Interesting article from Sam Leith, the author of You Talkin’ To Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama, in today’s Guardian on the politics of Trump’s distinctive language. “How does Trump’s language work? On a purely linguistic level, three things seem striking.”
- Trump uses a pretty small working vocabulary
- His syntax, spelling and punctuation are – in conventional terms – a catastrophe
- The workhorses of his rhetoric are charged but empty adjectives and adverbs
These observations seem very close to those of my own. Leith writes: “To many of us, that looks like a failing. But to some, we might have to accept that it’s a selling point: he doesn’t sound like a normal president, and that’s why people like him.” This preference for Trump’s language is interesting because it reflects a particular kind of political aesthetics. Obama’s overcompensating articulacy, which surely helped him win the elections, contrasts sharply with inarticulacy. They seem to be polar opposites.
Leith thinks that the popularity of Trump’s Inarticulacy has to do with an “electorate so used to politicians being equivocal, and so enraged by it, that the bounce Trump gets from not sounding like that is much bigger than the demerit he incurs for being a clouds-of-smoke-billowing-from-his-pants liar.” I am not so sure this is the case as I can’t remember a time when politicians were unequivocal. The distorting or, at best, blurring of truths with fictions has historically been the cornerstone of liberal democracies anywhere. A recent article in Jacobin magazine features a similar critique. Trump’s language should perhaps not be seen so much as an oddity or a rupture, but rather more like a continuation of liberal political language.
I am in disagreement with Leith’s observation because I think that he sounds exactly like a President. The reason is that the language of a President is not a given or historically stable category. To sound “presidential” is not a fixed reality but contingent on the basis of what a President is expected to sound like in order to become and be a President. Remember that before Obama’s election, one had to be white to be President. One of the “problems” haunting Clinton was that she was considered “female” (ie. not “masculine” enough). Just like race and gender, language is a contingent and political category. It changes with and on the basis of a political context.
Trump’s lack of structured language is the symptom of stupidity. It is a mode of expression that nakedly exposes liberalism’s absolute disdain for truth and reason. It is the celebration of pure stupidity, understood as a categorical refusal to think. It is true that everyone is stupid sometimes, we all sometimes forget to think, but Trump’s language celebrates stupidity as if liberated from the chains of syntax, spelling etc. Trump’s language tests the very boundaries of signifier and signified. It is just as disconnected from reality as his politics are. But this is not to say that Trump is something novel or unique in this regard. Liberal politics is largely premised on stupidity. No thinking person would voluntarily surrender their freedom to an elected official or freely yield their labour to a capitalist. Surrendering to stupidity is key to the workings of liberalism. It would not work without it. Liberalism suspends thinking which is exactly why it is capable of such violence. It “says it as it is”, without trying or pretending to be interested in what the “is” is. Trump’s alienated and alienating language is the outcome, but perhaps not the definite one, of the cultural expression of liberalism.