The first US presidential debate last night was a pretty torrid affair with frequent interruptions and negotiations for the floor between the candidates and the host. Here is a short transcription and analysis of a specific stretch of discourse.
An accurate transcription of the discourse is vital if we are to understand what the speakers are saying and the intentions behind their utterances.
“Stand back and stand by”
A lot has been made of President Donald Trump’s answer as to whether he would condemn the right-wing group, the Proud Boys, but a close analysis of the discourse immediately preceding this reveals some interesting cues.
The first point is that Trump does seem to agree to condemn white supremacist and militia groups through his backchanneling and body language as the host, Chris Wallace, builds up the question.
In line 12 he replies ‘sure’ to the question ‘are you willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups’ from the host. He then mouths another ‘sure’ in line 16 together with body language, and then explicitly states that he is ‘willing to do that’ in line 19.
01 CW: you have repeated[ly= 02 DT: [we 03 CW: =criticised the (.) the vice president 04 for not specially calling out Antifa 05 and other left wing [extremist groups 06 DT: [that's right 07 (0.4) 08 CW: but are you willing 09 tonight 10 to condemn white supremacist 11 and militia groups 12 DT: sure 13 CW: and (.) to say that they need to stand down 14 and not add to the violence 15 at a number of these cities 16 ((president mouths 'sure')) 17 as we saw in Kenosha 18 and as we've seen in Portland 19 DT: sure [I'm willing to do that 20 CW: [are you prepared to specifically 21 DT: but 22 JB: well do it
The host does not seem to pick up on these cues or may just want a more explicit response.
It is interesting to note that the host cues Trump in line 13 by asking if ‘they need to stand down’. Many commentators have not picked up on this. This might explain why Trump later says ‘stand back and stand by’. We do not know what Trump means by this exactly as he has changed the prepositions. The choice of ‘stand by’ is particularly concerning for some because, as has been suggested, he seems to be instructing the right wing group to be ready – ready for what? However I think it is important to note that the host Wallace did introduce ‘stand down’ first.
As the host presses Trump for an explicit condemnation of the right wing group, Trump tries to shift the floor to left-wing groups – see lines 24-27, 30. However the host continues to press for a specific condemnation of right-wing groups. Biden even joins in in 36-38 and 47, 49, 52.
Eventually the name is resolved to the Proud Boys. It is Biden who first suggest this group in line 49 and the host picks up on this.
23 CW: [well go ahead sir 24 DT: [I would say 25 I would say 26 almost everything I see is from the left wing (.) 27 not from the right wing 28 CW: so what are you 29 what [are you 30 DT: [if you look 31 CW: what are you saying 32 DT: I'm I'm willing to do anything 33 I want to see [peace 34 CW: [well then do it sir 35 DT: [I 36 JB: [say it (0.2) 37 do it say it 38 (0.9) 39 DT: you wanna call em 40 (0.5) 41 what d'you wanna call em 42 give me a name 43 give me a name 44 CW: white su[premacists and right 45 DT: [go ahead 46 DT: but who would [you like me to condemn 47 JB: [white supremacists 48 CW: [white supremacists= 49 JB: [Proud Boys 50 DT: who 51 CW: =right ([Proud Boys) 52 JB: [Proud Boys
Trump eventually delivers the infamous line ‘stand back and stand by’ in line 55 below but I’m not wholly convinced that it is a call for action. Some may say it is but there is certainly a lot of cues in the preceding discourse to make this far from certain.
53 DT: Proud Boys? 54 (0.4) ►55 DT: stand back and stand by (0.2) 56 but I'll tell you what (0.3) 57 I'll tell you what (0.4) 58 ((Biden smiles)) 59 somebody's got to do something 60 about Antifa and the left 61 because this is not a right [wing problem 62 JB: [his own 63 his own [FBI director said 64 DT: [this is a left wing 65 this is a left wing problem [ = overlap (0.2) = length of pause in seconds DT = Donald Trump; JB = Joe Biden; CW = Chris Wallace
The analysis here shows how a close linguistic transcription analysis following a CA tradition can help us to understand in detail what was said and what was meant. Most commentators fail to consider this.