‘Mistakes Were Made’: Greg Abbott’s Non-Denial Denial on Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric

The governor spoke of a “course correction,” but it’s going to take a mighty swerve to steer away from the Texas GOP’s weaponization of viciously anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Governor Greg Abbott delivers a speech to the Texas Senate on the opening day of the 86th Legislature.
Governor Greg Abbott delivers a speech to the Texas Senate on the opening day of the 86th Legislature. Kolten Parker

The governor spoke of a “course correction,” but it’s going to take a mighty swerve to steer away from the Texas GOP’s weaponization of viciously anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Governor Greg Abbott delivers a speech to the Texas Senate on the opening day of the 86th Legislature.
Governor Greg Abbott delivers a speech to the Texas Senate on the opening day of the 86th Legislature. Kolten Parker

After a whole week dodging the matter, it took Governor Greg Abbott nearly five painfully long seconds of silent contemplation to conjure up the words “mistakes were made” in response to a reporter’s question about the fear-mongering fundraising letter his campaign sent out the day before the El Paso shooting.

The mailer implored his Republican supporters to “DEFEND” Texas from illegal immigration and the resulting political upheaval. As the letter read, “Unless you and I want liberals to succeed in their plan to transform Texas—and our entire country—through illegal immigration, this is a message we MUST send.” The day after the letter was dated, a white supremacist intent on stopping an “Hispanic takeover” drove from suburban Dallas to El Paso and killed 22 people, most of them Hispanic.

The governor’s response came after a week of ignoring at least 15 requests for comment from the media, and condemnations and demands for an apology from activists and Democratic elected officials. In remarks to the press before the meeting of the Texas Safety committee, which he recently formed to address domestic terrorism, Abbott acknowledged that “the killer in El Paso definitely was a racist” and that “the core of what happened here in El Paso and that was racist hate.”

The governor of the state with the second largest Latinx population in the country was far less forthcoming when it came to his—and his own political party—trafficking in anti-immigrant rhetoric. An apology, it was not.

“I did have the opportunity to visit with the El Paso delegation and help them understand, uh, that [aforementioned long pause] mistakes were made and course correction has been made,” Abbott said. “I emphasized the importance of making sure that rhetoric will not be used in any dangerous way and will make sure that we work collaboratively in unification.”

When it comes to addressing allegations of wrongdoing in American politics, there is no more dependable phrase than “mistakes were made.” It’s so common that there is an entire Wikipedia page devoted to the usage of the phrase in American politics. The page’s “See Also” section includes CYA (cover your ass); non-apology apology; and non-denial denial. The New York Times has declared it to be a “classic Washington linguistic construct.” Political scholar William Schneider gave the phrase a whole new grammatical tense of “past exonerative.” And the famed journalist William Safire defined it as a “passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.”

The etymology of the phrase can apparently be traced all the way back to President Ulysses S. Grant, who, amid ongoing investigations into rampant corruption in his administration, said “mistakes have been made.” But it was Richard Nixon’s press secretary who popularized it as a term of public relations art in the face of a worsening Watergate scandal. It’s since become akin to the Forrest Gump of political non-denial denials. Ronald Reagan used the phrase to explain that whole Iran-Contra thing. Henry Kissinger uttered the phrase to defend himself decades after Operation Condor, in which U.S. intelligence agencies overthrew leftist governments in South America and replaced them with brutal right-wing dictators. Bill Clinton used it in response to Democratic fundraising scandals in the White House. Chris Christie even uttered the words in response to “Bridgegate.”

The beauty of this response, and the reason why Abbott used it, is that it invites far more questions than it answers: What mistakes were made? Who made them? Are you, in any way, including yourself in the ranks of the mistaken? What sort of rhetoric would you consider “dangerous?”

To truly address all of those questions, Abbott would be required to, as they say on the internet, [gestures vaguely at everything].

As we noted right after the El Paso massacre, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who was sitting one foot to the left of the governor as he said “mistakes were made,” has a long, long history of using extremely anti-immigrant, “invasion”-centric rhetoric. Does Patrick agree that mistakes were made and has he signed on to this undefined “course correction”?

Still, the truly disturbing thing is that Abbott’s fundraising letter would have been entirely unremarkable—par for the Texas GOP’s country club course—if not for the fact that it was sent out the day before the El Paso shooting.

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Justin Miller is the politics reporter for the Observer. He previously covered politics and policy for The American Prospect in Washington, D.C., and has also written for The Intercept, The New Republic and In These Times. Follow him on Twitter or email him at [email protected].


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