According to Trent and Friedenburg, the purposes of an apologia are to 1) explain a bad behavior in a positive light, 2) justify the behavior, and 3) remove the topic from public discussion. The authors offer several methods to achieve these purposes: from full-on confessions, to denial, to differentiation. But when Donald Trump was caught making lewd comments about women in a 2005 hot mic gaffe, his apologia took a terrorism-centered turn.
Trump immediately released an apologia video to Youtube which started out using the “transcendental” strategy to make a more general statement about his character. Although he made a small confession of his transgressions, he focused on touting the fact that in the ten years since the video, he had changed, he had met Americans who wanted change, and that he was willing to continue to change the country. Overall, the transcendental strategy seemed like a presidential way to move away from the scandal.
But in the second presidential debate,Trump’s apologia strategy shifted to talk more about ISIS, and less about a miraculous change of character. When asked about his lewd remarks, Trump made a feeble attempt to justify his behavior as “locker room talk.” But the bulk of his answer centered around ISIS:
“You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have them, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over and you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times. We haven’t seen anything likes this….I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We need to get on to much more important and bigger things.”
Trump used the issue of terrorism and of ISIS as a method to change the public narrative. But this apologia strategy was misguided and unsatisfying. Instead of using a simple confession strategy, or attempting to blame the media through a differentiation strategy, he attempted to distract from his own misdeeds by delivering an impassioned oration about the Islamic State.
Simply trying to strong-arm the conversation to a completely unrelated issue does little to heal broken public trust, and seems to ignore the justification and explanation aspects of an effective apologia. During an apologia, the speaker should focus on making a statement of his changed character and of his other positive attributes.But dismissing the scandal and instead attempting to incite anger over terrorism is a strategy that misses the mark, at least given the standards for effective apologia discussed by Trent and Friedenburg.
In the future, Trump should leave terrorism out of his apologies and stick to the ages-old “changed man” narrative.