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Speaking in Tongues

I often wonder if someone is tracking the number of times Donald Trump has uttered or tweeted the words “disgrace” and “disgraceful” since assuming the presidency.

The stuff that gushes from his mouth and/or Twitter feed has been pretty well categorized.

There’s the third-grade-vocabulary propaganda hammered home with endless repetition and occasional enhancements—as when “witch hunt” was upgraded to “rigged witch hunt,” slathering on a generous lapse of logic.

Then there’s the outright gutter talk and the “people are saying” innuendo that gets filed under “dog whistle.” (Calling Omarosa Manigault Newman a “dog” is a twofer in this regard.)

There are also chatty stories to the base that go something like this: “X comes to me and says, ‘Mr. President, we need Y.’ And I say, ‘X . . . ’ ” He has perfected this Woebegone-esque Private Trump stage routine as adroitly as Phyllis Diller did the one about her fictional husband Fang. In Trump, it’s almost precious—like his recorded reaction to Omarosa’s news that she was fired by “General Kelley.”

But Trump’s habitual lashing out against some action on the part of journalists or women or people of color or the LGBT community as being a “disgrace” or “disgraceful” seems the most bizarre thing coming out of the man’s mouth. It qualifies as cultural appropriation—appropriation from a tribe of people whose common characteristic is public decency. My guess is that he heard these terms long ago—possibly during country club assimilation campaigns concurrent with Trump Management’s campaign to discriminate against black tenants—but filed them away for some unknown future use.

As a rhetorical solecism, irony-cum-hypocrisy doesn’t have the armor to distinguish itself within a constant barrage of lies. At Trump’s staged events—what Bill Maher calls “hillbilly Nuremberg rallies”—the President’s base knows that what he’s saying is not “true” in the way they’d want their chest X-rays to be true. They know that both the message and the scaffolding surrounding it are entirely fabricated. But they glow like parents listening to their children’s clever tall tales.

Or I guess it would be more accurate to say that they are children who know the other child is making up a whopper but still they love it. They know it’s fiction they’ve heard before, but they want the greatest hits—like the five-year-old saying, “Daddy, tell me the story of the day I was born.” “I’ve told you that story a hundred times. You should know it by heart.” “But I want to hear it from YOU.”

I recently had a moment on the A train when I fully understood the communication style of the Commander in Chief. A hyperactive boy of eight or nine was rebelling against being told by his father that he was being too loud: the kid stands up, covers his ears with both hands, and shouts at the top of his lungs, “YOU’RE the one who’s loud!”

The bald, unnerving immaturity of Donald Trump makes analyzing his rhetorical subterfuge of our democracy very difficult. The predictability of his me-fist!/me-first! actions and words and his Coney Island shysterisms is always lunging toward sketch comedy—like Gene Hackman as Royal Tenenbaum telling his young grandsons, “I’m very sorry for your loss. Your mother was a terribly attractive woman.”

There’s a character in Muriel Spark’s novel The Comforters who is so focused on spreading pain and discord that when she’s alone she simply disappears. She disappears because when there’s no one around to hurt, she’s redundant. There have been all kinds of spoofs on Trump’s “executive time” spent bingeing on TV and cheeseburgers. But I imagine Trump simply disappearing when he’s alone and not tweeting or phoning in to Fox and Friends.

Though we reflexively seize on the tawdry cheapness of Trump’s words, there’s really nothing to be curious about. Even Bob Dole—still as corny as Kansas in August—seems baroque by comparison for referring to himself in the third person.

That’s why any analysis of Trump-speak is really a story about the intended audience, not the conjurer. The same words that shock and terrify Constitution-minded Americans energize and titillate the faithful.

The situation reminds me of a conversation I overheard years ago while working at Harvard Divinity School. It was more of a spirited debate between two students eating lunch outside. The subject was the Christian Pentecost. One student believed that two miracles took place in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit is said to have descended on the twelve Apostles and other followers of Jesus: (1) these people suddenly began “speaking in angelic tongues” (i.e., gibberish) and (2) each of the observers within the gathered crowd heard God’s message in his native language. The other student believed there was just one miracle that day: the disciples didn’t speak gibberish but had the sudden ability to speak in many foreign languages.

Christians believe that the language barrier created by the Tower of Babel story in Genesis is surmounted at Pentecost, when everybody’s happily on the same page. The Harvard students were arguing about the purported miracle’s technical means of delivery. Was it gibberish overlaid by something akin to the U.N.’s simultaneous translation, or was it a direct message in one’s own language? I remember the conversation giving me a headache, but more so I remember wanting to suggest that maybe the disciples spoke their gibberish and the crowd simply heard whatever message they wanted to hear.

I think that’s the central feature of Trump-speak: millions of people looking for words onto which they can project established feelings about the world. If there’s anything fortunate about Trump, it’s that he’s a would-be authoritarian with a limited ideological repertoire. What’s unfortunate for the United States and the world’s democracies, however, is that the millions of faithful whose feelings have been unleashed and further cultivated by Trump’s words won’t go away when he does. The next authoritarian may do a lot more than speak in tongues. §

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