The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The buck stops with everybody’: How Trump twists cliches to do his bidding

President Trump, pictured here speaking to reporters on the White House lawn Thursday, has used a number of phrases repeatedly, including “piggy bank” and “like a dog.” (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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“The buck stops with everybody,” President Trump told reporters on the White House lawn on day 20 of the government shutdown crisis. He spoke loudly over what might have been the whir of Marine One helicopter rotors, or what might have been the sucking sound of Trump’s linguistic black hole as it consumed another small fragment of the English language Thursday morning.

“The buck stops here,” was hardly the first phrase to fall beyond the event horizon into a Trumpian universe with different rules of logic. The saying was popularized nearly 70 years ago by President Harry S. Truman as a play on the expression “pass the buck,” which, according to his presidential library, derived from frontier days, when poker players would literally pass a buckhorn handle knife to assign responsibility for dealing the cards.

This was Truman’s way of saying he would not pass responsibility for presidential decisions to anyone else. When it was his turn to deal, he would deal.

But with Trump, the buck stops with everyone, everywhere. Responsibility for the shutdown is like an electron in a probability cloud, with no fixed location, impossible to pin down.

This has been happening for a while now — the unstoppable slippage of familiar expressions into Trumpian absurdities. Maybe it’s just a verbal tic. Or maybe it’s a way of constructing a new reality, using catchy images to warp the way we speak and think.

Take the piggy bank: Once a simple symbol for savings, it’s been transformed under Trump into a Daliesque container of grotesque impossibilities.

“We have the cards, don’t forget, we’re like the piggy bank that’s being robbed, we have the cards,” he said at a campaign rally in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 2016. He was talking about trade with China: How the Chinese were trying to rob our piggy bank full of cards. They “rape our country” as they do it, he said.

This was not simply the rambling of an exhausted candidate. The piggy bank is now a repeating image in Trump’s presidential speeches. The piggy bank “had people running it that didn’t know what the hell they were doing.” It’s being attacked by Japan. We can save it with cards, but “nobody has ever known that we had the cards.”

A piggy bank used to just hold coins, but now it is beyond our understanding. Only Trump knows what’s inside.

In the same way, you probably thought you knew what dogs were like. You could work like a dog, because farm dogs work all day. You could be treated like a dog, because dogs are sometimes treated badly.

But the very nature of a dog expands and distends as it approaches Trump’s black hole, where it is possible to be “fired like a dog,” “cheated on” like a dog or “kicked out of the ABC News debate like a dog,” not to mention “choke like a dog,” as he said Mitt Romney did in the 2012 presidential campaign.

Peachy-dory.” “Shake the rust off of America’s foreign policy.” There are few turns of phrase that don’t turn into something else in the unknowable space between Trump’s temporal lobe and mouth.

“Endless Wars . . . will eventually come to a glorious end!” Trump declared this week, with enough intervening characters that the latter end of his tweet could forget the beginning. And so even infinity lost its meaning in the space between two cliches.

It would be comforting to think that this is harmless sloppiness, like the “Bushisms” of the famously tongue-tied 43rd president. But in Trump’s bucks and dogs and piggy banks, we see what George Orwell warned about in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.”

Orwell thought of metaphors like organisms: fresh and evocative when first created, then decaying into stale cliches as they are overused and finally becoming a sort of formless rot that pollutes not just our language but our thought patterns, which he believed are linked.

“When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking,” Orwell wrote.

Three years later he published the novel “1984,” in which he imagined a totalitarian regime controlling a population’s thoughts by twisting language into absurdist Newspeak, where “peace” meant war, and perhaps endless wars had glorious ends.

“1984” has sold very well under Trump’s presidency.

In the classic 1980 book “Metaphors We Live By,” George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argued that thought and language really are linked on a fundamental level. “Metaphors as linguistic expressions are possible precisely because there are metaphors in a person’s conceptual system,” the authors wrote.

The passage of a buck, in other words, is not just an old saying but a concept of responsibility, which can be accepted or passed on from one official to another, but must ultimately land somewhere.

What then does it mean when Trump says the buck is everywhere?

Nothing good, says Lakoff, a cognitive scientist and linguist who, nearly 40 years after his book was published, argues that Trump literally tries to “change your brain” by twisting language.

“This is not mangling anything; this is taking ordinary linguistic uses and changing them,” Lakoff told The Washington Post. “What he’s saying is it’s up to you to pay for the border wall. The shutdown is your responsibility.”

“And what’s most scary is he’s very, very clever,” he continues. “People think he’s just a 5-year-old, and he’s not. That’s his strength. They don’t understand what he’s doing is changing the way a lot of people think.”

After his “buck” talk Thursday, Trump climbed into his helicopter and flew to Texas, where he made a speech arguing that we need a border wall. He insists the government will remain shut down until Congress pays for one. But don’t call the shutdown his responsibility.

And if you’re still not sure where the buck is, don’t worry; it’s in the piggy bank now, with all the cards, endlessly waiting for a logical end.