The Grammar of Politics

The impeachment process could have used a little assistance from Schoolhouse Rock.

What this moment calls for is a Schoolhouse Rock video that blends civics education, a la “I’m Just A Bill,” with “Conjunction Junction”-style grammar lessons. Why? Because deconstructing sentences and examining their elements is an excellent way to find clarity in a time of political uncertainty.

To wit: The moment the House impeachment charge came out (the more recent one, I mean), I had an uneasy feeling. The source of my discomfort was not constitutional or legal. It was grammatical. Take the following two sentences:

A.  Donald Trump incited a mob to storm the Capitol.

B.  A mob, incited by Donald Trump, stormed the Capitol. 

In Sentence A, written in active voice, Donald Trump is the subject and the mob is the object. It makes for a pithy charge, certainly. Active voice is concrete, straightforward. 

However, active voice also conveys immediacy. Sure enough, as day follows night, Trump defenders immediately began parsing the president’s remarks from that day and declared he had not said anything inciting. He didn’t tell them to storm the Capitol! That point is hugely debatable, of course, but it left his defenders an opening. 

Suppose the drafters of the impeachment charge had used something along the lines of Sentence B to characterize the events that day. It could not stand alone as an impeachment charge, since the passive voice construction makes the mob the subject, while Trump gets tucked away, a measly participial adjective phrase. It would have been harder to argue with, though, wouldn’t it? 

For all the bad press it gets, the passive voice has its place. Since Statement B conveys less immediacy, it would have made more room for, and added relevancy to, statements the president made in the weeks leading up to the incident. Can anyone deny that the mob had been incited by his endless stream of false claims about the election being stolen? 

Sen. Mitch McConnell evidently understood this. The headlines on January 19 read, “McConnell blames Trump for attack.” But here’s how he actually put it: “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people,” he said on the Senate floor. Passive voice.

Trump defenders still would have argued over intent. You can’t read his mind! You still don’t know he wanted them to storm the Capitol! Fine, but the wonderfully capacious passive voice construction would have provided a perfect setup for an examination of the president’s behavior not just before, but also during and after. 

We can’t read his mind, but we can read his actions, or lack thereof. He didn’t want the mob to storm the Capitol? Well, what did he do when he found out it had happened? 

We know what he tweeted. We know what he didn’t do. There was plenty of reporting about Trump’s behavior during the hours before he finally, lamely, spoke up. Eyewitness testimony would have confirmed this reporting and made his behavior a matter of public record. 

The Democrats finally grokked this, as we know, but by then it was too late. Had they realized it earlier, impeachment proceedings would have shone a spotlight on the most indisputably damning aspect of the whole episode. Is it not the most basic expectation that a president, faced with news that a violent mob is attacking the U.S. Capitol (never mind one that, at a bare minimum, has been egged on by your comments), must immediately do all in his power to stop it? Unless he was trapped under something heavy, or incapacitated in some as-yet-unreported fashion (narrator: he wasn’t), his inaction is extraordinarily difficult to excuse. At the very least, it would have given Republicans less wiggle room. 

All it would have taken was a different grammatical approach. Sentence diagramming: Is there nothing it can’t do?

Virginia Hume is the author of the forthcoming novel, Haven Point (St. Martin's Press). She is a longtime veteran of campaign politicians and public affairs communications.