Trump is not the first president to have problems with the English language. But he has transformed the language and style of presidents.
No one can deny that Donald Trump is the hands-down champion of self-congratulations. As he awaited the calamitous arrival of Hurricane Florence on the East Coast of the US, he took the time to applaud his own administration’s exemplary response to the devastation in Puerto Rico caused by two violent hurricanes in 2017. The death toll has been estimated at close to 3,000. Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, tweeted: “If he thinks the death of 3,000 people is a success, God help us all.”
In the aftermath of the hurricane, as The Guardian reminds us, “The administration’s efforts in Puerto Rico were widely criticized as slow and insufficient” and include the hyperreal scene in which Trump displayed his generosity and understanding of the scope of the disaster by tossing rolls of paper towels randomly into a crowd.
Concerning the imminent arrival of the massive Hurricane Florence, as it headed for North Carolina, Trump, in an effort to show how prepared he was, informed the press and the public that it is “tremendously big and tremendously wet and tremendous amounts of water.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A lot. Huge. Literally, inspiring fear. A sonorous adjective that narcissists tend to apply, in its negative sense, to sound concerned as they make an obvious point, or in its positive sense when describing the value or importance of their own actions.
Clearly attached to the adjective, Trump also cited, as a concrete example of his “incredibly successful” work in Puerto Rico, a “tremendous military hospital in the form of a ship.” This had particular significance because — as he informed a press corps that may not have been aware of it — Puerto Rico is an island that also happens to be surrounded by water. He explained that the challenge in Puerto Rico was particularly hard “because of the island nature [sic]” which meant his administration’s response was “one of the best jobs that’s ever been done with respect to what this is all about [sic].”
Trump’s language may reveal more than he intended. The word he so blithely repeats comes from the Latin tremendus — “fearful, to be dreaded, terrible.” The fact that Trump is barely literate in English, as attested by his inability to vary his adjectives and his inclination to use nonexistent ones (e.g. “bigly”) and mispronounce others (e.g. “yuge”), would lead us to believe that he had no idea that tremendous derives from Latin where it meant fear inducing. But whereas an earlier denizen of the White House famously proclaimed that the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” at the very moment when Trump spoke of the “tremendously big” storm threatening the Carolinas, Bob Woodward’s book about Trump’s White House, Fear, was released. Despite his denials, Trump appears to have taken literally Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words as one of the two things that strike fear into his heart is Fear itself (the other being the anonymous op-ed in The New York Times by a “gutless” traitor).
Trump is not the first president to have problems with the English language. Both presidents named George Bush were known for their gaffes, many of which left the impression that they could easily become confused, even concerning the subjects they chose to speak about. In some cases, the audience understood that they had simply failed to articulate what they were thinking. Trump leaves a totally different impression, that he doesn’t think at all. He speaks before thinking, and because he has spoken he doesn’t need to think.
Norman Mailer, who was firmly on the left wing of US politics, expressed his admiration of Republican Richard Nixon — whom he devoutly hated — as a skilled “master of the mediocre.” Nixon had the merit of speaking in complete sentences in public, something he achieved by adopting a “wholly pedestrian style.”
It’s worth noting that prominent Republicans on the national stage have frequently showed a profound disrespect for articulate language, possibly because their marketing appeal depended on taking a voluntarily anti-intellectual public stance. Careful reasoning and articulated thought, after all, could lead otherwise normal Americans to take Marxism seriously and even become Marxists, whereas repetition of banal slogans paves the path towards patriotic conformity. When it comes to the presidency, as Adlai Stevenson learned in the 1950s, “Eggheads need not apply.”
The one thing earlier Republican presidents didn’t do is to call things “tremendous” or promise to make the country “great,” because however embarrassingly banal (like Nixon) or befuddled (like Bush) they may have been, their strategy consisted of sounding folksy, humble and obedient, while maintaining a pose of dignity.
Trump has transformed the language and style of presidents. We must ask ourselves, post-Trump, will the old presidential poses still be credible?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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