Has Donald Trump coarsened and desecrated American political discourse in the first 100 days of his presidency? Maybe, but if so, he didn’t have to work hard to do it. Commentators who complain about Trump’s use of language — his disregard for factual truth, his vulgarity and meanness — often speak as though our politics were marked by reason and civility before he showed up.
The difference between the way typical American politicians use language and the way Trump uses it is the difference between an ordinary lie and the “lie” of a war stratagem. Both involve the deliberate communication of falsehood, but whereas the traditional liar claims to believe what he says and feigns outrage if you suggest he doesn’t, the war strategist assumes you know he’s trying to mislead you but wants to confuse and outmaneuver you and force you to guess wrongly about his intentions. For Trump, the language of politics is the language of war — a metaphorical war, but a war nonetheless. Words and sentences are tools and weapons — not, for the most part, vehicles for the communication of truth or fact.
There’s much to be said against this use of language — I’ve said much against it myself. But there are a few things to be said in its favor, too. Trump rarely indulges, for instance, in the disingenuous language of consistency. An ordinary politician will vigorously deny that he has ever said anything different from what he is saying at this moment, even though six months ago he said the very opposite of what he’s saying now. Usually he binds the two statements together with rhetorical scotch tape — “I’ve said from the beginning . . . ” or “What I actually said was . . . ”
Trump doesn’t care what he said six months ago. He might say one thing today and another tomorrow, but he does so unashamedly and for the most part without indulging in the silly and corrupting pretense that he has never contradicted himself. Those who thunder against Trump for making obviously false claims should ask themselves if they prefer to be lied to by a subtler and more seasoned politician. Perhaps they prefer being misled by smooth talk of shovel-ready jobs and red lines and health plans they can keep.
A question to ponder: What is the actual cost of Trump’s rhetorical recklessness? Answer without the aid of metaphors or ill-defined abstractions; no chilling effects, no market uncertainty.
What was the actual human cost, for example, of Trump proclaiming, in an April 3 press event in the Oval Office, that Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has done a “fantastic job in a very difficult situation” and that the United States is offering the Egyptian government “strong backing”? The New York Times editorial board sharply censured the president for his “borderline unctuous” words about an autocratic leader whose government holds thousands of political prisoners.
But a fortnight later we learned that Trump and his aides had managed to secure the release of an imprisoned American aid worker, Aya Hijazi, and her husband. (The Times had criticized Trump for “apparently” failing to raise the topic of Hijazi.) They had been imprisoned for almost three years, the Obama administration having apparently made little effort, rhetorical or otherwise, to effect their release. Let’s assume for a moment what seems likely, namely that Sissi was charmed into releasing the aid worker by Trump saying a few nice — and false — words about him.
In this instance, anyway, if we judge Trump by his actions rather than his words, he doesn’t come out so badly. We could go on. In 2013 he tweeted a warning to President Barack Obama not to attack Syria — “There is no upside and tremendous downside” — but of course in 2017 launched missile strikes on Syrian soil in retaliation for a chemical attack that involved no U.S. assets. During the campaign he labeled China a currency manipulator, but backed away from the claim this month. And so on.
We are 100 days into the administration of a president whose words sometimes mean what they seem to mean, but oftentimes do not, and it’s usually hard to tell the difference. The White House’s rhetoric, to borrow a line from Tennyson, amounts to “a tale of little meaning tho’ the words are strong.” We’d better learn to interpret this language for what it is and appraise its users according to their actions and their accomplishments.