Sometimes a name fits a person in a way that is almost eerie. One of the most famous cases in the history of American constitutional law is Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting interracial marriages.
Why is the case entitled Loving v. Virginia? The simple reason is that, as with most lawsuits, the title comes from the parties’ names. Mildred Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, were a Virginia couple sentenced to a year in prison for marrying one another in violation of Virginia law. Yet often when I think about the case, it strikes me that there is something strangely fitting about the title -- for in it, human love triumphed over the state of Virginia’s legalized racism.
When I think of the name Donald Trump, a similar thought crosses my mind. The word “trump” has different meanings. One meaning of “trump” is to dominate or overpower -- like playing a trump card in a game of bridge. This is the alpha-male Donald Trump, the billionaire mogul, the exceptionally talented street fighter capable of defeating adversaries.
A second, less-appealing meaning of the word “trump” involves deception. This is the meaning invoked when we speak of “trumped-up” charges, cynical but often effective ploys, false statements designed to attack others and deceptive hoaxes that tap into the fears of the mob (sometimes rooted in prejudice), thereby forcing innocent persons to expend much energy defending themselves.
Then, too, is the related word “trumpet" -- as in, trumpeting one’s own horn, boasting of one’s own abilities and accomplishments.
Which definitions of the word “trump” fit Donald Trump? Is he the alpha-male trumper, the deceptive trumper-upper, or the narcissistic self-trumpeter? You could make a pretty convincing case it's all three.
In 1998, Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, published a groundbreaking book on American public discourse entitled, "The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words." In it, she critiqued our country’s growing tendency toward extremist dialogue in which people strive to defeat one another in verbal combat (e.g., dismissing other people’s positions, lobbing personal insults, etc.) rather than holding thoughtful conversations in which we do the hard work of trying to listen, learn and arrive at deeper understandings of matters.
The growing proliferation of specialized information sources, such as partisan cable channels and political websites, likely has furthered this trend. Rather than wrestling with complexity and the cognitive dissonance such complexity would create, increasingly we feed ourselves news stories that reinforce our prior political beliefs. We watch the news station that tells us what we want to hear, thereby becoming ever more entrenched in our cognitively cloistered political worlds.
Labeling a phenomenon accurately can be critical in responding to it mindfully and avoiding being swept up by it reactively, and when a phenomenon is complex, it needs to be understood as such.
There are parts of Donald Trump that many admire, such as his willingness to say what he thinks and to stand his ground when challenged. There are parts that many dislike, such as his penchants for xenophobia and insulting women. But the deeper point is that instead of our public dialogue being swept away by a binary pro-Trump versus anti-Trump discourse, the greater challenge is to have a balanced assessment of his different qualities.
Donald Trump may well be an alpha-male trumper and a narcissistic self-trumpeter and a deceptive, hoax-like trumper-upper. Curiously enough, if we want to see him for the complex political actor that he is, we may have no better guide than the multiple meanings associated with his very name.
Even putting aside Mr. Trump, that challenge of embracing complexity exists for our political discourse more broadly. Politicians often pretend that there are only two sides to most issues. We the public need to remember that there are usually many more.