On Monday, President Trump let loose a string of triumphant tweets about China that featured one of his strangest linguistic quirks:
“On China, Barriers and Tariffs to come down for first time.”
“China must continue to be strong & tight on the Border of North Korea until a deal is made.”
“Under our potential deal with China they will purchase from our Great American Farmers practically as much as our Farmers can produce.”
Rule-bound English speakers only capitalize titles, proper nouns, and a few other exceptional words. But for Trump, Farmers, Barriers and Borders are standard fare. In fact, when it comes to abusing letter case, the China tweets look positively restrained compared to this classic from April: “Despite the Democrat inspired laws on Sanctuary Cities and the Border being so bad and one sided, I have instructed the Secretary of Homeland Security not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country. It is a disgrace. We are the only Country in the World so naive! WALL”
Are these capital letters the equivalent of his numerous spelling errors? Is Trump just Nuts? Or is there method in his Madness?
It’s all too easy to overinterpret Trump’s syntactic choices, as so many did with his notorious “covfefe” tweet. Nevertheless, as the Boston Globe recently reported, repeated tropes such as frequent exclamation points are part of a fixed linguistic persona, one that’s studiously emulated by his communications team when they craft tweets for him. More important, unlike misspelling a word or forgetting a punctuation mark, erratic capitalization is a rhetorical technique with a specific function, long exploited by faith healers and self-help gurus. They, like Trump, understand the power of capital letters to project charisma and importance, asserting prophetic authority without the need for evidence or argument.
The history of this practice is reflected in “The Chicago Manual of Style,” which apparently has not been updated to reflect Trump’s practices, “Initial capitals,” it explains, “once used to lend importance to certain words, are now used only ironically.” But later the guide offers an important caveat: “Words for transcendent ideas in the Platonic sense, especially when used in a religious context, are often capitalized.”
Put differently: Initial capitals make words and ideas seem Really Important. They are to meaning-making what flag pins are to patriotism and gold-plating is to value — cheap signals of depth and quality that are somehow taken seriously by enormous numbers of people. (How seriously? There’s not one but two PolitiFact articles dedicated to discussions of Obama’s pin philosophy.)
This capitalization technique is common in get-rich-quick and quack medicine books desperate to sell readers on the Truth of their claims. “Those who are healing through Metaphysical Science — not comprehending the Principle of the cure — may misunderstand it,” writes the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, in her best-selling “Science and Health,” first published in 1875 and still in print. The capital letters lend theological force to her argument that we can pray away sickness, turning her words from script into Scripture, and their author from a mere mortal into a charismatic Prophet. Nowadays, the most common example of this approach is the divinization of Nature, a helpful move if you are trying to sell “natural” cancer cures.
Trump, needless to say, is the master of such cheap charisma, from his gold-plated hotel signs to his now-defunct signature collection clothing line (“the pinnacle of style and prestige”). His methods are so palpably desperate, so comically obvious that sometimes it’s hard to believe they work — but then again, he’s sitting in the Oval Office, and Mary Baker Eddy sold 10 million books, so maybe it’s worth taking them seriously, even something as silly as capital letters.
The psychologist William James, who coined the term “Truth with a capital T,” laments that capitalized words are used to create the illusion of objective truth, infusing arguments with an oracular quality that demands loyalty. Like the endless gilding in his homes and buildings, Trump takes capitalization to the extreme, spreading capital letters throughout his tweets as if they were the King James Bible — and lo, though it might seem improbable in its transparency, they still manage to appropriate the oracular authority of a holy text for many people.
To unironically capitalize one’s words as Trump does is to stamp them with sacred importance, to assume the divine power of converting speech into truth and reality. And that’s exactly what happened with what is arguably his most important idea: Fake News. The first 33 times he used it, the term appeared in all-caps or capitalized properly, either FAKE NEWS or fake news, except for one instance of Fake News on Jan 15, 2017. But then he started trying to make it real, a Platonic Form that exists in the world like Beauty and Truth. For a while, he alternated between fake news and Fake News, slowly skewing toward the latter, until finally it was nearly always Fake News. The charismatic prophet had created an Evil Thing that his Followers would never trust again. Truth and reality, bent to his will, with the help of capital letters.
This is all to say that however silly, however childish, his syntax may seem, it can and does achieve its intended effect. There’s something disconcerting about the power of cheap charisma, just as there is about the fact that pins and gold and capital letters are effective tools for manipulating the public. But the first step in fighting those techniques is recognizing that they work, even when it seems Completely Ridiculous.