The Invectives of King Trump

For Hampshire Life
Published: 11/14/2019 4:50:25 PM
Modified: 11/14/2019 4:50:14 PM

There are countless reasons to be outraged in the Trump era. I will focus on one: his language.

Trump debases language all the time, in an off-the-cuff speech, via Twitter, in diplomatic correspondence, etc. His garbled syntax, his offensive adjectives (“Crooked Hilary,” “Lyin’ Ted”), the typos, the auto-correct blunders… I used to think W. was unsurpassable.

The debasement might be described as a deficiency. Trump’s vocabulary isn’t that of an adult but one more appropriate to a 12-year-old. He uses repetition and lacks discernment. But Trump shapes sentences in the form of turf, “we” vs. “them”: we are right whereas they are corrupt; we are American and they are traitors.

I should qualify my argument by saying, first, that I’m an immigrant — and Mexican to boot. English isn’t my language. I don’t own it; I’m just a tenant in a rented house. Trump demonizes immigrants. However, immigrants are like converts: we love what we have because we know what it means not to have it. It’s a love that makes us proud. Yes, I’m patriotic about English.

English isn’t only my house; it is my home. I love its abundance, its cadences, its elasticity.

Yet — and here comes the second qualifier — I’m not a purist. Actually, far from it: I’m in awe of how Cheryl the hair-salon owner, Josh the DJ, Edwin the X-ray technician joyfully articulate words every day. They don’t destroy the language; they rebuild it. Dictionaries might tell them what’s right and wrong but they can’t stop them from shaping syntax in whatever darn way they please.

They aren’t destructive in their approach; they don’t debate English. Shakespeare, the verbal magician, would have appreciated their singular probity. Trump, in contrast, isn’t creative in his verbosity. His bombast is cancerous. He’s intent is to trash everything around him unless it bows down to him.

Aside from immigrants, Trump stampedes against cities (“rat-infested”), against the media (“enemies of the people”), against diplomats (“Deep State mercenaries”), and against Speaker Pelosi (either a “third-grade” or “third-rate” politician) and Democrats in general (“un-American idiots”). He fancies high-school recommendations to heads of state (“Don’t be a tough guy! Don’t be a fool!”) and attacks truly successful entrepreneurs (“fake”).

His intelligence, on the other hand, is “superior”; his phone calls are “just perfect.” He is “the best president ever,” including those who are — hopefully — still to come. Trump says all this with a straight face, without a hint of comedy. Does he even have a sense of humor?

The Founding Fathers knew the importance of English in the health of the Republic. Thomas Jefferson thought our language was being held back by the English government but in America it would become, “in strength, beauty, variety, and every circumstance,” a statement of how we as a people approach the universe, but only if it is “permitted freely to draw from all its legitimate sources.” John Adams envisioned an academy ready to defend it from “going to the dogs.”

It isn’t about rules. Trump isn’t the only one who breaks them. “When I read some of the rules for speaking and writing the English language correctly,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I think any fool can make a rule, and every fool will mind it.”

It’s about sensibility. Barack Obama, whom Trump fashions as his eternal antagonist, took pains to imagine the language of politics under a new light. His speeches, his impromptu reactions, his memoirs and interviews were cleanly delivered. I know it is proper for the pendulum to swings. But does it have to go this far?

True to his own nature, Trump has succeeded in surrounding himself with Roy-Cohn thugs, starting with mafioso Rudy Giuliani. There’s not an iota of IQ left in the White House. This not only applies to domestic and foreign policy; it affects language, too. Not a single person in the cabinet is an inspired speaker. Mick Mulvaney’s recent press conferences, first confirming and then denying the quid pro quo with Ukraine, is proof. It was a “huge” travesty.

The president doesn’t as much speak English as he suffocates it. His allergy toward globalism makes him suspicious of anything international. He reminds me of linguist H. L. Mencken, who said that “a living language is like a man suffering incessantly from small hemorrhages, and what it needs above all else is constant transactions of new blood from other tongues. The day the gates go up, that day it begins to die.”

By the way, I like, and am thankful to, whistle-blowers. They aren’t traitors. Instead, they are people who, forbidden to speak out, speak in instead. They communicate through silence and anonymity, a beautiful concept that highlights sound, truth, and morality.

These, then, are the extremes we have been forced to reach: the banality of narcissism fostering the irrelevance of meaning. Things are on the decline, though: Trump, in my eyes, looks more and more unstable every day, on the brink of a nervous breakdown. His speech is blurry, disgruntled; he barks, grunts, and howls. It is increasingly becoming impossible to make sense of what he says. I envision him in a strait jacket on his way to a mental institution that advertises the sign “Trump Hotel” at the entrance.

Language, of course, knows how to regulate itself. We don’t need to wait for Elizabeth Warren or any other candidate of the Democratic Party to roll out a plan to oxygen English back to life. As frightening as this moment is in history, it too shall pass, even if it passes like a kidney stone.

Fittingly, King Trump’s epitaph will be a tweet tirade, full of misspellings and exclamation marks.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.


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