A common riff by Trump–most recently Saturday, September 12th in Nevada–is to suggest he will be serving more than two terms as president. Often he frames the idea as a mulligan for his first term, as he does here.
Predictably many resistance types on Twitter and cable news commenerati are quick to contemplate these musings. Is this just more evidence that Trump is an anti-democratic authoritarian type? How can we ever stop him from installing himself for a third term if we can’t even successfully impeach him? And so on.
As Lisa Simpson helpfully pointed out, you have to listen to the notes he’s not playing.
The Simpsons Season 9, Episode 17
LBJ is said to have joked that his campaign should leak that his opponent sleeps with barnyard animals simply to make him deny it. Once you are talking about your candidate sleeping with barnyard animals, you’ve lost. George Lakoff touched on this with Don’t Think of an Elephant, but the effects of framing, priming and agenda setting are widely discussed across the political communications literature in countless more technical works.
So why is Trump constantly trolling the media and Democrats with talk of a third (or fourth or fifth) term? The simple answer is that it draws angst from Democrats and attention from the media. And indeed this is part of the equation. Changing the subject is a big part of his formula.
But the deeper answer lies in the notes he’s not playing. Lashing out at the idea of a Trump third term takes one crucial fact for granted: that there will be a Trump second term. Pragmatically this is known as presupposition projection. While pragmatics is known to be extremely slippery and je ne sais quoi, presupposition projection is well-known to be associated with some verbs but not others and can be illustrated using some of those verbs:
Trump believes that Obama spied on his campaign.
Trump knows that he lost the popular vote by over 3 million votes.
Trump does not regret that he raped E Jean Carroll.
Two of those embedded sentences are just taken more for granted than the other, based mostly on the verb being used. But as helpful as these examples are, the Trump example is even more like another canonical case of presupposition projection:
The King of France is bald.
You cannot evaluate the truth of that sentence (namely whether said king is indeed bald) without first taking for granted that France has a king.
So, if you take the bait, his trolling will not only needlessly sap your attention, he will also make you think of an elephant. Focus on the second term to prevent a third.