language, other topics, politics

Cold Comforts, or None at All


It is comforting to think that Donald Trump is a nutcase who has given his mouth over to his egomania and just opens it up and lets whatever come out, without concern for the fact that he is destroying the Republican Party’s hopes for success in this year’s Presidential election, and perhaps forever. After all, he’s not a real Republican.


It is comforting to think that Bernie Sanders is a nutcase who has let egomania triumph over reason, refusing to get out of the race for the Democratic nomination and show some support for his rival, without concern for the fact that he is destroying the Democratic Party’s hopes for success in this year’s Presidential election, and perhaps forever. After all, he’s not a real Democrat.


Those are the comforting scenarios. But they might not reflect reality.


Suppose, rather than being recklessly in thrall to his ego, Trump is actually crazy like a fox, cleverly calculating and fully in control over his behavior? Most of the savants are saying that Trump’s attacks on women are suicidal for himself and the party whose candidate he is. But what if they are coldly calculated – by Trump and his Republican supporters – as a winning strategy, to scapegoat a group that has been scapegoated for millennia, and is therefore easy to bring down? What if Trump et al have figured that by attacking women (and losing their votes), he would gain the enthusiastic support not only of males who would normally vote Republican anyway, but many others, Independents and Bernie-Bro Democrats, who are terrified at the idea of a female presidential candidate? Would they be enough to offset the “war on women” damage? Quite possibly. Hitler: Jews = Trump: women. And with a Republican Congress and a conservative Supreme Court, what’s next? Repeal of the Nineteenth Amendment? Not as absurd as it seems.


What if Sanders is not merely overcome by egomania so that he can’t understand the damage he’s doing? What if it is actually part of his conscious agenda to bring down the Democratic Party? What if he’s refusing to get out, and at the same time attacking Israel, in order to ensure a platform fight and a delegate fight at the Philadelphia convention – a thought that brings to mind the dreadful specter of the 1968 Chicago convention which lost the Presidency for the Democrats? At least in ’68, the fighters had a just cause – ending the war – but what exactly is Sanders’ cause? Is it valid enough to throw the Presidency to Donald Trump?


Note, by the way, another New York Times article (I think only on the Web site): Momentum would seem to be with Sanders, so this is not a good augury for HRC. Superdelegates can be persuaded to change their affiliations; it’s not over till it’s over.


I am thinking, none too happily, that a Sanders convention victory might actually be better – even for women — than Clinton’s nomination. Yes, women would have to eat crow, just like we did in 2008. No problem – I got recipes. In this argument, we have to choose between the very worst thing and a bad thing, which is pretty easy.


A Sanders nomination would be bad because women get screwed (again), and that’s not good. Worse would be the savants’ post mortems, all about (yet again) how HRC lost the nomination because she ran a bad campaign, wasn’t exciting, yada yada yada. But we can take it, and so can America. It would also be bad because I have seen no growth or increasing depth in Sanders’s understanding of all issues other than those centered around economic inequality, and because Sanders has no record of an ability to work with Congress or anyone else.


The very worst thing, though, would be a Trump general election victory. That must be prevented at all costs, including the nomination of a non-female, if that’s what it takes. And that’s what it might very well take.


Now, as I suggested above, Trump’s misogyny could be based on clever calculation. If America is misogynistic enough to make BS the Democratic nominee, it is misogynistic enough to vote for Trump, with whatever misgivings, if the Democratic nominee is female – and Trump’s rhetoric is playing on this theme. But…imagine if a man, Bernie Sanders, gets to be Trump’s opponent! All the women-bashing would be of no avail, and Trump might go down to ignominy. Unless, of course, Trump is creative enough to find another traditionally detested group to scapegoat.


Ah, yes… And here the similarities between Trump and Hitler begin to make sense. How would Trump render Sanders unelectable? We never talk about this, but I suspect that for many Americans “Jew” is worse than “Socialist” as a term of opprobrium. How long do you suppose it will be before the Donald rolls out his first circumcision joke?


But at least for a moment or two a male opponent would put Trump off his game, and quite possibly the media gurus who never utter the word “misogyny” might be appalled at overt anti-Semitism. Or not. We might have to trade “wherever” for offhand (small hands, of course) remarks about who is “cut short.”


I love to sneer at the Donald’s moronic sense of humor. But playground and potty epithets are not the worst things about Trump’s rhetoric. It is not so much that these infantilisms are offensive – as indeed they are, or should be, to all of us whether they are applicable to us personally or not – but that they are so weirdly inappropriate coming from someone who aspires to the most symbolically important role in the world. As I have said, campaigning is auditioning, and we have to see Trump as failing his audition in the worst way. His repeated violations of the linguistic norms that have been established in this country over the past 200+ years show, if nothing else, that the theory that when the insiders have left a mess, you should put in an outsider to clean it up is fatally flawed.


Political insiders, for all their flaws, at least know how the game is played, and why it is played that way. Because they owe their status to the institution in which they are insiders, they feel a need to protect it, for better or worse – they are not eager to throw the baby out with the bathwater and burn the entire edifice to the ground. They understand that politics is not, despite frequent appearances to the contrary, a zero sum game, in which A wins only by B’s losing. Winning may be the most important thing, but for insiders it is not the only thing.


Business appears to work differently, at least as Trump understands it. According to Trump you win by destroying the opposition so that you are the only one left standing. It doesn’t matter who is hurt as long as you emerge triumphant, or convince everyone else that you have done so.


Extraordinarily, a couple of people who would not be expected to have any sympathy for Clinton have come out against Trump: Kenneth Starr and Bill O’Reilly, both of whom are sophisticated about politics and understand that Trump wants to ruin their favorite game and perhaps much more. Trump is, if nothing else, politically incorrect, to repurpose that term.


To understand what is politically incorrect about what Trump is doing, we have to ask what a candidate for high political office in America should be doing that he is not. To answer, we must think in terms of linguistic pragmatics, specifically H. P. Grice’s theory of conversational logic.


Grice, who was a moral philosopher as much as a philosopher of language, constructed his theory as a way of explaining how humans manage to make sense to one another in ordinary conversation, even when, strictly analyzed, their contributions appear not to be to the point. To Grice the moral philosopher, making sense was what human discourse of all kinds is, and ought to be, about: making it together is what enables us to behave as good social creatures. To this end he proposed his “Cooperative Principle” to elain how we manage to make meaning even when we are not saying just what we mean. In conversation, each participant’s job is to


make your contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.


Of particular importance here is Grice’s recognition that how we work to make mutual sense is dependent on the context in which we are trying to make it. What is sense-making enough for poetry is insufficiently explicit and direct for ordinary conversation; the level of clarity needed for ordinary conversation among intimates is less than what is needed in public discourse among strangers. In particular, we have high expectations in the latter kind of talk for contributions that are truthful, at least to a degree, and relevant, at least to a degree. These two absolute necessities for human cooperative behavior and mutual trust Trump repeatedly and offhandedly violates. So calling one opponent, without evidence, “crooked” and another “goofy” violates the expectation of truthfulness: they constitute lies of a sort. Calling a critic “Pocahontas” is not relevant to her critique and therefore does not constitute a valid or meaningful response, in Grice’s systematics.


When criticized for these vulgarisms, Trump’s response is always the same: Well, she (or he) said something bad about me, so I have the right to say something bad about them. Well, in a sense (as with so much Trumpian self-defense) that is not incorrect: once Speaker A has violated the norms of politeness, that gives Speaker B the right to do the same. The same. That is, the new violation must be of the same kind as the old, and if the latter was relevant and truthful, to be valid the new one must be as well.


Clinton and Elizabeth Warren were subjected to the Trump treatment because both had been critical of a statement of his, from 2007, in which he bragged about his business acumen in encouraging and participating in the housing meltdown. Business is about making money, Trump retorted. If it makes money for me, it’s OK for me to do.


“What kind of a man does that?” asked Warren. “What kind of a man roots for people to get thrown out of their house? What kind of a man roots for people to get thrown out of their jobs? To root for people to lose their pensions? To root for two little girls in Clark County, Nevada, to end up living out of a van?


“What kind of a man does that? I’ll tell you exactly what kind of a man does that: It is a man who cares about no one but himself. A small, insecure moneygrubber who doesn’t care who gets hurt so long as he makes a profit off it. What kind of man does that? A man who will never be president of the United States.”


(Clinton’s statement was to the same effect, if less eloquent.) Trump answered Warren by calling her “Pocahontas,” violating at the very least the requirement of relevance, and quite possibly, by implication, the requirement of truthfulness as well. Whether or not Trump’s behavior violated accepted business standards, ihis “explanation” of it via a racist slur is not in keeping with Americans’ expectations of proper political discourse.


Even more to the point, by stooping to vile epithets, Trump is showing himself to be remarkably thin-skinned: say something the least bit uncomplimentary, and he is reduced to throwing poop like a frustrated gorilla. Someone who has spent time in American politics has survived by developing a thick skin, like Clinton and Warren, and can take criticism in stride. Trump repeatedly shows himself not ready for prime time – a disaster in the making in a presidential audition. His inability to apologize – to claim his bad behavior was forced on him by someone else – is similarly childish and unpresidential. His use of epithets as a substitute for logical rejoinders is not only childish and unpresidential, but an embarrassment to all Americans.


So we are facing a very scary time, whether months or years. We can only hope for the best and prepare for the worst.