Symposium | America After Trump

Rallying Cries, Locker-Room Talk, and Tweets

By Virginia Heffernan

Tagged Donald Trump

Damn, it’s suddenly hard to write this way. As the old engine revs up to produce an essay, something seems exhausted in “reasonable” analysis, with its mixed cases, studied prudence, and collegiate affectations, including semicolons and em-dashes.

Commentary, polemics, punditry, explanation: The forms themselves are feeble, even perjured, today. Avant-garde data visualization (the kind projecting election results, for example) is also for the birds. If I see another explanatory chart in reds and salmons I may leave the Internet for a lifetime residence at a pool hall. All of that explanatory blather, including mine, belongs to the idiom of the Ivy League superego that has failed so bitterly in every editorial this season, every high-minded “fact-check,” every contrivance of the coast-to-coast debating societies. Today the truth of the election seems to lie in shrieks and sobs.

Somehow, it did all along. And not exclusively to those Clintonians, like me, who feel betrayed by commentary. Trumpites have always felt deceived by it. In August, one Trump voter, a Mexican-American with English as a second language, told me that he admired his candidate because “He’s very smart, like me, but he just can’t speak diplomatically.” Diplomatically. The way this man played the polysyllable—superb choice—it conveyed falsity, artifice, political correctness.

How had I not seen that? Polite speech can sound so cautious, so manipulative. The “diplomatic” speaker uses only her allotted time, and doesn’t interrupt. She listens elaborately. She prides herself on making difficult concepts simple, because she knows—how deeply she knows it—that whoever she is talking to is so, so much simpler than she is.

Trump, for his part, never condescended. Sexist as he is, he never mansplained. He had nothing to splain. The divided nation, then, is split as much or more by language as by geography, gender, race, income, social class. In one corner is the idiom used in admissions essays to American colleges and universities, and then steadily refined there. In the other is subverbal stuff, including sounds and body language—rallying cries, typos, fist pumps, WWF-style boasts, boos, hashtags, violence and threats of violence.

Ivanka Trump tried a few times to frame her father’s idiom as “speak[ing] from the heart.” Mike Pence said Trump wasn’t “a polished politician.” But the language of Trump’s rallies and his Twitter feed—ancestral home to his style—is neither wholehearted nor unpolished. It has its own draconian restrictions, tight grammar, and potency; used right, it offers an extraordinarily powerful arsenal from which to blow up what might be called Standard American Anderson Cooper English (SAACE). Clinton English. Media English. Publishing English. Hollywood English, Catholic Church English, Bank English. Speakers of Trumpish were having none of it. All of it sounds like fraud when you’ve grown up on shouts, staccato, and war whoops.

This hybrid language—Trumpish—is a source of pride to those who are fluent in it. It’s the idiom of what Trump on “The Apprentice” called “street smarts,” which in the third season of his reality show he put in hard contradistinction to “book smarts.” “Book smarts” evolved as that nerdy schoolmarm thing that Trump repeatedly sneered at in that revelatory season. “Street smarts”—Trump’s distinct preference at the time, despite his own Ivy League education—are muscular, thuggish, shrewd.

Some hallmarks of Trumpish follow:
Volume. Exclamation points when on Twitter; microphone jacked to eleven at rallies.
Epithets, repeated in the Homeric mode. “Little Marco,” “Crooked Hillary,” etc.
Monosyllables.
Singsong. Trump often seems to manually conduct the incantatory “lock her up” choruses at his rallies.
Projection. As when Trump charged Clinton with a failure of stamina and temperament, which he had recently been faulted for. On Twitter, the use of the word “racist” to mean the n-word by murderous bigots—many of whose bios praise Trump—is a brutal example.
Appropriation. When called “deplorables” by Clinton, Trump supporters took this word for themselves. (Clinton supporters, in this vein, took “nasty women” and “bad hombres.”)
“I’m going to say what others won’t.” This comes through in Trump’s heavy repetition of “radical Islamic terrorism,” always framed as something the other side is too mincing and nice to say.

Rhetorical intrigue in the campaign season came when Trump tried his hand at SAACE a time or two, when he was said to be “tamed” and true to the teleprompter. He seemed to hate it. Clinton much more successfully tried Trumpish, as when she expressed herself in a nonverbal victory shimmy at the first debate, and used language (“Donald”) designed explicitly to “get under Trump’s skin”—as her debate coaches put it—and not to be diplomatic about nothing.

Paradoxically, Clinton was much better at Trumpish than Trump was at SAACE, but that ignorance and incompetence may have worked in his favor. This cannot have surprised linguists: Anyone who insists on speaking in his sole language has vast homecourt advantage. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in The Epistemology of the Closet, spelled out the extraordinary advantages of ignorance; “If M. Mitterand knows English but Mr. Reagan lacks…French,” Sedgwick wrote, “it is the urbane M. Mitterand who must negotiate in an acquired tongue, the ignorant Mr. Reagan who may dilate in his native one.”

Trump certainly dilated in his native tongue. To say he is subliterate is not to imply he is the strong silent type. He couldn’t stop tweeting, even in the wee suicide hours. In Trump’s tweets, and at his rallies (and in their symbiosis as the hashtags #maga, #lockherup, #hangthebitch, #whitegenocide), can be heard a rebuke to diplomatic speech. The rebuke surfaces in bluntness, cartoonish empty promises, epithets, insults, exaggeration, whoppers, monosyllables, misspellings, incitements to violence. Donald Trump even told us what he calls his rhetorical style: “locker-room talk.”

To be fair, that phrase didn’t land for most people. Trumpish is decidedly not the first language of more than half the electorate, the Clinton voters and Trump doubters. And many expressed horror at Trump’s locker-room style— “grab them by the pussy,” etc. They saw in this a boast about actual criminal sexual assault. But that seemed a deliberate misunderstanding. Most utterances, of course, are not designed to be taken literally. As the linguist J. L. Austin argued, only a vanishingly small set of utterances in English contain this kind of truth-value, and might be proven or disproven. The valiant effort of the Clinton campaign to encourage voters to care about truth and accuracy came through in the campaign’s efforts—and the efforts of the likewise-literate media—to shake out Trump’s utterances for falsehoods, which dropped by the hundreds, rotten apples from the Trump tree.

But truth-value was not what Trumpish aspires to. In fact, it falters when it hews too cautiously to “facts.” It sounds like Latin to his supporters—both pretentious and incomprehensible. The once or twice Trump tried facts at his rallies—oblique references to news reports of crimes committed by illegal immigrants, for instance—the crowd seemed patiently to wait for “bad hombres” and other red meat. Late in the season, Peter Thiel underscored Salena Zito’s astute point that Trump’s critics take him literally but not seriously.

But I have no choice but to write this way. This beautiful American English—the language of our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our laws, our seminar tables; this language in which I have put my whole faith—expresses the eternally springing hope of American higher education that language, especially written language, might designate something in the real world, might even conform to facts on the ground about, say, health insurance, taxes, immigration, documented history. But also that language might be used to elevate, understand, civilize. And that American English, like America itself, is capacious, and can bring in other idioms including, yes, Trumpish.

When the poet Michael Robbins tweeted, the day after the election, “gyre wide af,” he blended Yeats with the text abbreviation for “as fuck.” The tweet expressed blank terror at the world, with a soaring faith in language, especially poetic language. Kate McKinnon’s refusal to make scripted jokes on Saturday Night Live the weekend after, did the same thing. Instead, in a brilliant surprise, McKinnon—dressed as Hillary Clinton, in white like the suffragists—played piano and sang without sentiment a plaintive ballad by Leonard Cohen. No explanations. Just the strange and ancient sound: Alleluia.

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Virginia Heffernan is the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art.

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