language, politics

Trump Talk – And How to Talk Back to It


The major problem with Donald Trump’s use of language is not so much what he literally says, but with what his utterances reveal about who and what he really is.


Here is my thought on this question: Trump is the Antichrist and his discourse can only be properly understood from that perspective. Remember: I am a linguistic scientist so I know about arcana of this kind.


The notion of the Antichrist is one of the murkiest, yet scariest and therefore most potent, narratives comprising the discourse of Christianity. There are several versions of the story: where he comes from, what role he plays, and how his existence fits into the larger understanding of Christianity.

As the name implies, the Antichrist is the opposite of Christ. But he doesn’t actually differ in every way, just as antonyms like hot and cold are more similar than different from each other in meaning. So, like Jesus, the Antichrist is male; like his opponent, he is highly charismatic and able to say what a great many people want to hear. Like Jesus, he is the son of a human woman and a superhuman entity: in Jesus’s case, God, and in the Antichrist’s, Satan. Over the last couple of millennia, several historical figures have been identified as the Antichrist: Napoleon, Hitler, and Mikhail Gorbachev come to mind. But none satisfies the definition as well as our forty-fifth president.


To explore further, we have to understand that both figures are important to believers more as symbols than as literal personages. Even Biblical scholars know little about the historical person Jesus Christ. Someone of that name was born in the last years of the first century BCE, in the Middle East; that he was Jewish and spoke Aramaic; that his mother was named Mary and her husband, Joseph; that he was a highly charismatic and persuasive preacher. But we don’t know exactly what he said or did; the earliest of the Gospels, Mark, was not written until more than a generation after his death, in the late 60s CE. So between Jesus’s death in or around 33 CE and even the earliest Gospels, there was plenty of time for the narrative to be altered or blurred, as it certainly was.


But we can speak with more certitude about what Jesus means as a parable rather than as a literally understood historical figure. We see why he has been a potent force over two millennia. Jesus, like Buddha and a few other towering figures in human history, represents an ideal: a way for humans to understand ourselves as most fully human. In other words, we can see Jesus as a very powerful instantiation of what I have called the Human Project.


The Human Project understands us as, first of all, a social species that thrives when we behave as interconnected persons: when we see ourselves as members of a group with shared needs, desires, and hopes, and see that we need to work together to make everyone’s needs, hopes, and desires come to fruition. The doctrine of “I, me, mine” is antithetical to this understanding and ruinous to the Human Project and the future success of the species as a whole, as well as its individuals, who succeed just in case the group succeeds.


Therefore the fullest expression of the Human Project expresses ideas like love, peace, inclusion, empathy, and equality. It requires us to work toward the sharing of meanings at all levels, toward clarity of thought and word. The sufferings of the less fortunate are necessarily the discomfiture of all of us, and alleviating them is the most essential thing we can do to fully realize what our species is meant to be. So Jesus, whose preachings were concerned above all with love, inclusion, peace, and equality, was an exemplar and proponent of the Human Project.


And look what happened to him – no surprise, because the Human Project is an existential threat to anyone who sees humans as individuals out to get as much for themselves as they can by any means they can: those who live by the art of the underhanded deal, and who therefore encourage people to see themselves as disconnected from one another and playing a zero-sum game: I win only if you lose. These dangerous people rule by threats, false promises, and intimidation, sowing hatred, divisiveness, inequality, and exclusion. Their language is deliberately shifting, ambiguous, and slippery – the antithesis of clarity. This is the province of the Antichrist.


You don’t have to take the Biblical tradition literally; rather, the Christ/Antichrist antithesis is best understood as illustrating two ways to be human, two goals to strive toward, one of which is much more likely to work toward our species’ success in the long run. And while I have no contemporary nominations for the Jesus role, there is someone among us now who, as I see it, fulfills all the specs needed to play the opposite role, and you know who that is.


(That might even explain why POTUS has such trouble managing his coiffure: so hard to cover up the horns, you know.)


The Antichrist is attractive to a great many people: it’s “I, me, mine” made Scripture, the justification of our infantile greed and selfishness. So an Antichrist starts out with that advantage, and unless he is stopped, its only plausible end is in inconceivable disaster.


Seeing Trump as the bearer of the anti-Human Project message brings togther the enormous number of sometimes seemingly unrelated ideas he has foisted upon us: closing our borders; separating parents and children; ruinous tariffs and refusal to engage in trade; adoration of autocrats; sneering at proponents of democracy; dangling before the world the enticing prospect of nuclear war; withdrawal from the climate change accords that might be the only way to save the planet. We could add his other proclivities: making fun of the disabled; xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. All of these, rather than being understood as the fragmented acting-out of a desperate child, can be read as a coherent social program of the scariest kind.


It is frightening above all to see how his followers – both White House and Cabinet officials and others holding important governmental positions, and the ordinary Americans who have come under his spell – experience his abhorrent policies as attractive and even “logical.” Logic, we like to tell ourselves, is a distinctive property of human beings, the very opposite of despicable feminine “feelings” – well, we’re in deep doodoo. I am tempted to suggest here that the Human Project offers a vision of our species that is ultimately feminine, its opposite, not manly so much as macho. Trump’s desperate attempts to construct himself as masculine when in fact he is the worst sort of girly-man fit well into this picture;


The media and other influential speakers have largely abrogated their responsibility to make sense of, much less communicate, the emergent reality. The higher the speaker, the worse the babble becomes. A simple and obvious case is Jeff Sessions and his selective interpretation of the Bible: “Obey the law.” But a more powerful Biblical injunction is much older, from Exodus, where Moses repeatedly demands of Pharaoh: Let my people go. Somehow Sessions is unaware of this narrative and presumably of what comes later. Have some boils, Jeff! And the narrative of Jesus’s death is a clear warning not to take the injunction to “obey the law” too literally or absolutely: you do not obey unjust laws. (Remember Nuremburg, Jeff?) Unjust laws are those that violate the Human Project.


Trump’s followers offer a troubling response to interviewers. Yes, they say, they know that their hero says things that are not true. But it doesn’t matter because he “tells it like it is.”


For a long time I found this response puzzling. It seemed oxymoronic. How can you be untruthful and at the same time tell it like it is to 45% of us?


But now it makes perfect sense.


He tells it like it is means, he says what I want to believe; his words create a world that is compatible with my zero-sum hopes, needs, and desires: a world where I and those like me are accorded our just deserts, and those unlike me are kept down and subjected to the punishment and ridicule they deserve. That is the Law of the Antichrist, and it is being put into effect more and more every day. Those with the power to stop it are afraid to use that power because they fear his ridicule and punishment.


When Trump, during the campaign, told his followers, “I will be your voice,” we took his words figuratively, to mean, “I am on your side.” But for once he meant his utterance to be taken literally: “I will speak for you, I will say what you would say if you had my microphone.” Melania’s infamous jacket illustrates his meaning. And now, from Rosanne Barr on down, Trump’s formerly unthinkable and unsayable words are on everyone’s lips, and the backs of their jackets, and the formerly contemptible expressions are uttered with impunity or approbation. Cast aside your hopeful theories about Melania’s emancipation: she, like her noxious stepdaughter, are merely waiting to follow their boss’s orders.


Trump is a seriously deranged and dangerous man, quite aside from his figurative relation to any Biblical character. His throwing a handful of candies at Angela Merkel at the G-7 is proof of this. So what are we to do about him? What kind of rhetoric exists as a countervailing force?


It is essential first of all to stop doing what we do too much: assume that arguments that work with people like us would work with Trump’s happy followers. We have seen that neither flattery nor ridicule nor close analysis has any effect on Trump’s 45%. The more appallingly he and his people speak and act, the further his ratings inch up.


Until now, with rare exceptions, people winning it have adhered to a virtuous rhetoric, whatever they believed or desired. Think of John McCain in 2008 telling the woman who disparagingly called Barack Obama an Arab, “No, Ma’am, he’s a decent family man.” That was not exactly the response you might desire (a Muslim can certainly be a decent family man), but it’s far better than what Trump says in similar situations. From now on, in every presidential campaign, we will be immensely lucky if the rhetoric of the Antichrist is not adopted as the norm. Going back to the way it used to be will be extremely hard: once the ear is attuned to virulence and untruthfulness as norms, previously normal discourse will be heard as flat and ineffectual – even as Hillary Clinton’s rational talk was excoriated as weak and flawed.


That’s why current discussions among liberals and Democrats about how to talk in future campaigns do not properly understand or offer a valid response to our current disastrous situation. Yet Democratic candidates in 2020 must create a potent rhetoric and Americans must be taught to hear it properly. As I have said before, discourse consists of both speaking and hearing, and ignoring the latter will have unfortunate effects. But our future rhetoric must be one that post-Trump America can still hear.


We probably have to give up on reaching Trump’s 45%, including the 90% of Republican voters who approve of him. They are getting just what they want, and they want more of it, not something different.


We don’t have to worry too much about the 46% or so of voters who oppose Trump – they (or rather, we) will continue to do so without much extra encouragement. But the two together leave about 8-10% of potential voters undecided and unaccounted for. Their votes will be crucial. What, if anything, do we know about how to reach them? Much less than we should.


Two schools of thought have arisen in recent weeks among liberal strategists. I don’t think either gets it right:


One says: since hyperbole, untruthfulness, and flattery work so well, we should do them too. We should become just like Trump. The other is Michelle Obama’s, “When they go low, we go high.” Of course we would prefer the latter – it is the right way to run a presidential campaign, and a species. But by 2020 – actually already – our ears have become accustomed to hyperbolic ranting: it is the new normal. To speak in a normal tone of voice is to risk being unheard by those we most need to reach, and to be seen as ineffectual. It is too dangerous a tactic to employ, no matter how right and righteous it may be.


But we cannot go the other way either. Liberals are just not good at the war-cry. We use sentences with complex syntax and Latinate words. That is the ancient language of formal self-presentation and it’s interesting that we liberals – believers in the future – are not much good at abandoning the old ways of speech. We speak in full sentences rather than fragmentary outbursts; we try to make logical points rather than blurting out insults or flattery. We could try to emulate the other side, but we wouldn’t get it right: we are capable of shame. We would blush (not a good look at the podium), We try to tell people that their world and world-view has to change (remember how Clinton was excoriated for saying that coal miners would have to get new kinds of jobs? Well, she was speaking the truth, and was punished for doing that, for refusing to take up the mantra of “beautiful, clean coal.” This will certainly be the case in 2020. The flattering and comforting roar silences the quietly spoken truth. It’s the communicative Gresham’s Law.


One thing is clear, unfortunately: the Democratic candidate must be a white, youthful, attractive male. Such a person could listened to and heard, as would not be the case for any other kind of person. Proffering such a candidate is a form of flattery to the 8-10%, where a candidate of color or a woman would be seen by too many undecided voters as a slap in the face.


It will also be crucial to get out the vote, as will also be the case this November

My reluctant choice would be to go with someone conventional who projects caring and warmth. And develop a rhetoric that works for people who are not the same as we are.