Tellin’ It Like It Is: Politics and Donald Trump’s Language
[Photo by Marc Nozell – https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcn/24622320840/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46901376 ]
[For a 2019 continuation, click here.]
When Indiana Jones, played by Donald Trump, shoots the Cairo Swordsman (with Jeb Bush and a bunch of other Republicans in the role), someone in the crowd (Hillary Clinton) grabs the dropped scimitar, raises it high and runs off, surrounded by a number of others (the Democrats). She thinks the prize (earlier Republican rhetoric) will serve her well. Her supporters cheer.
So accustomed are they–both Republicans and Democrats–to the old political weapons that neither side sees that Trump, with his shot, has rendered them all antique and inadequate. Trump has changed the language of political discussion as surely as the musket changed warfare.
Which is why, of course, that the old thrusts don’t wound him. And why his own blunderbuss never hurts him. He doesn’t need to close with his opponents and he can’t fall on his own knife when he doesn’t even carry one.
However, and this may be his downfall, something that the Allied forces discovered in World War II may turn the battle against him. Though the Germans had better tanks than did the Allies, a dozen Shermans could always take out a Tiger. Trump cannot win alone; today, his support from his Republican allies seems to be eroding.
A lot about Trump’s success, and about the new verbal armament he wields (not to mention the old of the rest of the political field) can be learned from George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Trump may be a naif when it comes to language but, as they say, “out of the mouths of babes…. ” Though his own language reflects more closely William Wordsworth’s ‘spontaneous overflowing’ than it does the considered speech and writing Orwell advocates, he has identified the weakness of his opponents much in the way Orwell did seventy years ago.
Trump is seen to ‘tell it like it is’ precisely because he does not fall into the traps Orwell describes–while his rivals, both Republican and Democrat, constantly do. They constantly try to blow new life into dying metaphors, flail with verbal false limbs, engage in pretentious diction and shoot off meaningless words as though they are deadly bolts.
Trump finds prepared comments and teleprompter speeches boring–precisely because they are. He knows that, if he falls into the established patterns, he also abandons his own best weapon, taking up those he destroyed when they were used against him.
This puts him into a difficult position, for his blunderbuss can only shoot at a limited and imprecise range. He hasn’t developed a verbal rifle or machine gun that can pick wily opponents off at a distance or as they charge in a mass. He may have shown the efficiency and ease of use of new language in politics, but he has not the skills needed for using it well or developing its possibilities. His past opponents have been, by and large, incompetent; he has not arsenal for fighting off determined and able adversaries.
And that is what may save the Democrats and Republicans.
At least for now.
But not from his successors.
Someone is right now learning from Trump and from Orwell, too. “All issues are political issues,” Orwell writes, “and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.” Trump knows this; his followers do, too. What Trump hasn’t figured out is how to craft his own language, to create precision in response to that inchoate mass. Yet, he understands that what he has done, for his millions of followers, is humanize himself through his ‘ill-considered’ language while his opponents turn themselves, more and more, into machines:
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases… one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.
And that, on the right and on the left, among Republicans as well as Democrats, is what we had–in the days before Trump.
The closest we have had, in American politics recently, to anyone following Orwell’s advice to avoid stale tropes, long words, excessive verbiage, the passive voice and jargon is Bernie Sanders. One of the reasons he was so successful is that he, like Trump, spoke honestly though, unlike Trump, within the confines of ‘traditional’ political discourse. He did not go quite far enough, never quite picking up Trump’s new weapon.
Which is not surprising. Not even Trump recognized the power he was unleashing.
Trump is Orwellian in another sense, too, not that of this essay but of the much better known 1984. He becomes the personification of the Party:
A Party member is expected to have no private emotions and no respites from enthusiasm. He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party. The discontents produced by his bare, unsatisfying life are deliberately turned outwards and dissipated by such devices as the Two Minutes Hate.
Fortunately for us, for the moment, Trump lacks the intelligence, knowledge and skills to use the weapon he has created in response to the exhaustion of the older verbal arsenal of the politician. If he is able, he may soon attract these to him and turn them to his use.
Or another will rise in his wake.
Unless, of course, the rest of the political world of the United States quickly begins to develop the new school of fresh and precise communication for themselves, examining Trump’s blunderbuss and extrapolating from it to create new and more powerful and accurate weapons to counter those of the accidental demagogue and his successors.