My title, as many of you will recognize, is a variant of the word “NewSpeak” from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. Whether one should credit Donald Trump with coining a new form of speech may be questionable, but watching his performance last night, I was struck not so much by the laughable misrepresentation of almost all his alleged “facts” (if you want a good rundown of how each of Trump’s ‘factoids’ were grossly exaggerated, de-contextualized or outright lied about, see the Washington Post piece here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2016/07/22/fact-checking-donald-trumps-acceptance-speech-at-the-2016-rnc/), but by his speech patterns. (In case you’ve forgotten, one of the reasons fact-checking doesn’t matter much for a Trump audience has to do with their ‘stone-age brains.’ Briefly, most people employ a quick, instinctive estimate, done in milliseconds, of a politician’s looks and/or manner, and completely bypass the reasoning process behind the information he delivers. This accords with the stone-age brains most of us still work with in interpersonal relations.)
So, for now, let’s bypass the howlers Trump spouted in his overly long but factually empty speech, and attend instead to the patterns of rhetoric he used. To begin with, the man seems to be mostly driven—both in his domestic critiques and his foreign ones—by the notion of “getting a good deal.” This would figure, since his life seems to have been devoted to deal-making in the high-risk world of (mostly) Manhattan real estate. It is a world dominated by con men and hucksters who are always out to screw the naïve or the unwary. The New Yorker, therefore, must always be on his guard to make sure he’s not being screwed. This applies to all New Yorkers in all areas of life, but especially to those engaged in the dog-eat-dog world of real estate developing. Accordingly, Donald Trump’s rhetoric is full of critiques of his predecessors like Hillary and Obama and Bill Clinton for “not getting a good deal.” In his eyes, they gave away the store in the Iran nuclear deal; they gave away the store in Libya and Syria and Russia and China and especially in trade deals like NAFTA and the upcoming TPP. In short, previous political leaders succumbed to the cardinal sin in Trump’s world: they didn’t negotiate hard or cleverly enough; weren’t willing enough to play hardball; weren’t willing enough to talk tough and walk away and threaten and harangue. Now, of course, Trump has no way of knowing this; he wasn’t there; has never been engaged in any diplomatic activity or anything remotely political; and certainly is not about to consider the way that the United States has totally dominated and exploited almost every relationship it has entered in the post-World War II years. No. All he’s willing to bray about is how weak the nation has become, i.e. how it can no longer dictate the terms of every agreement due to its position as the biggest, baddest, most powerful nation on the globe. So he claims that he, the great real estate wheeler-dealer, will be able to make ‘better deals’—even, presumably, with those shirkers at home who want a free lunch.
And that brings us to the second noticeable rhetorical pattern. Trump never explains exactly how he’s going to accomplish all this. All he does is, first, exaggerate the problem—we’re besieged by criminals and loafers domestically and by terrorists from abroad, our cities are falling apart, our industry has all left for cheaper shores due to bad trade deals, cops are being murdered at the highest rate ever—and then assert that he’s the one who, with his superior deal-making ability, will fix the problem. Crime will end. Immigration will end. Terrorism will end. Globalization will end. Inner-city poverty will end. And he, Donald Trump, will end it.
But how? These are complex, difficult problems that Republicans and Democrats alike have been promising to solve for decades. Not for Trump. The language is simple, the problems are simple, the solution is simple: Put Trump in Charge. And soon, trillions of dollars will be pouring into the nation’s coffers, taxes will be far lower saving everyone more trillions, roads will be built, infrastructure will be modernized, onerous regulations will disappear freeing up our energy sources (never mind the pollution or global warming) and pouring in even more trillions, and American Will Be Great Again.
It is simple. And it is simpleminded. And the stone-age brains crowding the Republican Convention could not cheer loud enough or stomp hard enough or chant USA! USA! USA! often enough to roar their approval. Their devotion, even. Their lord and savior was saying it. He was saying it with confidence and certainty and with his jaw jutting out like some latter day Benito Mussolini, and they were ecstatic (as Mussolini’s crowds often were). He would talk tough. He would be tough. He would just take those over-educated fancy-nancy diplomats and bureaucrats by the throat, saying ‘fuck your reasoning and diplomacy and equity,’ and force them to give him a good deal. And if they didn’t, he’d bomb the shit out of them.
And that’s it. After the longest speech in convention history, Donald Trump managed to say virtually nothing but the same posturing, simple-minded crap he’s been spouting throughout his primary campaign. Leaving the rest of us, the ones searching for some sort of program or plan or logic to his meandering speech, to wonder: how can they swallow this infantile pap? How can they not see that this guy has no capacity for any thought that’s longer than a sentence or two? Did you notice that? He never stayed with one subject for any sustained length of time: it was all quick cuts, as in a commercial. Crime in the streets. Shooting cops. Terrorists. Hillary and Libya, Iraq, Syria, Egypt. NAFTA. China. Back to high unemployment. Obama care. It reminded me of what was revealed in Jane Mayer’s recent article in the New Yorker where she interviewed Trump’s ghostwriter Tony Schwartz (he wrote The Art of the Deal for Trump)—i.e. that Trump had no capacity whatever to focus on anything for longer than a minute or two. Trying to interview Trump, said Schwartz, was like trying to interview a chimp with ADHD (my metaphor). The man had no capacity to concentrate at all, so Schwartz ended up following Trump around, listening in on phone calls and interactions and inspections, to scare up material for the book. The other thing Schwartz noticed—after Trump threatened him with a lawsuit and demanded that he return all the royalties Schwartz had earned from the bestseller—is that Trump’s famously thin skin demands that he instantly attack anyone who criticizes him. We all saw that in this Spring’s Republican debates. What Schwartz reminds us is how frightening this quality would be in a President:
“The fact that Trump would take time out of convention week to worry about a critic is evidence to me not only of how thin-skinned he is, but also of how misplaced his priorities are,” Schwartz wrote. He added, “It is axiomatic that when Trump feels attacked, he will strike back. That’s precisely what’s so frightening about his becoming president.” (Jane Mayer, “Donald Trump Threatens the Ghostwriter of ‘The Art of the Deal’”, New Yorker, July 20, 2016.)
Donald Trump, in short, gave one of the most consistently alarmist acceptance speeches in American political history last night. But what we should truly be alarmed about is ever ceding the enormous responsibility and power of the American presidency to a man who is so ill-equipped—emotionally, mentally, and morally—to handle it. For if, with the help of a gang of speechwriters, he is unable or unwilling to put together a cogent argument that at least attempts to fill in some of the missing spaces of TrumpSpeak, then every American with an ounce of sense should be terrified about how those missing spaces might eventually take some reckless, cataclysmic shape.