Donald Trump has an instinct for doing violence to language.
Using words to lie destroys language.
Using words to cover up lies – however subtly – destroys language.
Validating incomprehensible drivel with polite reaction also destroys language.
This isn’t merely a question of the prestige of the writing art or the credibility of the journalistic trade: it is about the basic survival of the public sphere.
Writing in Russian was a challenging exercise akin to navigating a mine field: one misstep could discredit the entire enterprise.
Compared to this writing in English was freedom.
But then things in Russia got worse.
A new government came in and did new damage to the language.
Vladimir Putin declared a ‘dictatorship of the law’.
His main ideologue advanced the idea of ‘managed democracy’.’
Temporary president Dmitry Medvedev said ‘Freedom is better than unfreedom’.
Now words did not mean their opposite anymore.
They just meant nothing.
The phrase ‘dictatorship of the law’ is so incoherent as to render both ‘dictatorship’ and ‘law’ meaningless.
Donald Trump has an instinct for doing both of these kinds of violence to language.
He is particularly adept at taking words and phrases that deal with power relationships and turning them into their opposite.
This was for example how he used the phrase ‘safe space’ when talking about vice-president-elect Mike Pence’s visit to the musical Hamilton.
Pence if you recall was booed and then passionately—and respectfully—addressed by the cast of the show.
Trump was tweeting that this should not have happened.
Now, the phrase ‘safe space’ was coined to describe a place where people who usually feel unsafe and powerless would feel exceptionally safe.
Claiming that the second most powerful man in the world should be granted a ‘safe space’ in public turns the concept precisely on its head.
Trump performed the exact same trick on the phrase ‘witch hunt’ which he claimed was being carried out by Democrats to avenge their electoral loss.
Witch hunts cannot actually be carried out by losers – big or small: the agent of a witch hunt must have power.
And of course has seized and flipped the term ‘fake news’ in much the same way.
But 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: