ON THE LANGUAGE OF DONALD TRUMP

 

Language is the form of expression that enjoys the widest gamut of any type of social communication. It can modulate from the sublime to the vulgar, be subtle or blunt, quiet or loud. It can transmit fact and fiction, reason and emotion, truth and falsehood. Social classes and ethnicities can be identified by its sound. Not surprisingly then, we pay attention to it; certainly, in political affairs, we do.

 

That so many people across the world are flummoxed by what Donald Trump says and has said, some moved to apocalyptic visions and even tears, that the mainstream media, normally astute observers of language, are outraged by his words, is one of the more salient consequences of this most unusual of elections.

 

Public discourse at a high level has always meant to be governed by social conventions ensuring civility and a certain measure of restraint, not to mention a reasonable standard of grammar. These expectations are embedded in an assumption that speakers would be understood and judged on the basis of the plain meaning of their words. Accordingly, politicians are held accountable not only for their policies and actions but also for what they say. And this is usually in full sentences, where subject, verb and object are grammatically related.

 

But Mr. Trump will have none of this. He can be said to behave as Humpty Dumpty opined, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” A corollary to this in the new President’s case is that his meaning should be permitted to shift over time to fit circumstances as they change. Rhetoric discipline is shunned. In making a point he feels neither reluctance in exaggerating the facts nor constraint in causing offence by crude allusions. He even accommodates contradictions without a blush.

 

He gets away with the transgressions because the robustness of his style appeals to the lusty no–nonsense souls who form his considerable political base. “He talks like us”, they say, and excuse his verbal faults. And, it must be said, he resonates on occasion with others too, for he launches a spear into the heart of political correctness, an assault that many think is long overdue.

 

While he seems more extreme than politicians of the past, in his conceits he is supported by no less a figure than Ralph Waldo Emerson. The great lecturer said, “Speak what you think in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words though it contradicts everything you said.”

 

Crassness, uncivil comments about women and lurching phrases stacked alongside other linguistic misdemeanors do not fully explain the astonishment of his critics. Nor does his policy orientation, which of course they detest, either. What converted their natural revulsion at these things into shock is that they expected him to inhabit the conventional universe of public speech where they take their comfort, and he didn’t. They failed to realize that Donald Trump had chosen to belong to a different galaxy, where new and unsettling language rules apply. In that space plain meaning of words do not count; it is necessary to look elsewhere to gain understanding, for instance in the background of the man among other things.

 

He is a real estate promoter, though perhaps not of an especially savory type. He thinks and speaks like one. Not alone is The Donald; there are others like him, and promoters in different business fields who behave the same way. His style is not unique, but of course, it is when displayed by an occupant of high political office, much less the highest.

 

In his astute observation of the people in American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville makes a comment apposite to Mr. Trump. “The majority is more engaged in business than in study – than in philosophical speculation or literary pursuits. Most of the words coined or adopted for its use will, therefore, bear the mark of these habits. They will mainly serve to express the wants of businessmen.”

 

Of course, not all businessmen today, or even in the past, speak like Mr. Trump, though they might bear the mark as de Tocqueville suggests. But a minority, albeit negligible, is capable of exhibiting his characteristics.

 

The President sees himself as a business negotiator par excellence and believes his skills can cross over to the White House. Like many of his ilk sometimes he will use language, not for the purpose of expressing facts or meaning but to stake out a position beyond what he expects to achieve eventually. That position, though he buttresses it with vehement argument, is actually not firm, as his language would indicate, but moveable in accordance with the cadence of negotiation. Union leaders use similar techniques.

 

Verbal assaults, which he often supports by suggestion and innuendo (their vagueness paving the way for a later retreat if necessary) but not always by real facts, are part of the attack phase, which, like an artillery barrage, is meant to soften the opposition and ease the way to a compromise that is as close as possible to what he may have wanted in the first place but which he never discloses.

 

It’s not that Donald Trump is devoid of thought or purpose; it’s just that frequently he uses words not for their usually accepted end but rather for creating vibrations to unsettle his opponents or enlist allies for the task at hand. They are merely sound waves unleashed for effect. Reason and factual accuracy seem not required to be carried on them, although, to be fair, at times they do appear. With such people, one never knows what they are really after until a deal is made and not even then because what they want can shift during the process of discussion.

 

The phenomenon of Trumpspeak frustrates journalists to distraction and causes perceptual errors in many because they rely on faculty of speech without sufficient reflection when analyzing what might be going on in the mind of this unorthodox president. In divining what his intentions truly are and how he will go about realizing them it would be helpful to look beneath the language he uses and study the nature of the man in the context of this changing world. That might be simpler than one thinks, and certainly easier than trying to detect meaning in his words alone.

 

Tony Grey

Jan. 30/17