This post originally appeared at The Nation.
Let’s start with the words “in the age of Trump.” The phrase currently has more than 17 million Google hits, compared to (and this should cheer POTUS) only 6.6 million for “in the age of Obama.” It’s not just that Trump is the new name in town. It’s that most of us — reds, blues and media of all stripes — need language to come to terms with what seems like a before-and-after split in reality. “…in the age of Trump” will continue to expand because so much — “climate policy,” “truth,” “business ethics,” “empathy and education,” “fashion,” “Cuba,” “apocalyptic thinking,” “journalism,” to grab a few nouns from Google — will be affected one way or the other by this president.
It’s a given that politicians distort language. But — as writers from Masha Gessen to Roger Cohen suggest — by stripping words of meaning, Trump attempts to claim power over reality itself and take the necessary steps toward authoritarian rule.
The following is a glossary of terms that will no doubt grow in tandem with the president’s fits and fixations, and the world’s response to them. First is Trumpspeak, the language that he and his wordsmiths have introduced or popularized, much of it since the inauguration. Next are the words of resistance, used to grasp and combat Trumpism, some working out better than others. Contributing to this second set of terms are voters, activists, progressive media and, this time around, mainstream media, which the Trumpists have been trying discredit as “fake news” and “the opposition party.”
Alternative Facts: Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway coined an instant classic on Meet the Press two days after the inauguration. White House press secretary Sean Spicer, she said, wasn’t telling falsehoods when he told at least four of them during his first press briefing, as Chuck Todd insisted he had. “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck,” said Conway. Spicer, she explained, was simply giving “alternative facts.”
The mockery was instant. Alternative facts, alternative universe. Alt facts, alt-right. Mating “alternative” with “facts” was so brazen that many minds jumped back to their high-school Orwell. In Newspeak, one writer reminded us, “words with negative meanings were removed such that ‘bad’ became ‘ungood.’”
Within days of Conway’s coinage, 1984 shot to #1 on Amazon’s bestseller list. Conway has since called on networks to fire pundits who’ve “talked smack” about Donald Trump. That’s plain English, but from an alternative America.
American Carnage: Probably the most memorable phrase from Trump’s inaugural address, “American carnage” is his justification for authoritarian solutions. It’s Shock Doctrine 101, in which only strong-arm tactics can put an end to the crime, drugs and failure to say “Merry Christmas” that have characterized the Obama years. Both the inaugural speech and the avalanche of executive orders issued the first week — including the disastrous, chaotic Muslim ban — were written by the White House power duo of Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and former Breitbart CEO and Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior adviser for policy and former staffer for attorney-general nominee Jeff Sessions.
The Civilized World: “We will reinforce old alliances. And form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump said in the inaugural speech. We were supposed to get all goose-bumpy that, finally, a POTUS dared speak the magic words “radical Islamic terrorism.” But instead it was “the civilized world” that some of us found so chilling. It suggests a crusade against barbarism and, considering the alt-rightish influence in the White House (see below), it hints at a white-racialist unification of the United States with Europe and Russia, which promises to crush Islam. And then we take their oil — always a form of civilized behavior.
America First, Make America Great Again, Keep America Great: “America first! America first!” Trump pounded the words in his inaugural speech. Much has been written about the precedent for the phrase, which was the slogan of Charles Lindbergh and the isolationist/Nazi-sympathizing movement. (See Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.) Trump shrugged off the association, as he does history. Besides, “America First” reinforces “Make America Great Again” and, soon, “Keep America Great!,” a slogan he trademarked (with and without the exclamation mark) last month for his 2020 campaign.
But “Keep America Great” has its own gruesome associations. It was the tagline for the summer 2016 horror movie The Purge: Election Year. “‘The Purge’ movies,” HuffPost’s Bill Bradley points out, “are about one night a year when all crime is legal. You can murder, steal and even shoot a gun on Fifth Avenue without repercussion.” The slogan, one of the film’s stars explained, was a deliberate troll of Trump.
Alt-right: Trump’s people didn’t coin the term “alt-right.” That would be Richard Spencer, the white supremacist who shouted “Hail Trump! Hail our people!” to Nazi salutes at a confab last November, and who was punched in the face following the inauguration. But Trump’s top man Steve Bannon did far more than Spencer (or his hip-sounding prefix) to inject “alt-right” into mainstream discourse. When Bannon headed up the far-right Breitbart News, he boasted that the site had built “the platform for the alt-right.” Bannon is now bringing even more rabid Breitbarters to work in the White House. And by directing Trump’s winning campaign, he’s made Breitbart and, by extension, the alt-right the popular kids in class. When Politico founding writer and Beltway poobah Mike Allen was trying to woo audience for his new Axios project last month, he genuflected before the site, telling Breitbart radio, “We admire your coverage. We admire what Andrew Breitbart and his successors have built.”
Mainstream media outlets were a little slow to get “alt-right,” but some, like AP standards, have since spelled it out:
Avoid using the term generically and without definition, however, because it is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience. In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist.
Literally, Not Seriously; Seriously, Not Literally: This wasn’t coined by Trumpists either, but some of them, like Peter Thiel and Corey Lewandowski, ran with it. It’s the most plausible positive reading of Trump’s relationship to facts. “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally,” journalist Salena Zito wrote in The Atlantic in September. When Trump won, the nuanced dualism (a descendant of Karl Rove’s reality- vs. faith-based communities) became the wisdom du jour, and some of the more self-flagellating Beltway journalists found a way to frame their own failures; the subtext being that the press are a bunch of coastal, bubble-enclosed, bean counters, while Trump’s people are on the side of poetic license… even of poetry.
Zito was right on “seriously”: The press was largely blind, especially during the primaries, refusing to believe that the guy leading the polls could win.
But Trump’s not the usual politician, or human. Now, sooner than anyone expected, Trump is acting very literally on his promises, on banning Muslims and trying to make Mexico pay for the wall — and the repercussions are seriously and literally threatening our democracy. Wait until we get to the literal blowback from repealing Obamacare.
Size: I guarantee you there’s no problem, but President Trump has made size a national-security concern. He’s not only obsessed with the size of his crowds and his popular vote (an investigation is expected to go forward to prove, against all evidence, that 3 million to 5 million “illegals” voted for Hillary). The obsession extends to anything — ratings, polls, his Cabinet’s IQ — that can be slapped with a superlative, as biggest, best, worst, etc. What is wrong with this man? Maybe he is compensating for feelings that he is…
Illegitimate: In boycotting the inauguration, Rep. John Lewis said he didn’t see Trump as a legitimate president, in part because the Russians helped “this man get elected.” (He might have added in the Comey effect.) But it’s Trump who will forever be known for painting a president as illegitimate. And for reasons he completely pulled out of his ass. Starting around 2011, Donald Trump began performing racist theater, pretending to believe that the first black president was born in Kenya. It may be just deserts that the man who tried to delegitimize Obama will probably never be considered a fully legitimate president himself. But it’s not ironic. It’s the almost mechanical result of his psychological projection: Trump’s own sense of illegitimacy is what made him want to delegitimize Obama in the first place. As Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio writes, Trump is “all about shame — avoiding it himself, and inflicting it on others.” He’ll never be able to prove that he’s classy, famous, rich, smart, powerful or big enough.
Press secretary Spicer admitted as much. He was trying to both explain to the press and blame them for Trump’s focus on crowd size. “It’s demoralizing,” he said. “It’s unbelievably frustrating when you’re continually told it’s not big enough, it’s not good enough, you can’t win.” Bannon put it a little more roughly, telling the media to “keep its mouth shut.”
Sad!: Given that our president is part snowflake, could his signature tweet sign-off be a cry for help? Nah. But “Sad!” truly is the best word of all his best words. The faux sympathy. The pithy sarcasm. We in the opposition salute you, sir. And we cannot resist turning it on you now and then. Perhaps you think it Sad! that we appropriate it. Perhaps you think it free marketing. But it’s now ours, too, and it feels so good. Glad!
TERMS OF RESISTANCE
President Bannon, Bannon’s Puppet: “President Bannon” is winning the election as the phrase most likely to get under Trump’s thin skin. It’s suddenly everywhere, from #StopPresidentBannon to the New York Times editorial “President Bannon?” to “President Bannon’s Hugely Destructive First Week in Office” in Foreign Policy. Steve Bannon was already considered Trump’s Svengali. But what really sealed Bannon’s presidency was the announcement that he, a simple political operative and onetime publisher of a racist, xenophobic website would now have a permanent seat on the National Security Council, while the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would be effectively demoted. Thus far, “President Bannon” is beating out “Bannon’s Puppet” — perhaps because of confusion with “Putin’s Puppet.”
The Fiscal Times asks, “How Long Can Trump Tolerate the ‘President Bannon’ Headlines?” I’m going to guess, as long as they don’t cross the border into his beloved cable shows — and here, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and maybe Joe Scarborough can protect him from having to hear those awful words. Although, maybe SNL will inaugurate a President Bannon.
Authoritarian, Autocrat, Fascist, Strongman: The first two words have come out of storage, not as labels for Trump himself (yet), but in their softer adjectival forms or as nouns for the societal systems he might create. In The Atlantic, never-Trumper David Frum details the “autocracy” we could be living under in 2021 as Trump enters his second term. CNN’s Brian Stelter has been tracking the spread of the word “authoritarianism” in the media and how journalists who’ve lived under such regimes see signs of it here now. Charles Koch warned his fellow rich conservatives that the nation could “go the authoritarian route” (though he bets it won’t, not with his friend Mike Pence in the saddle).
Even “fascist” is breaking through. You hear it, of course, in demonstrations and in “antifa,” short for the antifascist movement. Fascinating discussions thrive online over whether Trump is fascist. But on TV, the term has been muted. Thursday night, however, at an MSNBC town hall at American University, a student asked Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) if he’d agree that Trump is “fascist.” While Murphy warned of grave threats to democracy under Trump, he said, “I don’t know yet that I’m ready to go to that word.”
Carl Bernstein is. In these must-see clips from CNN, he’s been explaining over the last year why he thinks Trump is a “neo-fascist.” Acknowledging that it’s a difficult term for Americans, Bernstein said, “the word ‘neo’ is crucial, because it means new, and it’s a peculiarly American kind of fascism. And fascism is about a maximum leader, who is contemptuous of real democracy — of real democratic institutions — contemptuous of the press and a free press, who extols torture and violence, who incites hatreds.”
Bernstein cites It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel (now an Amazon bestseller), in which a populist Huey Long type rules the nation with an iron fist. The protagonist, a newspaper editor from Vermont, finds it hard to believe, at first, that “the humorous, friendly, happy-go-lucky land of Mark Twain” could produce a Hitler or a Mussolini. “If there ever is a Fascist dictatorship here, American humor and pioneer independence are so marked that it will be absolutely different from anything in Europe.”
Indeed, when today’s media refer to “strongmen” — Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, the kind of brutes Trump seems to admire — they are always safely ensconced far, far away. “Strongman” might seem like a sensible synonym for “dictator,” but let’s not even flirt with importing it. It will backfire. You can see Trump’s tweet now: “Fake news calls me a Strong Man. DUMMIES! That’s a good thing. I’m a man & VERY strong. Not like weak Hillary. She has no stamina, none!”
Normalize: “Normalize” is one of those words about process, like “false equivalency,” that describes how media can reconfigure a nasty reality until it’s made to seem acceptable, or ignorable.
On inauguration night, Anderson Cooper mumbled,“We don’t want to normalize this…” when he handed his show over to full-screen coverage of musical numbers and inaugural balls, without so much as an inset of his CNN panelists. Even Fox didn’t go so completely Dancing with the Stars. Since then, most on-air CNN news staff, including Cooper, have been on a sustained defense of journalism against Trump’s attacks. But whenever a potential ratings bonanza arises, CNN goes for the wall-to-wall coverage, as they — and MSNBC — did by running Trump rallies nightly for weeks during the campaign. That was some Big Normalizing (and, across all media, $5 billion of free advertising).
Then there’s Midsize Normalizing, like Mike Allen’s of Breitbart News (see “Alt-right” above). Or Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski on any given morning, berating the rest of us for not giving Trump “a chance.” Or NBC and MSNBC handing prime real estate over to former Fox Newsers Megyn Kelly and Greta Van Susteren, respectively. Or ABC’s The View reportedly asking its hosts to go soft on Trump aide Omarosa Manigault in order to assure future bookings from the administration.
And nearly everyone in media, myself included, is guilty of Small Normalizing: cute-ifying Trump by calling him “The Donald” or making lame jokes involving the words “yuge,” “you’re fired!” or “hair.” We’re desperate for comic relief. As Ryan Lizza warns in The New Yorker: “One of the dangers in covering an abnormal presidency is that journalists will constantly be on the lookout for signs of normalcy, and exaggerate and even celebrate them as proof that things aren’t so unusual, after all.”
Falsehoods, Lies, Bullshit, Fuckery, Gaslighting: The man who pulled off the greatest grift of all time is skilled in all these techniques. And we can have fun debating whether Trump is more bullshit artist than liar.
But the pragmatic question for the news pages of the nonpartisan press is what to call it. They can barely utter “lies,” much less “bullshit.” In the great but way-too-late journalistic awakening, a few newspapers finally wrote of Trump’s “birther lie.” That came not when it might have done some good — when he declared his presidential run or won the Republican nomination. It wasn’t until Sept. 16, 2016, when Trump admitted that Obama was born in the United States, that The New York Times referred to Trump’s birther “lie.” The Los Angeles Times did so soon afterward. The New York Times stepped up more quickly last week with this headline: “Trump Won’t Back Down From His Voting Fraud Lie. Here Are the Facts.”
Does it matter that the press uses the word “lie” instead of, say, “falsehood,” “unsupported fact,” “false claim,” “fib,” “whopper” or “spin”? There are situations where any of these is appropriate. But “lie,” with its “intent to deceive,” has the potential to help us focus on the larger picture, beyond all the necessary fact-checking. What’s the larger picture? In discussing Trump and Putin, Masha Gessen writes, “Lying is the message.” They both lie “blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.” [Gessen’s italics.]
Fake News: “[P]ut this tainted term out of its misery,” Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan advises journalists. “Simply stop using it.” Instead, she suggests, “call a lie a lie. Call a hoax a hoax. Call a conspiracy theory by its rightful name.”
There’s a strong argument that the more pressing danger to the public weal isn’t fake news but the right-wing media’s delegitimization of real news. And the future of journalism doesn’t hinge on who owns the words “fake news.” In any case, you can’t put it out of its misery — it’s thriving happily as the “Lock her up!” for the media-haters club, of which Trump is the president. Like the word “lie,” the press should keep using it when it applies. Don’t forfeit language.
Love Trumps Hate: A mealy-mouthed, self-defeating and utterly confusing anti-Trump slogan. The first two words: “Love Trumps.” Second two words: “Trumps Hate.” Message: “Love Trump! He trumps hate!” What a mess. Check out George Lakoff about inadvertently reinforcing messages you’re trying to defeat. Stop being a hippie.
Laughless: More and more people, from Al Franken to Chuck Todd, are noticing that Donald Trump doesn’t laugh. I’ve posited that he’s too choked by self-deceit to get what’s so funny, much less to really LOL. It may take a while, but eventually the whole world will also notice that the most powerful person in the universe doesn’t laugh. And maybe they will say, in whatever language they speak, with real or faux sympathy, “Sad, so sad!”