I have been reflecting on two traditional habits of our media that have become not only dysfunctional but actively destructive. First, reporting on Trump as though he is a basically serious person. The press is, slowly, getting better about nailing Trump for lying, and using the word. Old habits die hard, and the habit of treating the discourse of a US president as being considerable, and assuming conventional links among utterance, belief, and intention is one of those. But it’s not working, because those links are broken in Trump’s case.
When someone says something, in any serious context, we take the utterance as some sort of forecast of behavior. “Drive me around in my car and I’ll pay you $X” is a commitment, maybe enforceable in court; “I love you” uttered by anyone not a complete cad isn’t as firm an assurance of future behavior, but normal people take it as at least not meaning “I don’t care about you” or “Actually I love someone else”, and normal people say it, or don’t, knowing that. People can change their minds, but the general rule applies, especially for public figures and leaders: what you say is and is seen to be predictive of your future behavior. A colleague of mine said what it means to a Jew to be Bar Mitzvah is that you are now responsible to what you say.
Accordingly, presidential discourse has always been reportable as spoken: data that is predictive (not perfectly) of consequential actions. However flacks and commentators spin it, we have taken presidents’ words as considerable. It’s time to stop what has become a mechanistic charade: we have a president whose speech, whether about values, beliefs, or promised action, only predicts his behavior accidentally. He reneges on flat commitments like promises to give to veterans’ causes, to invest in infrastructure, and ‘deals’ like the one last fall about immigration. He is relentlessly, doggedly ignorant about absolutely everything, so his statements of fact are not even hopes and wishes, but short-run chum for his most hateful base, whatever he thinks a rally audience wants to hear. When Trump’s rallies, tweets, and press events are broadcast the way a normal president’s events used to be, and when his environmental policies are presented as though the fact assertions they rest on are on this side of the line between knowledge and witchcraft, they are flatly misrepresented. “Trump said X today” is simply not the same kind of report as it would be regarding the utterance of a responsible adult; tradition is a poor guide now. “Trump said X” means “the last person (or rally crowd) who flattered Trump in his presence, or his latest instructions from Putin, told him to say X” and little more.
The other old habit that has become toxic is courtesy, whether to the office or to the man (and his gang of grifters and incompetents). Unwillingness to simply say Trump lied about this or that, and instead depending on counterassertions from other sources as though what Trump says has half the legitimacy in the sense above of any randomly chosen spokesperson from outside his orbit, is journalistic malpractice. But lying is not the only thing that needs to have appropriate language wheeled up in these times. Another is to start saying cruel and cruelty, savage and savagery instead of harsh, firm, and the like to describe the really unspeakable programs of this administration. Bullying is much too timid, and certainly nothing about the way Trump talks about others deserves any grace or courtesy in return.
Here are a few more words that need to be used more in characterizing Trump and his practices, words writers avoid as though saying what is true, rather than Trump himself, “coarsens” our public discourse:
Cowardly. Lazy. Cheater. Hateful. Stooge. Especially apt and underused, Whiner.
…and a word we need this week, treasonous. Now, this is a big deal; the constitution, as Mark K. likes to point out, defines it for formal government actions as requiring aid and comfort to a foreign power with which we are at war, and Mark remembers a very dark period a half-century ago in which treason was used sloppily to attack moderates, lefties, socialists, and liberals and shouldn’t have been.
I no longer take Mark’s side about this word as regards the Trump administration. Whether or not Trump qualifies for prosecution for “capital-T Treason” in a court, and he may well, the word applies fairly for common debate and discussion. I believe (i) his behavior towards NATO and our allies generally, (ii) broadly destructive initiatives against core American institutions and mores, (iii) use of the tax system to secure and empower a class of 1% American oligarchs, (iv) assault on the physical health of millions of Americans by encouraging industry to poison them and denying them medical insurance (v) the evidence already on the table about the election and Russian meddling, all combined with his consistent stupefyingly sycophantic treatment of Putin, constitute a persuasive case that he is in the tank to a power as nearly “at war” with us as makes little difference–and committing overt acts against us in the interest of that power. How “in the tank”–money, blackmail, physical threat, or all those–we don’t know yet.
How all this applies to a Republican Party that has traded all its historic principles for tax cuts for its donors, voter suppression, and a Supreme Court seat deserves further analysis.
I will not be surprised to learn that Trump OKs Russian invasion of Estonia when he gets his next marching orders from Putin this week (after all, half the population speaks Russian and “they all speak Russian” was good enough for Trump to endorse the Crimea grab); maybe formally annexing eastern Ukraine is on offer. What domestic mischief Putin orders will not be clear right away, but I am no longer on any fence about its imminence, or viciousness.
[minor edit 12/VII/18]