No one knows what Donald Trump will do when he assumes office this Friday, which for me and the people I know seems like the first day of the Apocalypse, the sun darkening at high noon and the ghosts of FDR’s euphonious arch-villains, “Martin, Barton, and Fish”, arising from crypts beneath the Capitol Visitors Bureau to carry out their job of stripping America not only of Obamacare and what is left of the Great Society but also of the legislation that goes back to the New Deal and to the Square Deal of Theodore Roosevelt. The Cabinet appointees said about as much in their confirmation hearings. The nominee for Interior Secretary talked about how much he admired Theodore Roosevelt but also said we have to rethink the use of national lands so as to allow for more drilling. Trump’s nominee for Health and Human Services made clear that he wants to gut Medicare. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education wants to reverse the seventy year old Supreme Court decision that government cannot support parochial education for children. So what his ultra-right Cabinet wants to do is clear, but what Trump wants to do is not.
What does Trump himself want to do? I had thought Trump had backed down from his first skirmish with the intelligence community, but it turns out that he had just paused and has since gone on to accuse them of being Nazis. What will he do on his first day in office? Tell United States secrets to Putin? Repeal the executive order protecting dreamers? Sign a repeal of Obamacare not knowing that the replacement bill he is pushing to be passed on the same day will give citizens only the ability to be covered, not coverage? It seems less and less likely that he will step aside and let his ultra conservative Cabinet run the government. John Lewis in part based his argument that Trump was an illegitimate President on that fact that Trump had not taken any steps to mend fences with his opponents but rather gone out of his way to further insult them. A good way to see just how radical a departure Trump is from previous Presidents is to go beyond his crudeness and meanness, though those are the most direct evidence of his malice, and consider his use of language from an abstract point of view. What he does with language is to make it no longer a form of communicating anything other than disdain.
Words are remembered because they themselves are powerful or because the people who utter them are powerful. Most politicians are not writers and so do not make utterances that can stand on their own aside from the fact that the person who made them can enforce them. Cicero and Caesar and Trotsky are exceptions to that rule as also are The Declaration of Independance and the Gettysburg Address. Most politicians therefore are satisfied to mind their words and, when not speaking patriotic blather and campaign platitudes, say very little of content, lest they say too much and so start unnecessary controversy. Reporters keep trying to squeeze content out of them. Donald Trump, on the other hand, says a great many things and does not seem to care if people take offense. He is only trying to defend himself against the slights of people who are now below him in the pecking order. He has no graciousness nor magnanimity. Part of the impetus for so many Congresspeople joining John Lewis in boycotting the Inauguration is the way Trump has handled the transition, not realizing that it is incumbent upon him to reach out to his electoral opponents, to be the larger person. So Trump sows disrespect rather than harvests what he thinks to be obligatory kudos.
It isn’t easy to pick out where the relation between Donald Trump and language goes awry. A point often made is that his language is either meaningless, in that it is a set of adjectives praising the people he is proud of for the moment, or else filled with lies. But that is not to the heart of it, however shocking it is to have a President who never sees the need to apologize for having said Obama wasn’t born in the United States or for having said millions of people voted illegally in the election he won. He claims the election was a landslide victory when it clearly wasn’t. Or was that only an advertiser’s exaggeration, no different from saying a car or detergent is the best?
A good try at understanding Trump’s language was made by Emily Nussbaum in the most recent “New Yorker”. She portrays Trump as a Don Rickles type insult comedian who leaves an audience with a sense of liberation at hearing someone say the meanest things they can, right out loud. She takes that to mean the art of comedy has been used to insulate a candidate from the substance of what he says. But that isn’t quite right either. The presumption is that Don Rickles did not really mean it, that it was an act, just like that of a magician, who you know has tricked you into thinking he has performed miracles, which in this case means that Trump has not really offended anyone, even if it seems that he has. Nussbaum goes on to make the clever point that joking like Trump does leads to people losing the fine edge between what is a joke and what is not a joke. But the truth is that Trump does mean to insult people and does not mean to be telling jokes. The people who voted for him grooved on what he said. As opposed to what some of them said in the New York Times, which is that they overlooked what he said and voted for him in spite of his misogynistic and racist remarks, the truth is that they enjoyed and approved of his remarks because, as some voters said, he told it like it is. So we have to look elsewhere than to the genre of comedy to understand Trump’s relation to language.
So here’s the thing. Trump does not treat language as what it is, which is a set of utterances which are somehow true rather than false, that have stability in that they are, once said, forever available as a set of comments on reality, included in those comments opinions that turn out to be wrong. But, as commentators have euphemistically pointed out, Trump’s statements are “transactional”, which means they last only so long as he wants them to continue to be what Nixon’s press secretary called “operational”. Trump does that wholesale. Untruths are nevertheless what he is feeling to be true at the moment, there being no difference between a hunch that Brennan leaked the two page addendum to a secret briefing and the fact of that being true. Trump reduces judgment to whatever he senses to be or wishes to be true for just so long as feels good to feel that way. Facticity has nothing to do with it.
So what is to be done about Trump and his language? Don’t worry about the Cabinet. They will go about their destructive business as best they can until they are told to stop, and that won’t be by either Trump or Mike Pence, who on policy is even worse than his principal or, at least, has a longer attention span. Here is a suggestion. The press no longer has to pay attention to what Trump says because language does not mean to him what it means to them. Now, if the press no longer pays attention to his tweets, does that mean, like the proverbial tree that falls unheralded in the forest, that they no longer exist? And would not such a discourtesy truly infuriate the new President? No telling what he would do then.