I’m not calling it language – that would give it too much dignity. As a linguist I’ve been intrigued by the utterances of the current US President. Of course, they wouldn’t be so interesting if they came out of the mouth or the tweet of a teenage boy. I haven’t written about this topic sooner because, not only have satirists done much of the job for me, but I was secretly hoping it would all go away – Trump’s presidency would be so brief, a glitch in the history of US democracy, weird, amusing, at times angering, but a mere footnote in popular culture.
Stripped to its bones, language is about communication. But with Trump, he isn’t communicating as much as he is posing. He has positioned himself as a racist, a sexist, no-nonsense tough guy, but one who is a victim of witch hunts at the same time. What he says – or tweets – is often so lacking in substance that it is more slogan than idea. And then there’s the hyperbole. In Trumpspeak, his proposals are the greatest, the most, the best, the largest. Trump has also completely ruined the word very for me. Okay, very isn’t much of a word anyhow. It’s one of these thin adverbials used to plump up an even thinner adjective.
He now seems to be posing as a comic book villain with his claims that if North Korea continues their threats – just threats, not military action – “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen … he has been very threatening beyond a normal state. They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
The world is understandably concerned as Trump seems to be saying that he is ready with a pre-emptive strike if these threats continue. He is fitting the persona of the thin-skinned villain who you dare not call chubby or bald. And like the two-dimensional villain, he uses a formal diction – ‘the likes of which.’ This is from someone who has referred to the complicated Russian interference in the US election and more broadly in cyberspace as ‘the Russian thing.’ Trump also, as he does so often, repeat himself, as if the repetition makes the point stronger. Though it is obvious to most of us, this penchant for repetition is likely to come from an inability to understand, let alone articulate the situation this accidental president finds himself in.
The words ‘fire and fury,’ for what we can assume means some sort of military action, are tired metaphors. If Trump were a reader, I’d suspect this came from the Bible or from Shakespeare. My guess is that Trump’s source is more likely the film version of the comic book villain. That’s also where the hyperbole comes from as Trump’s actions will be something the world has never seen before.
While Trump uses words to grandstand or to act out a character, the rest of the world thinks he’s trying to communicate something. As Hillary Clinton said to Trump during one of the debates, as her opponent was being flippant about something he had said, ‘Words matter, Donald.’ He still hasn’t understood that message.
There is a silver lining though. We saw this week how Trump was reluctant to criticise white supremacists for their violence against anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulting in the death of a young woman. After public pressure and attacks from influential politicians, Trump finally condemned racism, pointing the finger at the KKK and neo-Nazis. This was delivered at a press conference and not via Twitter or during a staged rally of his supporters. The statement was obviously written for him – not his usual hyperbolic words, repetition and vague slogans. He was clearly uncomfortable reading the teleprompter. And that’s the good news – behind the scenes, there are people trying to control him and limit the damage. Sometimes he has to answer to them. This could be America’s and the world’s best hope against a man’s whose tendency to ride roughshod with the English language could lead to catastrophe.