I find it hard to believe that Donald Trump – whose candidacy was declared a year ago seemed a bad joke – is the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States. Surely it cannot be so. He has none of the qualities which would qualify him for a position whose incumbent can shake the world.
Trump’s character lacks any integrity, his judgement is flawed, his ignorance of statecraft is extreme, his beliefs appeal not to the better angels of a nation but to the lowest common denominators. He is a raucous, embarrassing blow-hard. He insults not only honourable opponents but women, war heroes, Muslims, the physically handicapped, immigrants (by whom in successive waves America has been built) and indeed anyone who crosses his pathway to power and wealth. He is ignorant about everything – economy, trade, diplomacy, military strategy, education, environmental science, name what you will – everything except what might make him wealthier or more dominant. He is a truly appalling narcissist and know nothing know-it-all.
There is a great deal of the fascist about this dreadful man. Except for his ridiculous hair-do, Trump frighteningly reminds me of that dangerous buffoon Benito Mussolini. One cringes to think that this would-be-dictator now wears the Republican mantle Abraham Lincoln once wore. Even Bush junior, who failed miserably in his presidency, seems a paragon of good sense compared with Trump.
There stands Trump triumphant, the Donald, a monstrous figure of not much fun anymore straight out of the make-believe world of Lewis Carroll. He is the Red Queen reprimanding not Alice but the world for not believing impossible things: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!” He is Humpty Dumpty telling not Alice but America: “When I use a word, it means exactly what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less!” He is the Bellman in The Hunting of the Snark: “What I tell you three times is true!” He inhabits a dangerous Wonderland where facts have lost all value, he presents us with a Looking Glass world where everything is upside down and very dark.
How on earth has Trump got so far? Well, it is a shock to learn that his success is partly due to how he uses language. I like to think of language being used for good, for furthering valuable causes, for inspiring men and women to do their best, for leading mankind to achieve great deeds. But I should have remembered how Adolph Hitler led a great nation into the pits of hell with his oratory.
An article appearing in the Economist on June 19 gives an interesting account of how Trump has gained the Republican nomination and how he may, God forbid, go all the way. The article points out that Trump must be doing something “right” and reminds us that, after all, language is virtually all a politician has to wield influence. So something in how Trump talks and writes must quite significantly explain his success.
First, he keeps it very simple. The Economist explains: “‘Never use a long word when a short one will do,’ Orwell wrote in Politics and the English Language. Simplicity is not stupidity; making language easy to apprehend is intrinsic to making it appealing. Countless psychological studies have shown that what is easy to process is seen as more truthful. ‘I’m going to build a big, beautiful wall and Mexico is going to pay for it’ may be preposterous, but it is easy to understand, and the human brain, in its weakness, likes easy things.”
Another Trump verbal weapon which he has sharpened and sharpened is repetition. Think of “crooked Hillary”. The Economist says this: “This may be incorrectly seen as childish. Trump does often say exactly the same thing several times in a row in a crude hammer-blow fashion. But in more sophisticated guise, repetition is a venerable rhetorical tool. Mark Anthony sarcastically repeats the taunt that Brutus is ‘an honourable man’ after Brutus murders Caesar. Winston Churchill rallied Britain with, ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets…’ And the most beloved rhetorical repetition of the 20th century is the great refrain, ‘I have a dream.’ Mr Trump is certainly no Martin Luther King, but he knows how to leave an audience remembering what he said.”
A third Trump method is also a powerful and convincing tool – especially with the media. He does not make speeches, he talks. He very seldom delivers set speeches, he speaks off the cuff. He avoids the boring regurgitation of worthy clichés which other politicians practise all the time. In government boring is undoubtedly better than off-the-cuff – but not in campaigning. The media is fascinated and falls all over itself to repeat what he says and so enlarge his image. Remember, also, that this ability to extemporise is perfectly suited to cut and thrust so Trump may very well win the presidential debates – even though Hillary Clinton is widely expected to crucify him in these.
The Economist article ends as follows: “This unscripted quality is powerful. Even a valid argument is weakened if it sounds canned. Even an invalid one sounds stronger if it appears spontaneous, especially to voters disgusted with the professional politicians. This reveals a dangerous double edge to Orwell’s famous rules for clear and honest English. An honest speaker would do well to keep words and sentences short and concrete, and to avoid clichés, as Orwell advises. But a demagogue can use these tools, too. Orwell believed in the talismanic power of clear language to make lies and appalling talk plain. But some voters cannot recognize a lie, and others want to hear appalling things. If there are enough of these, then a looseness with the facts, a smash-mouth approach to opponents and mesmerizingly demotic style make a dangerously effective cocktail.”
It makes me sweat blood to think that this dreadful man, with his abhorrent views, may win the presidency of the Unites States because he uses the English language to horrifyingly good effect – and that, sadly, Hillary Clinton, facing him, may well not have the oratorical skills of a President Obama to overmatch him in this all-important contest for the very soul of America.