At the New York Review of books, Masha Gessen writes about Trump and the language of the autocrat. It’s a great essay about an important issue, but it seems to go astray in its diagnosis of the issue.

Trump also has a talent for using words in ways that make them mean nothing. Everyone is great and everything is tremendous. Any word can be given or taken away. NATO can be “obsolete” and then “no longer obsolete”—this challenges not only any shared understanding of the word “obsolete” but our shared experience of linear time.

And then there is Trump’s ability to take words and throw them into a pile that means nothing.

Here is an excerpt, chosen from many similar ones, from his interview with the AP about his first hundred days in office:

Number one, there’s great responsibility. When it came time to, as an example, send out the fifty-nine missiles, the Tomahawks in Syria. I’m saying to myself, “You know, this is more than just like, seventy-nine [sic] missiles. This is death that’s involved,” because people could have been killed. This is risk that’s involved, because if the missile goes off and goes in a city or goes in a civilian area—you know, the boats were hundreds of miles away—and if this missile goes off and lands in the middle of a town or a hamlet …. every decision is much harder than you’d normally make. [unintelligible] … This is involving death and life and so many things. … So it’s far more responsibility. [unintelligible] ….The financial cost of everything is so massive, every agency. This is thousands of times bigger, the United States, than the biggest company in the world.

Here is a partial list of words that lose their meaning in this passage: “responsibility,” the number “fifty-nine” and the number “seventy-nine,” “death,” “people,” “risk,” “city,” “civilian,” “hamlet,” “decision,” “hard,” “normal,” “life,” the “United States.” Even the word “unintelligible,” inserted by the journalist, means nothing here, because how can something be unintelligible when uttered during a face-to-face interview?

This seems wrong to me. The words when used in these ways are not drained of meaning. They are not rendered meaningless. Words, when used these ways, are doing things, and those doings are part of the meaning. A bird that lands on a wire does not stop having wings. Someone who is pointing his fingers in opposite directions is still pointing. Catch a tire on your fish hook. You are still fishing, and you’ve still caught something. Ask yourself: why is Trump using these words, not others? ‘Responsibility’ is in the quote because it is supposed to be, and if Trump gets away with having it enter and exit sidewise, it is because people do not listen the way that we think: they hear buzz words connected by a frayed filament of grammar, and are thereby mollified, appeased, pacified. They fill in the blanks. The blanks do not work the way we think either. Yes, no, there is no propositional sense, no report. But a great deal is being communicated, and deliberately so, through connotation, association, subject-verb-object and Trump being the speaker.

We do not like it. But no one wants to eat a tire, either. And that does not make it correct to say that pappy caught nothing fishing, so we’re eating nothing for dinner. As Austin taught us, when we ask, mouth full of rubber, “is there any salt?” we expect more than just an account of what’s in the kitchen cupboard.

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