Nice family you have there…it’d be a shame if something were to happen to it.”
That phrase has been a meme on the internet, but is more often connected to movies about the mafia. It is a phrase that, if you read it literally, means one thing, but if you allow for even the slightest hint of the undeniable subtext, it means something entirely different. It is an implicature. It is a threat dressed up as a compliment.
There is a reason it has almost become a cliché when talking about the mob. It is how we imagine they speak. It is one of the methods we all imagine they must make use of to simultaneously convey the promise of a consequence while avoiding facing any of their own. Rarely will you hear explicit threats being made by practiced intimidators. Imagine your favorite mob boss, real or fictional, having this conversation:
Mob boss says, “I need you to do something for me,” or “You need to pay up.”
Target of extortion says, “I can’t do that,” or “I don’t have that kind of money.”
Mob boss replies, “You seem to be very attached to your family. I recognize they are a vulnerability I can exploit to coerce you into doing what I want or making the payment I am demanding. I will harm them if you do not comply.”
No explanation is needed to understand how quickly it would lead to trouble for that imaginary extortionist.
But that is exactly the type of language that defenders of the president are claiming he would have had to have used for them to even think about being suspicious of his conduct. For them to even consider the possibility of wrongdoing, the hypothetical conversation would have to go something like this:
President Trump would say, “President Zelensky, I need you to announce an investigation into Hunter Biden and his company, Burisma.”
President Zelensky would respond, “Why would we do that when we otherwise wouldn’t?”
President Trump would, in the minds of his unwavering defenders, have to reply: “Because if you don’t announce those investigations into one of the likely opponents in my next election, I will illegally withhold $400 million of military aid that was approved by Congress. I recognize your country desperately needs it to survive the onslaught it is being subjected to by one my country’s greatest geopolitical foes, and that provides an excellent opportunity for me to engage in this extortion. If I have a talent, it is that I can identify and leverage weaknesses, and am choosing to so now to gain a personal advantage in the domestic political realm. But if I have not described this quid pro quo clearly enough, I can more simply define the terms of this bribery by saying, ‘I’ll give you some missiles if you help me embarrass Joe Biden.’”
There can still be a conversation about what would justify removing a president from office, even after acknowledging the facts. The greatest threat to any republic is a refusal by its participants to acknowledge reality. It is appropriate to have an informed opinion about what merits removal, but destructive to rely on the product of a series of Russian disinformation campaigns to construct an alternate reality.
If that practice continues among some of our leaders, it will be easy to imagine Vladimir Putin, reveling in his success, becoming confident enough to start thinking about the United States: “Nice democracy you have there… it’d be shame if something were to happen to it.”
Jason Nichols is District 2 Democratic Party chair, an instructor of political science at Northeastern State University, and former mayor of Tahlequah.