Revenge of the Haters: A Response to Kellyanne Conway’s Abysmal Defense

On February 3, 2017, while being interviewed on Hardball with Chris Matthews, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway made reference to the “Bowling Green Massacre” as justification for Trump’s travel ban on seven nations. Conway said:

“I bet, there was very little coverage‍—‌I bet it’s brand new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized‍—‌and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre. I mean, most people don’t know that because it didn’t get covered.” (Cited from the newly minted Wikipedia page for “Bowling Green Massacre.”)

For the last few days, Conway has been the object of extensive criticism and ridicule for manufacturing a fictional event as justification for Trump’s policy. On February 5th she hit back at those she deemed “haters” in an interview with Fox News:

“I should have said plot or I should have just called them terrorists. … I clarified immediately. I should have said terrorists and not massacre,” Conway said. “I’m sure it will live on for a week.”

“I misspoke one word. The corrections in the newspapers that are attacking me are three paragraphs long every day,” she added. (Cited Here.)

In her defense, Conway says she “misspoke one word.” So why don’t we give her a break? After all, it’s just one word!

Just One Word?

Just one word? And that’s meant as a defense? Does Conway realize that the sentences “Donald Trump is a psychopath” and “Donald Trump is not a psychopath” differ by just one word? The same is true of “Donald Trump is a leader” and “Donald Trump is a demagogue“. Just one word.

Apparently a bit more is at stake than merely counting the number of words: it also matters what those words are.

So what’s the difference between “plot” and “massacre”? A rather large one, I would think. Indeed,  I submit that it’s on the parallel with the difference between “leader” and “demagogue”.

Conway says she should have used the word “plot” or maybe the word “terrorists”. Right, any other suggestions, Kellyanne? Wouldn’t it be nice if we all could rethink and wordsmith our words three days later? But reality doesn’t work like that. Bottom line: Conway is offering this defense a couple days after her initial foray into bald disinformation propagation. In short: it’s a little late.

Substituting Words

It’s also bad, very bad.

Let’s set aside our concerns over the one word issue for a moment and see what happens when we try swapping the two substitution words that Conway proposes. Let’s begin by swapping in her first proposal, the word “plot”:

“They were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green plot.”

Sorry Kellyanne, but that’s more than a bit awkward. The problem is that folks aren’t granted the designation of “masterminding” a plot that fails as the “Bowling Green” plot did. Indeed, the definition for “mastermind” (verb) includes a reference to success. Here’s the dictionary definition for “mastermind”: “to plan and direct (a usually complex project or activity), especially skillfully” (emphasis added, source Let’s repeat that: especially skillfully. If the plot fails to go anywhere then one does not apply the verb “mastermind” to those who formulated it. So Kellyanne’s first attempt to redeem her words with one word fails.

What about Conway’s second proposal? Here it is:

“They were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green terrorists.”

Oh dear, this is even worse. This formulation retains the problem of failure that plagues the first substitution. In addition, it compounds problems with a truly perplexing word salad. On this reading, the would-be terrorists were the masterminds (of a failed plot) that was behind the Bowling Green terrorists (i.e. themselves). How does this even make sense? (Pauses to pull hair out in frustration.)

Answer: It doesn’t. This is nonsense and disinformation of the worst sort.

We all know that political media relations is an endless source of lies, obfuscation, and outright bullshit (of the sort decried by philosopher Harry Frankfurt). What is so disturbing in this case is that it is part of a bald campaign of misinformation which is intended to prop up a demagogue-in-training.

Conway is right about one thing: I’m a hater. I hate disinformation like this which is spewed into the public square to obscure truth and thereby defend the ill-formed policies of a dangerous demagogue under the cover of confusion.


4 thoughts on “Revenge of the Haters: A Response to Kellyanne Conway’s Abysmal Defense”

  1. Randal, Yes and no.
    (Hmm, I think I’ve said that before about at least one of your posts, on your RR site:-)

    It seems that you are being too harsh for a misspoken word:
    Kelly: “I misspoke one word. The corrections in the newspapers that are attacking me are three paragraphs long every day…”

    Randal: “In her defense, Conway says she “misspoke one word.” So why don’t we give her a break? After all, it’s just one word!”

    Look back at a few of your own words, (in this case, written, not spoken):
    Randal referring to Donald Trump: “hopelessly racist, misogynistic, psychopathic, corrupt, pathologically lying bully” from
    “Sigh, those were the good old days! Today evangelicals are increasingly known for their uncritical embrace of a hopelessly racist, misogynistic, psychopathic, corrupt, pathologically lying bully. And they’re known for a defense of him and demonization of the Clintons that is so crass it provides a dictionary definition of hypocrisy and moral blindspot. For example, they readily forgive Trump for his brutish actions of a decade ago but they refuse to forgive Hillary Clinton for her husband’s brutish actions of two decades ago. Go figure.”

    #1 I agree that Trump ought not to have been voted into the Presidency by the Electoral College. And I agree that it appears his moral character is far more suspect than the Clintons’.

    #2 But having said that (and more elsewhere against Trump), I do think that your use of such extreme one words as
    are not only inaccurate, they are unfair.

    I used to work as a mental health worker in a mental hospital. We worked with pscyopaths, as well as many other mentally ill individuals.

    While it does appear to be true that Trump has sometimes discriminated against others because of race, based on all the reading I’ve done related to him in the last year, I see no valid evidence that he is “psychopathic,” or “pathological.”

    And then you say that he as an individual (even a political leader) is “hopelessly” so.

    Your use of 4 harsh, untrue words seem to me to be your own case of exaggeration and misuse of language.

    What about “speaking the truth in love” when it comes to politics, as you seek to do with atheists and others in philosophy?


    1. First, it turns out today that this is not the first time Kellyanne engaged in misinformation about a so-called Bowling Green Massacre. She has referred to this fake news event at least three times:

      As for labeling Trump, I’m taken aback that you think it is controversial, still less that it is flatly “untrue” to claim Trump is racist.

      But let’s focus on the other major charge: psychopathy. The ghostwriter of Trump’s autobiography “Art of the Deal” believes Trump is a clinical psychopath. And many others do as well. About six months ago Keith Olbermann produced a short video in which he went through Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist and by his estimation (admittedly as a layperson) he believed Trump meets most of the criteria of psychopathy. I would comment readers to look up Hare’s Checklist or look up Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the DSM to see whether, by their estimation, Trump meets the criteria.

      Or you could just read this fine overview of Trump’s psychology which was written up last summer in The Atlantic:

      In short, I believe there is powerful evidence that Trump suffers from a personality disorder.

      As for “Speaking the truth in love” you’re completely off base to couch this as a dispute in “politics”. Speaking the truth in love involves a frank analysis based on evidence and that’s precisely what I’ve provided here.

      Since you’ve called my claim untrue and further accused me of “misusing language” perhaps you’d liked to substantiate those charges with evidence which demonstrates (1) that Trump cannot reasonably be believed to suffer from a personality disorder like psychopathy/NPD; (2) in what fashion you allege I have misused language.


  2. Thanks for giving me additional information on Kellyanne Conway. I will look into all of this in more detail. After the debacle of the year following nearly every development very closely, my wife and I have chosen to step back from the constant barrage, (which from both sides is name-calling extremism.

    As for your extreme mental health accusation against Trump, we completely disagree.

    I’ve read about some mental health professionals making a diagnosis on Donald Trump. Not only is that unethical, it is not medically accurate.

    Diagnosing a patient in private practice or in a mental institution is a difficult undertaking. Mental health experts will even disagree, as do doctors about physical ailments.

    I think most, of not all, of these alleged diagnoses blasted out into the public sphere are a very bad example of ideological bias. They are unfair, unethical, and bad medical practice.

    #1 Then you ask me to “…substantiate those charges with evidence which demonstrates (1) that Trump cannot reasonably be believed to suffer from a personality disorder like psychopathy/NPD;”


    I am a retired literature and writing teacher, a novelist and poet, who has some mental health background. I certainly wouldn’t seek to diagnose a public figure’s mental capabilities or the lack thereof.

    Furthermore, even if I was a famous psychiatrist, I wouldn’t make a public diagnosis of an individual, especially not one who I hadn’t tested and studied in detail!

    #2 Then you ask me to “…substantiate those charges with evidence which demonstrates…(2) in what fashion you allege I have misused language.

    Now that is my field. Not only did I study and teach literature for many years, I also studied under a linguistic anthropologist when I majored in that field for two years.

    For you–who is normally, very careful in your statements (even defending Reformed theologians at times!:-(–
    your many statements about American politics seem extreme, unfair, and heavily biased.

    I already gave you examples (review my explanations why that you as a theologian ought not to make medical claims against a public figure–even though we both agree that he isn’t qualified to hold public office).

    It is a very serious charge to call him “hopelessly,” ‘psychopathic,’ and “pathologically.”

    Furthermore, it does appear that Donald Trump has a user attitude toward some women. He himself boasted of adultery, the only thing stopping him from committing overt adultery against his wife, and against the married woman was that she wouldn’t go all the way. And there are many other cases of his past immoral behavior toward women.

    Despite his and other’s statements that he has become a Christian, yet he hasn’t publicly repented of the immoral actions and statements (that I know of), so it appears that he does, by his own statements display “misogynistic” behavior.

    HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean that strangers, (even from up in moderate Canada;-) get to term him a “misogynist.”

    Only his wife (or previous wives) or those who know him well get to label him, and even they need to remember, but for the ‘grace of god go i’.

    In my limited judgment as a literature teacher, who has a keen sense of semantics, ideological language, it seems to me that your statement, “…hopelessly racist, misogynistic, psychopathic, corrupt, pathologically lying bully” is a case of hyperbole and semantic extremism, and is unfair.

    Long lines of accusative language is one of the key trademarks of political propaganda.

    When did you, usually the very moderate, nuance-explaining academic– go over to the dark side of the Force;-)?


    1. It looks to me like you’ve conflated a conventional standard of professional conduct with an unexceptional deontological obligation. That’s why I focused the topic on reasonable belief. If you cannot provide evidence that I have failed to draw a reasonable conclusion based on the available evidence then your objection falls flat because once I have a reasonable belief based on available evidence, I am justified in sharing that opinion, regardless of what the current conventional standard of professional conduct among mental health professionals may be.

      I can return to the topic in the future and unpack my analysis at more length.


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