How Trump’s Words Are Deeds
Sara Polak, December 3, 2016
About the video clip in which Donald Trump brags about his habit to grab women ‘by the pussy’, he himself has said on several occasions that these were ‘just words’. Only words. No deeds. Given the number of women that came forward to confirm his words in the days that followed the appearance of the clip, that would seem unlikely. Many sexual abuse cases are bogged down in bickering which it is hard to form a judgement about. The American expression for this is he said, she said – her word against his – but in this case he and she said the same thing. Until it got Trump into trouble. Then he performed a classical Trump Turn by denying the accusations and his own words, and instead presenting himself as a victim of that mean Democratic campaign.
Although I do not believe Trump works hard to perfect the Trump Turn, I do come across increasingly crass instances. Take this tweet of November 27: ‘In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally’. One almost has to admire how Trump, within 140 characters, manages to cast himself as the ‘landslide’ winner and the mistreated victim of election fraud – of elections that he won. Paul Waldman from the Washington Post analyzes why many journalists – also from right-wing Fox News – have difficulty reporting the Trump Turn. They are used to dealing with politicians who may sometimes stretch the truth, but who do stay within a certain bandwidth. This usually allowed them to report without any problem what a politician said, and then, if necessary, criticize that remark in terms of content. Journalists now rightly resist headlines along the lines of: Trump: ‘Mexicans Are Rapists’. It is true that he said this, but such a quotation implicitly gives a podium to discriminatory nonsense. Many news outlets now go for: Trump falsely claims… [fill out something outrageous here].
It makes sense that journalists give attention to a tweet like this – the president-elect apparently believes that there has been large-scale election fraud. And of course that is news. But both forms of reporting still give enormous leeway to Donald Trump and his supporters to prove their Overarching Point: the media are biased and dishonorable. Not only does this turn journalistic criticism of Trump’s words into a game of he-said-she-said, but the mechanism itself suggests also at a meta-level that there is no truth. The press, as Fourth Estate, the fourth pillar of democracy that critically questions what happens at the center of political power, for and on behalf of all citizens, gets reduced to a group of sour losers with ‘just an opinion’. A wrong, failing, unfair opinion, according to Trump.
This mechanism repeats itself practically every day. Trump says something idiotic, journalists criticize it loudly, and Trumps responds triumphantly that this shows once more how unreliable they are. By saying that, he does various things. First of all, as noted, he pulls down the press as watchdog of the democratic order. Secondly, he draws attention away from more important issues, such as the fact that Trump is already exploiting the presidency on a large scale to enrich his businesses.
Until now most decisions of American presidents were based on a combination of pragmatic an ideological grounds, but now an important motivation is added: is a decision good for Trump’s business imperium? We are already starting to see that countries like Russia and the Philippines are giving extra space to his business interests. The United States’ traditional allies, such as the Netherlands, have laws that prevent this kind of corruption. Paul Krugman observes in the New York Times that this creates the danger that the US will, for the wrong reasons, intensify its relations with undemocratic regimes. During his campaign Trump promised there would be ‘a wall’ between his political and his business interest, but I’m hearing worryingly little about that now. And sometimes I have the impressive that he saves his most provocative tweets for the moments this issue threatens to come up.
The American political scientist Jacob Levy describes yet another way in which Trump’s lies work for him. They force his future cabinet members, staff and party associates to prove their loyalty by upholding their boss’s lies. Which will then make them even more dependent on him than they are already. This is extra worrying because the Republicans now have a majority in the House of Representatives and in the Senate – and in the longer term also in the Supreme Court – all three traditional branches of political power in the Unites States. Effective pushback can only realistically come from within Trump’s own party. Such power games make it less likely that this will happen.
In the fields of linguistics and language philosophy there has been much thinking about what John Austin in 1962 coined speech acts. Expressions that do something concrete. The classical example is: ‘I hereby declare you man and wife.’ Once that sentence has been spoken, reality has changed, and the content has become true. Or: ‘I promise I will do that.’ When you say that, you commit yourself, socially as well as legally. Language is, to use some jargon, performative. Trump, famous from the television reality show The Apprentice, where every week a candidate was sent home after his devastating speech act ‘You’re fired!’, knows that. And he uses a wide range of methods to do things with words. Among other things to hide his own abuse of power by claiming that it was all just words.