Journalists such as Rachel Maddow have made an art of practicing a highly disciplined reporting that focuses like a laser on what Trump does, as opposed to obsessively following his sensational and inflammatory tweets down a media rabbit hole, or exhausting oneself correcting his seemingly endless stream of lies.
Overall, the media might be more effective and responsible in disarming Trump’s nonsense if it, in fact, ignored more of what Trump says. As any parent knows, giving attention of any kind, even of a punitive nature, to children’s bad behavior tends to encourage that behavior. And we should all know by now the White House is currently serving as a crib for one of the biggest babies in the nation, meaning we all need to be on our best behaviors as parents.
Of course, we should also recognize language is also a kind of action in itself, such that at times we have to comment on Trump’s speech because his words can do some dangerous and damaging work.
Just last Wednesday, for example, Trump lit into the Mueller probe, lambasting the Special Counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s possible participation as “an attempted coup” and “an attempted takedown of a president.”
The word “coup” conjures images of a military assault on the presidency, a wresting of power through brute force in violation of democratic process. The language of “takedown” suggests something of a mob hit. And frankly, Trump tends to paint himself a something of a dictator or mob boss, not the chief leader of a democracy whose governing is intentionally subject to carefully conceptualized and deliberately placed checks and balances.
In short, the danger in Trump’s language is that, for the surprisingly impressionable national audience, he degrades our democratic processes and safeguards against tyranny by recasting the fundamentals of democracy as instead the coarse and brutish misdeeds of a dictatorial power grab.
He figures those who crafted the Constitution not as wise founding leaders, but as wise guys.
In fact, though, our Constitution’s crafters, particularly Ben Franklin, were careful to imagine a far more peaceful and judicious process–one subject to check and balances and due process–for removing from power what Franklin called an “obnoxious” chief executive, than what had been the historical norm up to that time, namely assassination.
This process entails, as our founders outlined it, that first the House of Representatives pass a resolution that lists and details the “Articles of Impeachment.” Should that resolution pass, the Senate then considers the Articles of Impeachment in a trial presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, with the 100 Senators fulfilling the role of jury. If 2/3 of the Senate votes to convict the official being impeached, then the Senate votes on whether or not to remove the official from office.
Does this process in any way resemble a military assault, a storming of the Bastille, or a thug bursting into a restaurant with a machine gun?
There are no cement galoshes here, and no mention of sleeping with the fishes in the Constitution.
And yet Trump’s repeated characterizations of Senate and Congressional hearings and investigations and of a potential impeachment process as a coup, a hit, or a witch hunt has the potential to really taint these carefully worked out democratic processes in our national consciousness and imagination and poison our democratic spirit, our very appetite for democracy itself.
Trump’s linguistic pollution, his dirtying of our discourse, takes the processes of deliberative democracy and recasts them as tyrannical and low-down acts of violence, as when he calls the members and directors of the FBI “dirty cops” and “bad people.”
Trump has certainly exhibited, in Orwellian fashion, the talent for making black look white, oppression look like freedom, inequality look like equality, tyranny like democracy, and so forth.
Considering that Trump has been under investigation for violating one of our most important democratic processes of all, a presidential election, this latest effort to make democracy look like tyranny is a particularly dangerous re-ordering of our vocabulary from the most notorious wise guy president in U.S. history.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.