And on Friday night, just as the nation’s journalists and politicos began to panic, Trump issued this gratuitously offensive remark: “Vladimir Putin said today about Hillary and Dems: ‘In my opinion, it is humiliating. One must be able to lose with dignity.’ So true!”
That a president-elect of the United States should quote approvingly a foreign leader’s disparaging judgment of any American political figure — particularly when that foreign leader bears manifest ill will against the U.S. and its allies — would seem to suggest either poor judgment or a low regard for the dignity of his office. The many who’ve condemned it have a point. (I wonder, incidentally, if some of the left-of-center commentators now condemning Trump’s tweet felt as strongly in 2002 when former president Jimmy Carter used the occasion of his Nobel acceptance speech — he was in Oslo — to disparage the Bush administration’s Iraq policy.)
But surely there’s more to say about these and similar remarks by Trump than that they’re bad and irresponsible and indefensible. If that’s all we’ve got to say about them, we’ll spend the next four or eight years doing little but saying yet again that the president’s latest remark is bad and irresponsible and indefensible. It seems wiser — and anyhow it’s far more interesting — to assume Trump issues such expressions intentionally, with some goal in mind.
The prevailing view — and admittedly there is much to recommend it — is that Trump simply enjoys the chaos. “Since winning the election,” John Wagner and Abby Phillip write in The Post, “Trump has seemed to revel in tossing firecrackers in all directions, often using Twitter to offer brief but provocative pronouncements on foreign and domestic policies alike — and leaving it to others to flesh out his true intentions.”
I’m not quite sure I buy the metaphor of Trump the merry prankster randomly tossing out firecrackers and naughtily enjoying the consequent spectacle of confusion. Put the two above-mentioned tweets together and it seems likelier that the president-elect issued them, one after the other, intentionally. The first (the more substantive one, about nuclear weapons) seems intended to rattle the Russian president and signal to American and European observers that they probably shouldn’t assume a cozy relationship between Russia and the new administration. The second (the apparently gratuitous one about Hillary Clinton) seems calculated to counterbalance the effects of the first by making Kremlin officials, who were almost certainly unnerved by the tweet about expanding America’s nuclear capability, wonder if they should have been unnerved after all.
We — and I include myself here — still don’t appreciate the difference between traditional uses of political language and Trump’s. An ordinary American president doesn’t always speak with total sincerity, especially on matters of foreign relations — there is almost always an element of ambiguity in White House statements about foreign powers, and sometimes the remarks are ambiguous to the point of empty. But the intention is primarily to express the views of the administration. One hopes that expression will result in a favorable response by the other side, but the emphasis is on the accurate expression of the administration’s position, not on potential responses.
With Trump, the case is closer to the reverse. He’s concerned almost exclusively with the response and seems uninterested in expressing his position. Whether that’s because he doesn’t have a position, hasn’t made up his mind, or thinks a plain-spoken revelation of his position isn’t to his (or America’s) advantage is anyone’s guess.
Trump’s language isn’t primarily expressive but manipulative. His use of language is closer to the way a sheepdog herds sheep. The sheepdog runs this way, then runs that way, for the purpose of moving the sheep in a certain direction. The dog doesn’t intend to hurt the sheep, but the sheep don’t know that, and so their susceptibility to emotional manipulation allows the dog, following the shepherd’s direction, to achieve more or less the desired result. The shepherd and his dog don’t care how the sheep may interpret their actions — their lovely bleating is background noise, and irrelevant — so long as they move in the right direction.
It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it may help us to understand and appreciate — even if we continue to deplore — Trump’s strange and seemingly mischief-making use of words. We can go on denouncing his tweets and remarks, and we’ll be right to do in many cases, but we shouldn’t assume he had no intention but to offend or precipitate chaos for its own sake.
The sheepdog sounds fierce and he galls the sheep. But he’s not the wolf, and he has his aims.