All of the above thoughts were proclaimed by President Trump within the span of a few minutes this week. So extreme is his rhetoric that even an attempt to portray himself as calm devolved into hysterical hyperbole.
“I was so calm,” he said. “I was extremely calm. . . . Kellyanne, what was my temperament?”
“Very calm,” aide Kellyanne Conway replied.
“You were very calm,” aide Mercedes Schlapp assured him.
Aide Larry Kudlow concurred: “You were very calm.”
“So I was very calm,” said Trump.
“Very calm,” spokeswoman Sarah Sanders echoed.
“Couldn’t have been more calm,” Trump summarized. “We had this instance at least once before where I was very, very calm. . . . So I was extremely calm, very much like I am right now.”
Totally!!! He was so preternaturally pacific, so stupendously serene, so transcendentally tranquil that there has never, ever been a person, dead or alive, as utterly, astonishingly and overwhelmingly calm as Trump.
We have by now become accustomed to such extreme emotion — both hot and cold — from the president. Routine though it is for him, it is not normal. Now we know exactly how abnormal it is.
I asked Factba.se, a data analytics company that analyzes language with artificial intelligence, to do a sentiment analysis of Trump’s speech compared with that of his predecessors. Factba.se’s Bill Frischling had his computers sift through millions of words uttered by presidents back to Herbert Hoover and compute the intensity of each one’s average positive comment and average negative comment.
The presidents were in a tight band. With +1.0 being the most favorable possible statement, their positive statements averaged from +0.22 (Harry Truman) to +0.33 (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama). With -1.0 being the most adverse possible statement, their negative statements averaged from -0.19 (Truman) to -0.27 (Bush).
And then there was Trump. His average positive statement: +0.64 (+0.66 on Twitter). His average negative statement: -0.53 (-0.61 on Twitter). He is literally twice as extreme as all predecessors over the past century.
And it’s not just presidents. Trump’s rhetoric is also about twice as extreme as the most extreme members of the last Congress (-0.31, +0.36).
But if Trump is without peer in the American political tradition, he unfortunately has equals in another tradition. Such rhetoric is a hallmark of totalitarianism.
“It’s using emotion to circumvent reason, to overwhelm reason,” says Jason Stanley, a Yale philosopher specializing in language and author of the book “How Fascism Works.”
“He wants to get the situation such that it’s a crisis and there’s such fear and suspicion that the only happiness, the delivery, is winning over his enemies,” Stanley tells me. Hence, the lavish praise of and great love for his supporters and the unalloyed vitriol toward foreigners, racial minorities, elites and socialists.
Trump isn’t necessarily fascist, but his language is. “Goebbels talks about propaganda being best when it appeals to straightforward emotion: fear, suspicion, anger, and then it would be culminated with ‘we’re winning,’ ‘we’re going to get them,’ ” Stanley says. A speech of this method was often very long, “with extremes of paranoia and then praise of ‘us,’ ‘our’ greatness, and a desire for revenge for lost greatness. . . . When our emotions are being overwhelmed, it’s because people are trying to manipulate us and drive us toward a desired goal.”
Americans, for example, would rationally have empathy upon learning that children have died in U.S. custody on the border. But if we fear that those crossing the border are a mortal threat to us, that fear overwhelms reason.
That Trump loves to insult is obvious. But he’s actually more extreme in his positive sentiments — his own greatness and his paternalistic love for supporters. “He couldn’t have that sort of negative campaign without also having the positive — it’s the contrast,” explains Texas A&M communications professor Jennifer Mercieca, author of a forthcoming book on Trump’s rhetoric.
His supporters, lovingly embraced, feel as though they’re in on the joke; they know he often lies, but they believe he’s lying for them — lying to the liars. Us-vs.-them thinking becomes so powerful that the enemy’s humiliation can be more gratifying than one’s own betterment.
How to counter this extreme emotion? The evidence that not a single member of Congress comes close to Trump’s rhetorical excess raises hope that this will pass. The best opponents can do until then is to cling to truth. Emotion can overwhelm reason for only so long.