The president of the United States has many faults, but let’s not ignore this one: He cannot write sentences. If a tree falls in a forrest and no one is there to hear it … wait: Pretty much all of you noticed that mistake, right? Yet Wednesday morning, the president did not; he released a tweet referring to “forrest fires” twice, as if these fires were set by Mr. Gump. Trump’s serial misuse of public language is one of many shortcomings that betray his lack of fitness for the presidency.
Trump’s writing suggests not just inadequate manners or polish—not all of us need be dainty—but inadequate thought. Nearly every time he puts thumb to keypad, he exposes that he has never progressed beyond the mentality of the precollegiate, trash-talking teen.
A few days ago, he wrote the following about the partial government shutdown:
I remain committed to finding an agreemnet that reopens our Government and ensures that our Nation’s borders are safe and secure. I urge Congress to rejoin me in Washington to immediatly pass appropriations legislation …
The eccentric capitalization (“Government,” “Nation’s”) marks this as written by Real Donald Trump, because he is fond of using caps in a fashion that’s part Benjamin Franklin and part Little Rascals. Sadly, the misspellings only reinforce that sourcing, accompanied elsewhere in the missive by “commonsense” and “shut down.”
One must not automatically equate sloppy spelling with sloppy thinking. Quite a few admired writers are not great spellers before editing. The problem here is that he neither checked the tidiness of this message before it went out to the public, nor asked anyone else to take that step, about an issue as dire as an interruption of governmental services (Governmental Services?). Such negligence is of a piece with Trump’s general disregard of norms, details, and accuracy.
Ted Cruz is totally unelectable, if he even gets to run (born in Canada). Will loose big to Hillary. Polls show I beat Hillary easily! WIN!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 31, 2016
Trump’s blindness to the basics of adult-level composition is so amply documented that it might now seem normal, which is why it’s instructive to contrast Trump with Harry Truman. He wrote to his future wife, Bess, in 1912:
Say, it sure is a grand thing that I have a high-school dictionary handy. I even had to look on the back to see how to spell the book itself. The English language so far as spelling goes was created by Satan I am sure.
Truman’s unquestioned attendance to spelling dictionary correctly contrasts neatly with Trump’s casually distributing misspellings like “agreemnet,” especially because Truman was the last American president who did not have a college degree. Truman, writing to a loved one, wanted to get the word dictionary right; Trump, writing to the entire nation, is happy with a half-dozen flubs in one terse tweet. The sheer lack of focus on Trump’s part, and by extension, the staff who should be vetting messages like this, is stunning.
Saving this for postority. pic.twitter.com/wmnanHjPWF— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) January 21, 2017
One could call this critique a mere matter of formalism. However, Trump-talk is more than typos. In his actual speech, Trump presents an oddly abbreviated rendition of English, reminiscent of languages when they are dying out or compromised in some way.
For example, Trump is given to talking about “doing” things when most would choose a more specific verb. Last summer, Trump bragged of having told Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May “how to do Brexit.” “Do” it? Like “doing” Cats, or shots? Mere do does rather gracelessly drag the statement down to the cold, hard pavement. Trump also hopes he can “do” a wall in Mexico: “That’s 13,000 miles,” he said. “Here, we actually need 1,000 because we have natural barriers. So we need 1,000. We can do a wall. We’re going to have a big, fat, beautiful door right in the middle of the wall.”
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Trump’s love of “doing” might indicate his professed expertise in deal making. One does—colloquially, at least—“do” a deal, and Trump supposes that Brexit and the border wall will result from “dealing.” But this very assumption reflects an inability to grapple with the complexities of state matters. He simply cannot accept—cannot grasp—that international diplomacy could possibly require more subtlety than a real-estate transaction. His phrasing suggests someone taking in nothing from the urgent happenings around him, someone refusing to read his briefs or anything else.
Truman is useful again, in that he had a hankering to catch, at least once in his life, Lucia di Lammermoor. Not that he was any great fan of classical music, mind you: “I have never seen Lucia and I am curious to know how much torture one has to endure to get to hear the sextet,” he wrote to Bess. However, you only go around once, and Truman had a basic desire to experience something beyond himself and the ordinary—to grow. Trump—have we ever seen him even tap his foot to music or give any sign of enjoying it?—doesn’t learn from what is around him; he does not grow. A president should.
It’s not only do that Trump overuses. “Absolutely, we could call a national emergency because of the security of our country,” he said recently. Once again, Trump goes for the gutbucket, one-size-fits-all Anglo-Saxon grunt word: call. “Call” a national emergency? Like calling a foul or a time-out in a dodgeball game? Most would prefer declare here; it’s hardly a $10 lexical oddity, but simply the verb most conventionally used with emergency.
More to the point, to “call” an emergency is different from “declaring” it. There is an almost juvenile perspective in the idea that an emergency be “called,” as if a few people huddled and made a quick decision amidst some sporting match. A declaration, by contrast, implies more deliberation, and the views of more people, about matters of more importance. Trump appears to be mentally in a Queens public schoolyard in the 1950s with guys “calling it” in assorted ways.
Even if Trump imagines this “call” as being preceded by the appropriate sober deliberations, overall Trump’s vocabulary reveals a grievous vagueness—which masks an even more grievous specificity. His use of “very” is illustrative here. During the campaign he said, “I have a very, very powerful plan that’s on my website … ” and that “I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Putin, and I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Russia” given that Putin “has very strong control over a country.” In a tweet last year, he crowed:
Chrysler is moving a massive plant from Mexico to Michigan, reversing a years long opposite trend. Thank you Chrysler, a very wise decision. The voters in Michigan are very happy they voted for Trump/Pence. Plenty of more to follow!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2018
“Very wise,” “very happy” (and very high on typos for a single tweet)—Trump uses this word less as an intensifier than as the linguistic equivalent of a sartorial accessory. It is similar, of all things, to a word in Chinese that technically means “very” but is so often paired with adjectives that it has come to mean, simply, “an adjective is coming.” In the same way, to Trump, very is a kind of hat to plunk on an adjective he’s about to use, to make it pop a bit.
Very aside, why doesn’t he use the words other people would use, such as productive rather than good in “good relationship with Putin” or comprehensive rather than powerful in “powerful plan that’s on my website”? Claims that he is exhibiting signs of dementia are, in my view, premature and unnecessary. A more economical analysis is that Trump actually intends the words he uses, in all of their inadequacy.
What moves Trump is the idea that important people like him, and thus that their relationship is “good”—not that their relationship might be productive, that is to say, might yield something of value for the country. Trump is moved more by power itself than what power can accomplish, or what underlies it, and so comprehensive doesn’t come to him. Similarly, to Trump, to “call” something is about him calling the shots or blowing a whistle; a declaration, usually quieter and effected via consensus, has less appeal. Yet Trump senses, on some level, that the adjectives he intends are somewhat inept in the presidential context. His solution: to dress them up with very, substituting rhetorical volume for substance.
Trump’s admirers might see him as a straight shooter, focused on telling us what’s on his mind, too busy doing the right things to bother with niceties. The tragedy is that in his hurried, lexically impoverished blurts, Trump almost daily shows us that what’s on his mind is very little.