump’s ideas by combining them with more measured critique or references to democratic processes.
The aftermath of the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search illustrates how message laundering can undermine democratic processes and gradually condition its audience to expect and accept violence.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., decried an “intolerable state of weaponized politicization” in the Justice Department, even as he promised to “follow the facts” and “leave no stone unturned” if the GOP retook the House. Democrats interpreted his directive to Attorney General Merrick Garland, “preserve your documents and clear your calendar,” as a threat. But the tweet launders Trump’s notion of a weaponized Justice Department by combining it with McCarthy’s promise to use democratic processes to “follow the facts.”
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Karrin Vasby Anderson is professor of communication studies at Colorado State University, where she teaches courses in rhetoric, political communication, and gender and communication. She is the current editor of the Quarterly Journal of Speech, published by the National Communication Association.