Donald Trump has deployed a maddening linguistic tic for a very, very long time now. Whenever he wants to disavow personal responsibility for something he’s stating, he invariably claims that “a lot of people are saying” the thing he is afraid to claim as his own truth. It’s served as a useful wormhole by which Trump can lead his followers into the murky swamps of conspiracy theorists, and also as a direct line to and from the conspiracy-mongers at Fox News. It’s allowed him to pass off his most malignant notions and theories as the product of a foggy consensus of nameless, faceless others, who are merely seeking to clear up confusion about things that are not, in fact, confusing at all. It happens so frequently that we tend to gloss over it, but it even occurs multiple times in the readout of the July 25 telephone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky—and even embedded in the “favor” asked that has become the central claim in the ongoing impeachment hearings.
According to the partial transcript released by the White House, Trump told Zelensky that “there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great.” In hindsight, and with the aggregated witness testimony of the past weeks to explain it, it’s quite plain that “there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son” meant that there was a lot of such talk from Rudy Giuliani, assorted disaffected Ukrainians, the Putin-adjacent, and useful boosters in the conservative media. Also, in hindsight, “a lot of people want to find out about that” meant less that a lot of other folks wanted it cleared up, more that Donald Trump believed it would help him in his reelection bid but he couldn’t say that part out loud. So he went with his old standby: attributing the curiosity to unnamed, mumbling others.
I raise this linguistic trick not to argue, yet again, that this president is not to be taken literally, or figuratively, or rhetorically, or seriously, or for any truth of any matter, ever, but simply to point out that in addition to being a rhetorical device used to evade personal responsibility or agency himself, it’s also a trick he uses to paint the “people” as an undifferentiated and powerless mass, separate from himself, the prime mover and decider. The trick remains interesting to me, even as I tire of the president’s usage, because more and more discourse on the political left as well as on the right now seems to be relying on similarly fuzzy claims—about “the people” and their various wants and worries—that are positively Trumpian. And these claims are just as dishonest coming from Democrats as they are when the president uses them.
In other words: What was once a fundamentally dishonest trick to blame nameless, faceless others for Trump’s worst notions has suddenly become a widespread means of giving voice to the fears of nameless, faceless others, as a means of evading responsibility for progressive ideas.
It’s everywhere. And it’s contagious.
“I really like Elizabeth Warren,” says the guy next to you at Starbucks, “but people are saying America isn’t yet ready to elect a woman president.” Or: “I mean of course the Democrats had no alternative but to initiate impeachment,” says the woman over Thanksgiving sweet potatoes, “but people are saying it’s going to create a huge backlash and lose them the 2020 election.” Or: “Look, I hate Trump with a passion, but people are saying that folks in Wisconsin just aren’t ready for a discussion of ‘Medicare for All.’ ”
The problem with “people are saying” in political discourse when it comes from the left is that it’s just as unreliable as the claims made by Trump. It’s a way we give cover to our own worst fears and prejudices, by putting them in the mouths of an inchoate blob of other unspecified “people.” There is no way to measure the reliability of self-assured claims that “people” are saying “things,” because, of course, lots of people says lots of things all the time. But political claims made by your cheesemonger are not of equal weight to political claims made by Rep. Adam Schiff, and “people are saying” is a none-too-artful way of downgrading experts while elevating random pundits and also your father-in-law. That’s why, when Donald Trump insists that “people are saying” Ukraine meddled in the election, what he is really doing is elevating Lev Parnas’ deliberate distortions over the conclusions of his own national security apparatus.
But the real problem with the rise in sourceless, unauthenticated claims about what “people are saying”—whether it comes from the mouth of a Republican or a Democrat—is that we actually do have the ability to construct our own realities. If enough “people are saying” a thing, it becomes true, whether or not it is correct. And you know who is also a “person”? You. And when you cede your own agency to “people” who are, um, not really there, or a faceless amalgam of everyone you’ve ever heard on NPR or cable news, what you are really doing is erasing yourself from the calculus altogether. You are there and also not there; you have become part of the pointless collective otherwise known as “people are saying.”
If you like Elizabeth Warren, support her. If you want to support Cory Booker, do so. If you believe in taxing billionaires, say it. Your colleagues will either come around or they won’t, but at least you will not have wasted your political capital shadowboxing with imaginary authorities. It is the most 21st-century American phenomenon imaginable: giving up your own vote and voice and political agency to a make-believe consensus. When the president does it, we can see it for the epistemological bait and switch it really is. When we do it, it’s actually just as craven and cowardly. As we plummet ever further into manufactured realities, let’s do our best to claim and defend our own beliefs and truths, instead of hiding behind phantoms that will harden into reality if they go unchecked.