Jamal Khashoggi is dead. The journalist was murdered on October 2 at the Saudi consulate in Turkey. The available evidence suggests with increasing certainty that it was plotted and carried out by members of Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman’s coterie of advisors and confidantes. The scandal over Khashoggi’s murder has only grown over the past two weeks, with new and grisly details emerging almost daily.
Saudi officials’ misdirection, quibbling, and outright lying about Khashoggi’s death are astounding. But their attempts to cover it up are hardly surprising. The same efforts at cover-up and doublespeak from American officials, particularly President Trump, however, are chilling. Trump’s response to Khashoggi’s murder marks a shocking new front in the administration’s anti-democracy crusade.
It has become a cliché to claim that Trump’s behavior has established a new low in American politics, no matter how often it may be true. But the Khashoggi case stands out especially. It demonstrates that Trump’s antipathy to the media is not simply an empty performance. He genuinely does not value a free press and has no intention of defending it.
Consubstantial Rhetoric of U.S. and Saudi Governments
For more than three years, now, Trump has been calling the media dishonest, liars, fake news, and so on. It is a central part of his political theatrics. But Trump’s response to Khashoggi’s murder is more than just theater. It’s the enactment of his anti-media rhetoric.
Take, for instance, his claim that Khashoggi was the victim of “rogue killers.” The claim itself would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious. But even more strangely, the phrase is a direct repetition of the Saudi government. That is, Trump openly used the Saudis’ exactly phrasing to deflect accusations that the Saudis orchestrated Khashoggi’s murder. It’s a textbook example of consubstantiality: “a term for the way ideas and attitudes become substantially entwined by being placed with each other” (see Allen for more on this; reference below). Whether intentional or not, Trump explicitly aligns himself with the Saudis’ version of events when he borrows their language.
In repeating the Saudis’ exact language, Trump also suggests he has no interest in the finding out about the journalist’s death. Moreover, he is not at all concerned that Khashoggi may have been murdered specifically because he wrote critically about the Saudi leader. After all, Trump has routinely slandered journalists as “the enemy,” so why should he be concerned that one of them was killed?
Division by Indifference
In any case, Trump has no intention of waiting for an investigation into the Saudis’ possible involvement in the death of an American journalist. But of course, as Trump eagerly pointed out, Khashoggi was not an American citizen, though he was an American resident. Here again, Trump’s response to the murder of a journalist is more or less indifference, which is the reverse of consubstantiality. It’s division, pure and simple.
That’s been Trump’s response all along–alignment with the Saudis, division from Khashoggi. When asked by the Associated Press about accusations against the Saudis, Trump responded, “Here we go again with you know you’re guilty until proven innocent,” which is reference to allegations of sexual assault during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. By connecting the Saudis to Kavanaugh–a man who he fought to have confirmed–Trump makes it clear where his loyalties lie. But just in case it wasn’t totally clear, Trump tweeted, “the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia … totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate.” Trump took the Crown Prince’s word, as we might expect.
At every turn, Trump has demonstrated that his only interest is in defending Saudi Arabia, regardless of what the consequences for individuals or for freedom of the press. To be sure, he might be acting instinctively out of loyalty to an ally and not out of conscious malice to Khashoggi or the press more generally. But in the end, that’s actually worse for what it says about the state of American democracy in the hands of a President who seems to have no interest in protecting it.
Allen, Ira J. “Who Owns Donald Trump’s Antisemitism?” Faking the News: What Rhetoric Can Teach Us About Donald J. Trump. Ed. Ryan Skinnell (2018): 53-75.