Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lindy West - 100 days of gibberish – Trump has weaponised nonsense

The Trump White House approaches language with the same roughshod entitlement he’s applying to the presidency. His sloppy lies and vague promises must not stop us holding him to account.. If Trump never makes a statement of commitment, Trump supporters never have to confront what they really voted for

With only a week left of his first 100 days in office – traditionally a milestone for American presidents – Donald Trump sat down with the Associated Press to reflect on his accomplishments (sic) and preemptively brag about future ones. This remarkable artefact, a transcript of which AP then released in full, captures, more than any other piece of media (except perhaps Trump’s Twitter feed), the unifying ethos of the Trump White House: weaponised nonsense.

The interview is deep, pure, tangy, umami Trump. I felt like I was reading one of those children’s stories in which a villain’s soul is written into a book and imprisoned there for ever – only without, in America’s case, such a happy ending. Donald Trump remains in the Oval Office, making decisions about whom to explode next (in the interview he calls this responsibility “the bigness of it all”), not gathering dust on a sorcerer’s shelf. Bad! (Not good.)

Trump lies relentlessly about his achievements (claiming, for example, that he’s “mostly there” on his 100-day plan, despite appearing not to know what it is), admits he “never realised” how big a job it is to be president, forgets how many missiles he fired at Syria, even though he got the number right only 17 words earlier, and compares his TV ratings favourably to those for 9/11. In my second favourite moment in the interview – the first being when he inexplicably drops the word “hamlets” – Trump describes a meeting with Democratic congressman Elijah Cummings:

“Well he said, you’ll be the greatest president in the history of, but you know what, I’ll take that also, but that you could be. But he said, will be the greatest president but I would also accept the other. In other words, if you do your job, but I accept that. Then I watched him interviewed and it was like he never even was here. It’s incredible. I watched him interviewed a week later and it’s like he was never in my office. And you can even say that.”

Cummings remembers the exchange differently, explaining that he told Trump he “could be” a great president if he stopped doing literally everything that he was doing and started doing other stuff that wasn’t horrible instead. Sixteen times during the interview, which took place in the Oval Office, Trump’s speech is recorded as “unintelligible”, either because he was mumbling like a weirdo or because an aide was talking over him and didn’t want to be quoted in the interview – both of which, the Toronto Star notes, are “highly unusual”. Highly unusual is our normal now.

Whether or not Trump is capable of calculation (and, judging by his largely noun-free syntax in this interview, it’s debatable), his rhetorical style, untethered from both meaning and reality, serves his agenda well. Language is where we find common ground, where we define ourselves and teach others how to treat us, where we name problems so we can see and fight them. There’s a reason why social justice movements care about things such as pronouns and racial slurs and calling a Nazi a Nazi and saying “abortion” out loud – it’s the same reason why rightwingers, Trumpists in particular, are so eager to cast language as a frivolous abstraction and any critique as “political correctness”.

Without language, there is no accountability, no standard of truth. If Trump never says anything concrete, he never has to do anything concrete. If Trump never makes a statement of commitment, Trump supporters never have to confront what they really voted for. If his promises are vague to the point of opacity, Trump cannot be criticised for breaking them. If every sloppy lie (ie: “Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower … This is McCarthyism!”) can be explained away as a “generality” or “just a joke” because of “quotes”, then he can literally say anything with impunity. Trump can rend immigrant families in the name of “heart”, destroy healthcare in the name of “life”, purge minority voters in the name of “justice”, and roll back women’s autonomy in the name of “freedom”. The constitution? Probably sarcastic. There are “quotes” all over that thing!

If criticism is “political correctness” and “political correctness” is censorship, then aren’t all ideas equally valid? Is the most qualified presidential candidate really more qualified than a person who is not qualified at all? If we let a scientist testify before congress about climate change, shouldn’t we also let the retired basketball player Shaq come and tell them about how he thinks the Earth is flat because he drove all the way across America and at no point was he upside down?

We must keep calling these ideas what they are, and to do that we need a shared understanding of what words mean. That’s why Trump’s 100 days of gibberish aren’t just disorienting and silly – they’re dangerous. Trump approaches language with the same roughshod imperialist entitlement he’s applying to the presidency (and, by extension, the world) – as though it’s a resource that one man can own and burn at will, not a vastly complex collective endeavour of which he is only a steward.