Trump’s Language and the Degeneration of a Culture
This post originally appeared on elephantjournal.com
The words we choose to communicate our thoughts—whether through writing or speaking—matter. The order in which we speak our words matters. The words we leave out or add in matter.
To my point, allow me to share a recent conversation between my husband and me:
“Hey, Keri, I took out the garbage for you.”
“For me?” I whipped around and put my hand on my heart. “You did it for me?”
“Well, I just mean…”
“What are you trying to say? Are you saying that taking out the garbage is primarily my job, or that all the garbage is mine, or that I should be eternally grateful?”
“No, I just, uh, wanted to let you know.”
“So, then, why didn’t you say, ‘I took out the garbage for us,’ or ‘I took out the garbage,’ or just say nothing, and let me be pleasantly surprised, because I know our girls wouldn’t have done it?”
“That’s what I meant, I took out the garbage.”
“Well, jeez. Then just say that.”
The two little words he threw on at the end of his sentence—for you—changed what could have been a simple reply of “thank you” into a minor kitchen squabble.
If two little words can do that, imagine what all the words Donald Trump throws out every day, off the cuff, without consideration, without care, can do.
Whether toward or in reference to members of Congress, journalists, judges, Fox News hosts, Gold Star families, or regular, everyday people, Trump seems to spend little effort in considering or crafting his words.
This is especially true of his streams-of-consciousness that come to us via Twitter before 5:00 a.m.
For the last several months, as part of an apprenticeship with elephant journal, I have been responsible for posting relevant, timely, and mindful news to their Facebook Newsroom page. This has, of course, required that I study and follow politics on a daily basis.
What a time to take on this role. Politics is certainly not politics as usual.
Because of my commitment, I haven’t missed a single, delightful Trump tweet. I’ve cringed through many press conferences, yelled at some TV news anchors, and found a few journalists I now follow like a groupie (Charles Blow, Dan Rather, Maggie Haberman). Along the way, I’ve developed both a fine imagination to fuel end-of-times nightmares as well as a quick wit for dinner party conversations.
Concurrently, between this program and my work on my memoir, I have delved deeper into the art of writing than ever before. I have studied the importance of choosing my words with care and consideration so that they land on a reader in a way that is both understandable and useful in their lives. I have practiced tightening, adjusting, and rewriting sentences until they sing with emotion and dance with life.
I have noticed how my increased care with words in the written form translates into a greater awareness of the way I speak every day. I’ve developed, perhaps, a hyper-sensitivity to the use and misuse of language—which is likely why my husband got an earful from me about the garbage.
We writers naturally and rightly concern ourselves with everything from the most descriptive word, to the right number of words, to the best order of words.
In contrast, Trump seems starkly unconcerned, sputtering out the first thing on his mind to millions of people without any responsibility, without facts, without definitions, sometimes without words that even make sense together. My guess is that the art of word-smithing isn’t at the top of Trump’s list of priorities. Or is it?
I can’t help but wonder if he knows more about how he’s using language than we’d like to admit. Perhaps it’s not a “word salad” after all. Perhaps his language affects us exactly as he intends.
Consider these writing concepts:
1. The use of passive voice.
Writers learn early on to choose the active voice as often as possible as opposed to passive voice. Active voice is clear and direct. It uses fewer words to make a point. It is lively and engaging. With passive voice, not until later in the sentence we will finally get to the subject, the “do-er” of the action. It is the difference between “I drove your car into a pole,” and “your car was damaged when it ran into a pole.”
Or, for greater impact, consider this example from a Ted Talk by Jackson Katz, “Violence against women—it’s a men’s issue:”
In this talk, we begin with a sentence written in active voice: “John beat Mary.” There is a clear focus on John and his actions.
If we write it in passive voice, the sentence becomes: “Mary was beaten by John.” This moves the bulk of responsibility to Mary. No wonder people then ask Mary what she did wrong or how much she drank.
Then, as if John doesn’t even matter, the sentence can be trimmed down to: “Mary was beaten.”
Finally, we could write: “Mary is a battered woman.” John, the “do-er,” has been absolved of responsibility long ago.
Now, consider these excerpts from Trump:
“Mothers and children trapped in poverty.”
“Young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”
“A lot of people that were mistreated by government for many, many years.”
“Forgotten men and women.”
Note how he connotes helplessness, hopelessness, and even victimhood. Note how he allows his listeners to fill in the responsible party for themselves—and chances are, their chosen scapegoat will match their current belief system.
Note how easily he sets himself up to declare himself the hero who saves “us” from “them.” All with the use of passive voice.
2. Metaphorical vs. Literal.
As writers, we learn that the proper use of a metaphor is like a chef’s knife in the kitchen. We must learn how to use it skillfully and safely. If a metaphor is too complicated, or requires too much set up, we lose the reader. On the other hand, the right metaphor at the right time can find a reader leap-frogging from basic mental comprehension to emotional empathy.
As writers, we must determine when it is time to be literal and when it is best to use metaphor. And we must communicate this intention to our readers, lest they lose trust in us.
Yet the Trump team has so blurred the lines between metaphorical and literal speech, he can now flip from one to the other—in the very same sentence—to serve his current purpose. If people complain about what he “literally” says, he can say it was only a metaphor, or sarcasm, or—as we’ve heard lately—it was put inside quotes. What’s between quotes can apparently mean “something else or anything else” entirely.
Kellyanne Conway has aided Trump in this process by setting him up as the victim of our need for clarity. In fact, she wholly rejects and even shames our natural desire for this clarity:
“Why is everything taken at face value? You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth, rather than look at what’s in his heart.”
Imagine an author trying this defense.
3. Superlatives, exaggerations, sensationalism, hyperbole.
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” ~ Mark Twain
“I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out.” ~ Oscar Wilde
As writers, we learn to be exact and precise with our words. There isn’t a writer alive who doesn’t keep a thesaurus at their writing elbow, who is seeking not just the right word, but the best right word.
We change sentences around dozens of times, because we know the difference between, “Trump tweeted…without any evidence,” and “Without any evidence, Trump tweeted…”
We writers will happily spend an hour in contemplation over a semicolon; we need to decide if it would be better to split the sentence in two.
We debate such things as best tense usage, whether to choose first or third person, and the infuriating, unnecessary, and bulky Oxford comma. We remove words like “very,” words that have
very little meaning. When we finally hit “submit,” it’s because we’ve reached the end of our capacity—and maybe patience—with a piece, not because we think it’s perfect.
An instructor once told my writing class that we each receive an arsenal of three exclamation points to use in our lifetime, so we best use them well. In a similar vein, elephant journal states their criteria for written pieces as such: “Do not put words in ALL CAPS.”
Yet Trump probably uses three exclamation points before breakfast, and his caps lock key is always on. With Trump, things are either the “best” or the “worst,” people are “enemies” or “friends,” legislation is “terrific” or a “disaster.”
But between the “worst” and the “best,” the “friends and the “enemies,” where is the nuance? Where is the grey? Where is room for tweaking?
Between “losers” and “winners,” where is the compromise, the agreement, the mutual benefit?
We can only hope that Trump will begin to understand that the majority of the world actually exists within vast valleys of grey.
4. Fragments/opt-out clauses.
Writers know better than to write fragmented or incomplete sentences. When we do, it is for effect. Like this.
Trump, however, speaks largely in fits and starts. Take this example:
“By the way, if she gets to pick—if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Everyone is now free to make their own assumptions about what “Second Amendment people may do.” In combination with opt-out clauses like “by the way” and “maybe” and “I don’t know,” Trump gives himself ample wiggle room. If he still gets heat, he can always fall back on numbers two or three from above.
There are many other verbal tactics Trump uses, such as veiled, vague threats—”I will send in the Feds!”, the deflection of blame—“If something happens, blame him and court system”, the steady maintenance of existing divisions between “we” and “they”—”These victories have not been your victories…and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land,” all leading to the proclamation of himself as hero—“I alone can fix it.”
Then, there are his commonly-used phrases: “Believe me,” “Many people are saying,” and “An extremely credible source.”
These phrases mean nothing, and hold him to nothing.
Like a writer, words roll off Trump’s tongue and through his fingers with seemingly no effort. Yet, unlike writers, he doesn’t respect these words. He doesn’t see or acknowledge their power and influence. He doesn’t understand—or even care—that he creates fear and confusion with every muddled word game he makes us play.
“On a deeper level, language is an expression of who we are as individuals, communities, nations. Culture refers to dynamic social systems and shared patterns of behavior, beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, and values.” ~ SIL International
What does all this have to do with Lady Liberty and American culture?
Certainly trade, negotiation, peace talks, and international relations depend on proper and exact language. But language also relays who we are as a culture. It gives hints as to what matters to us in a certain time and place. For example, the fact that there are 50 Eskimo words for snow reveals the people’s knowledge of and interest in separating out the different kinds of white flakes falling from the sky.
It is through language that we hand down our customs and values generation after generation. Language teaches our children. Language builds bridges between groups. Language writes our history.
Language should be taken seriously and treated with respect. But Trump speaks and writes with little to no precision, care, or clarity. By extension, he treats our culture with little precision, care, or clarity.
Without the careful use of language, without cautious communication, our culture can slowly degenerate. Our shared identity can melt away. Our values and traditions can peel away. Our American exceptionalism, our moral leadership, and our soft power influence can slip under the horizon.
While some of his followers may appreciate that he speaks at a fourth grade level, we know that a culture’s standing around the world is measured by how its leaders craft and communicate through language. While a culture can’t deteriorate or disappear overnight, it’s likely we will see it chipped away over time, one tweet at a time.
I am listening.
Lady Liberty is listening.
The world is listening.
We should all be listening.
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