In the Twitter age, language is, to a grotesque extent, simply utilitarian. Prose style, be damned. Unless you can spit out a thought in 140 characters or less, you will lose a significant part of your audience.
Out the window goes nuance, subtlety, the complexity of a multifaceted, empathic understanding of issues and environment. Say it short, say it brutally, say it with an exclamation point for emphasis! And, if you have to think about the consequences of these aphoristic declarations, do so only later, after the damage has been done.
However great the dangers are domestically, Trump’s persona magnifies them on the international stage.
The problem is, the world doesn’t actually work well when communication is stripped down to such barebones. Diplomacy, for example, involves an understanding of cultural context, the ability to nod to history, the intuitive awareness that people far away, living in different political and economic cultures, might not react well to the sort of bombastic statements that play with a homegrown Twitter crowd.
In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote, “The decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes.” But, the author argued, it worked both ways: Impoverished language was both cause and consequence of an impoverished political state.
“It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Politics-via-Twitter is a perfect example of this. It plays to the strengths not of thinkers but of showmen; and, in turn, it puts a premium on those showmen dumbing down their sentiments even more than they otherwise would.
Is Trump really as foolish as so many of his tweets, and his menacing, ahistorical tirades at such venues as the United Nations, would lead us to believe? Perhaps.
But it’s also possible that he is, as any good showman does, hamming it up for his audience – and if his audience back home wants base threats and personal insults, bombast and promises of vengeance, violence and vigor, that’s what he’ll deliver.
Orwell bemoaned a situation in which a writer (and, by extension, presumably also a speaker) became “almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.” One has to wonder what on earth the creator of the dystopian visions of “1984” and “Animal Farm” would have made of the tweeter-as-commander-in-chief moment that we are living today.
In his essay “The Search for Status,” the great liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote that, “I may prefer, in my bitter longing for status, to be bullied and misgoverned by some member of my own race or social class, by whom I am, nevertheless, recognized as a man and a rival – that is, as an equal – to being well and tolerantly treated by someone from some higher and more remote group who does not recognize me for what I wish to feel myself to be….
“Although I may not get liberty at the hands of the members of my own society, yet they are members of my own group; they understand me, as I understand them; and this understanding creates within me the sense of being somebody in the world.”
For a large part of Trump’s base, that animus is a core part of their support for Trump. He may debase them and their country on a daily basis in what he does and in how he communicates it, but at least he’s “one of them.”
He’s a conservative white man explicitly governing on behalf of only one part of this vast, multicultural, multiracial land – for his white, mainly rural and suburban, disproportionately southern base; for a base animated by a loathing for the black president who preceded him; for a base that would have voted for pretty much anyone and anything that represented a move away from Barack Hussein Obama’s cerebral, multiracial, multicultural vision of society and of governance.
There are, of course, enormous domestic dangers to Trump’s project of erasing all-things-Obama from the body politic, rendering his eight years in office invisible, his legacy scrubbed from America’s history books. It is a recipe for perpetual strife, for massive social injustice, for legitimized violence and for a vast coarsening of culture and of language.
But however great those dangers are domestically, Trump’s persona magnifies them on the international stage. For no one likes to be harangued, to be bullied, to be harassed.
Nobody likes to be told, “it’s my way or the highway,” to be belittled and humiliated, to be threatened with war, to be told your treaties and your signatures on international documents are worthless. Nobody likes to be shouted at and mocked. Nobody likes to threatened with being “totally destroyed” by weapons of mass destruction or to be told that, unless they change their ways they won’t be around much longer.
Don’t get me wrong. North Korea’s regime, to take the most obvious target of Trumpian rhetoric, is made up of a particularly unpleasant, dangerous group of leaders. And Kim Jong-Un’s pell-mell dash toward the hydrogen bomb is one of the most dangerous international developments in decades.
But at moments of grave international crisis, careful use of language, rather than simply an indulgence of the id, is vital. Simply firing off via tweet whatever momentary thought flashes into his mind at any instant doesn’t give Trump the moral high ground. Nor does it lay out carefully calibrated responses to North Korean provocations; nor does it help build alliances on the global stage to counter North Korea’s actions.
Witness Trump’s extraordinary tweet over two weekends back telling his own secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, that he was wasting his time setting up channels of communication with North Korea, and that “Little Rocket Man” would be dealt with very soon. Or witness his follow up a few days later saying that “only one thing will work!” in dealing with this crisis.
What all of this does do is make an accidental nuclear war, with the vast horrors that would entail, more likely. Sen. Bob Corker, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, understands that, which is why he told The New York Times that Trump risked pushing the country into a third world war.
Twitter-in-lieu-of-diplomacy makes the possibility of miscalculation more likely. It makes international anger at a perceived hubristic America more likely.
The same holds for tweet-from-the-hip pronouncements on Iran. Or, for that matter, on Mexico, Germany, the UK or any of the other myriad countries whose leaders (national, city or state) Trump has gone out of his way to pick fights with since assuming office 10 months ago.
If one approaches the rest of the world as if other countries are one’s property – to bully and to torment at will – other countries will, not surprisingly, look elsewhere for friends.
For 70-plus years America has been the “indispensable nation” on the global stage, the behemoth that other countries look to for economic succor, for protection, for, in many cases, political inspiration, for cultural, even culinary and lifestyle, trends.
It has been a place of aspiration that has allowed generations of Americans to bestride the globe, to unthinkingly enjoy all of the privileges of power – from a stable, desirable currency, to being able to travel to scores of countries without having to apply and pay for visas, to enjoying the linguistic advantage of having English as the supranational language.
How long will these privileges remain if our government continues to turn inward, to ban swathes of foreigners from our shores, to berate the contributions of immigrants, to snarl at allies and foes with almost equal vehemence?
How long will our cultural cachet hold when the president reduces vital interactions to dumbed-down, narcissistic tweets?
How long will our good fortune stand when the most sensitive of international interactions are sabotaged by a man who uses language brutally, carelessly, with care only for emotion instead of meaning?
Language matters. It mattered in the mid-twentieth century, when Orwell was writing about it. And it matters today, in 2017. Language is, at the most fundamental level who we are. It is our calling card and our résumé, our poetry and our self-portrait. How tragic to reduce it all to juvenile tweets and snarling braggadocio.
Sasha Abramsky’s 2013 book,“The American Way of Poverty,’ was listed by The New York Times as one of the 100 notable books of the year. His new book,”Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream,” was released last month by Nation Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.