“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Is Donald Trump headed for a big fall, as many on the left predict? His rather fragile ego, combined with his egotistical belief that he can use words as he pleases, echoes Humpty Dumpty’s absurd boast. The difference is that as leader of the free world, Trump’s confused and mendacious pronouncements can be frighteningly dangerous as well as unintentionally mirthful.
Trump was lying long before he ran for office, claiming his family’s ancestry was Swedish when in fact it was German (the family’s original name was Drumpf). Since then he has lied about everything from the number of Mexican criminals crossing the border to the number of people voting illegally in the election to the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Following terrorist attacks in San Bernadino last year, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Yet after the bungled rollout of the administration’s ban on those traveling from seven designated countries, he insisted that “this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting…. This is not about religion.”
Trump also uses words in strange ways that vary from the inappropriate to the outright contradictory. He described the F-35 strike bomber, whose capabilities include drones that have in the past caused extensive civilian deaths, as “beautiful.” Similarly, he described himself as having a “beautiful, beautiful” relationship with Congressional leaders, ignoring the fact that in his Inaugural Address he accused the leading senators and congressmen assembled behind him of having “reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”
In response to these and myriad other examples, the New York Times, after agonizing for some weeks, finally decided to use the “L” word in a headline. But as Nicholas Kristof pointed out, while lying implies intent to deceive, there’s a worse possibility—self-delusion. “Trump may actually believe his absurd falsehoods…. We must decide whether our 45th president is a liar or a crackpot.”
Case in point: Kristof noted that Trump’s order cutting off access to contraception to vast numbers of women, particularly in Africa, will likely result in 2.2 million abortions and 21,700 women dying in pregnancy or childbirth. So much for Trump’s claim to be pro life.
Looking back over his pronouncements during the past few months, it’s almost impossible in any one instance to decide whether Trump is lying, peddling falsehoods he may or may not believe, dissembling, deceiving himself, or just stirring up sufficient dust to make it impossible to decide. When he visited the CIA, the septuagenarian president told the assembled crowd he felt no older than 39. More seriously, he told his audience, “I love you, I respect you, there’s nobody I respect more.” This after having compared the intelligence community to Nazis just over a week before.
It’s possible, with his notoriously short attention span, that he simply forgets what he said a few days earlier. More likely, as Lauren Duca pointed out in Teen Vogue, Trump is “gas lighting” America. To gas light, she explained, “is to psychologically manipulate a person to the point where they question their own sanity.” Trump makes a series of dubious or seemingly false statements, the press questions them, and then he doubles down on them, claiming he’s a victim of unfair coverage. After months of this process, which as we’ve seen ranges over everything from hyperbole to contradiction to outright lying, the public is no longer sure who to trust, not even themselves.
David Barstow, in an article appropriately titled “Up ls Down,” recently observed that Trump has been a “serial fabulist” for decades. Aptly, the term doesn’t differentiate between someone who lies and someone who deludes himself into believing that’s the way the world is. We’re in Don Quixote territory here. A clinical psychologist recently suggested to me that a narcissist is prone to making up stories because the cognitive dissonance between reality and what they want to believe is too great. Sounds right.
A case in point is Trump’s repeated insistence, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that he lost the popular vote only because millions of people voted illegally. When challenged on ABC to support his claim, he replied: “You know what’s important? Millions of people agree with me when I say that.”
Distressing as this kind of narcissistic self-deception may be, it’s repeatedly enabled through constant reinforcement by members of Trump’s inner circle, as well as by the failure of Republican leaders to call him out. When White House press secretary Spicer found himself in the position of having to defend his boss’s claim that millions had voted illegally, he said, tellingly, “He believes what he believes.” Pressed by a reporter to clarify what that meant for democracy, he responded with true Orwellian obfuscation, “It means that I’ve answered your question.”
Kellyanne Conway managed to provide her own example of “alternative facts” in speaking about the entirely fictitious Bowling Green massacre. Seth Meyers couldn’t resist ridiculing both Conway and her boss on his late night show: “The important thing is that three million people died in the Bowling Green massacre, and they are all still registered to vote.”
Many Republicans have chosen to remain silent in the face of blatant Trump falsehoods, either because they are diehard Trumpians or because they fear the threat of reprisal in the next election. Others have joined the president in his war on the media. Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, urged Americans “to get your news directly from the president. In fact it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth,” because the “national liberal media won’t print that, or air it, or post it.” Smith is a member of the House Freedom of the Press caucus. In an April 2007 press release, Smith noted that “The caucus aims to combat and condemn media censorship and the persecution of journalists around the world…. Freedom of the press is one of the foundations for a democratic society and needs to be protected…. As President Thomas Jefferson said, ‘The only security of all is in a free press.’” As they say on Facebook, LOL!
Dissenting voices among Republicans (Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham are honorable exceptions) are few and far between. We haven’t seen anything like this since Nixon declared “I am not a crook.” In the end Nixon’s own lieutenants betrayed him, but so far the Trump cadre of believers has simply closed ranks.
In his dystopian novel, 1984, Orwell famously pointed to the danger of language being distorted in a totalitarian society. The Ministry of Truth is emblazoned with three slogans: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength”—a Through the Looking Glass world if ever there was one. Over two millennia earlier Thucydides made a similar point about the distortion of language. Writing about the disastrous 5th century BC Peloponnesian War between a democratic Athens and a highly militaristic/oligarchic Sparta, Thucydides, who was also a general in the war, observed:
“Words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man… Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect.”
As the French say, Plus ça change…
In the end it was New York Times opinion writer Roger Cohen, as so often, who made the sharpest comment on the state of affairs in which we now find ourselves: “Emptying words of meaning is an essential step on the road to autocratic rule. People need to lose their bearings before they prostrate themselves.”