You campaign in poetry, according to a popular saying, and govern in prose.
Donald Trump will be impeached in doggerel. I mean his own.
The other day he turned to the bounteous trove of the English language for a pejorative worthy of his critics' awfulness, at least as he sees it. He decided on "human scum."
He sought to capture the horror and injustice befalling him. What he came up with was "lynching."
There's being crude with language, there's being loose with it, and then there's being Trump, who uses words the way a toddler does marbles, grabbing the ones that are most bluntly colorful and tossing them into the air just because he can.
Trump is as inept at English as he is at governing. He's oxymoronic: a nativist who can't really speak his native tongue.
Too harsh? I direct you to "perfect." That is how, over and over, he has characterized his telephone conversation with the president of Ukraine, and seldom has a term existed in such tension with truth.
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"Perfect" is Nadia Comaneci on the uneven bars at the 1976 Olympics. "Perfect" is Frank Sinatra singing Summer Wind.
"Perfect" is not an insistence that a foreign government smear a political rival when you're just emerging from a two-year investigation into whether you had another foreign government do precisely that. But then Trump seems to have placed his dictionary on the same unreachable shelf where his conscience gathers dust.
As the impeachment inquiry intensifies and the evidence against him accumulates, his vocabulary becomes more perverse — in its estrangement from reality, in its desperation, in its broken-record repetitiveness, in its sheer clumsiness.
The screeching of the raccoons in Central Park is more coherent and less feral. They're merely nervous when my dog approaches. Trump is petrified as Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff close in.
"Crazy Nancy," he said at a recent rally in Dallas, where his epic self-pity and all-consuming grudges took center stage. "Think of that. That crazy Nancy. She is crazy. And shifty Schiff. How about this guy? He makes up my conversation, which was perfect. He makes up my conversation. He sees what I said. It doesn't play well because it was perfect." Give the president a thesaurus and a therapist, though not necessarily in that order.
He added: "The do-nothing Democrats have betrayed our country, and that great betrayal is over. We are finally again, and we've been doing it now for almost three years." Doing what? Again how? This wasn't a speech; it was a puzzle. "Can you believe we've been doing this for three years? Can you believe it? I've been a politician for three years. I can't believe that." Trust me, President Trump. Your incredulity is no match for mine.
It has been the case from the start that Trump communicates like no president before him. That's principally because he mis-communicates like no president before him. And while his verbal errors and infelicities are largely accidental, they're hardly incidental.
They're a semantic complement to his flouting of tradition and junking of norms. They help prevent him from being tagged as one of the elitists he rails against. No snob would spell so sloppily or use capital letters with such abandon. No snob would be so lavish with schoolyard slurs. No snob would thrash and flail his way through sentences the way he does. On Twitter in particular, Trump doesn't exclaim; he expectorates. You can feel the spittle several time zones away.
And Twitter suits him not just because of its immediacy and reach. It's a format so abridged and casual that botched grammar isn't necessarily equated with stupidity; it could simply be the consequence of haste or convenience. Formally written letters follow rules and demand etiquette. For Twitter all you need is a keypad and a spleen.
But Trump seems even more splenetic of late. He raged for nearly 90 minutes in Dallas a week and a half ago. He raged for more than 70 in that wild Cabinet meeting on Monday, when he claimed three times in a row, as if stuttering, that being president had cost him between $2 billion and $5 billion; erroneously said that he was the first president to forgo a salary; ridiculously boasted that Miami's airport might be the world's busiest (it's not even in the top 20); dismissed the emoluments clause of the Constitution as "phony"; and careered from one fantasy to the next, covering so much territory with so little truthfulness that media fact-checkers devoted long articles to correcting the record.
In a speech in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, he crowed that "we're building a wall on the border of New Mexico. And we're building a wall in Colorado." He added that "we're building a wall in Texas, and we're not building a wall in Kansas, but they get the benefit of the walls that we just mentioned."
Jared Polis, Colorado's governor, responded with a tweet that noted that "Colorado doesn't border Mexico. Good thing Colorado now offers free full day kindergarten so our kids can learn basic geography." Trump should join them, not just for stuff about maps but also for the lessons on reading comprehension and the vocabulary-building exercises.
His own recent tweets included that doozy that identified his defense secretary not as Mark Esper but as Mark Esperanto, a mistake too grand to be chalked up to autocorrect. No, it's more likely the sign of a haunted mind.
I've written before that Trump, "in terms of the transparency with which he shows us the most eccentric and ugliest parts of himself," may inadvertently be "the most honest president in my lifetime." His language is obviously central to that. It's a glimpse into his fury and fears.
It becomes sloppier when he's panicked, more visceral when he's vulnerable, more wildly hyperbolic and wickedly imprecise when he's making a counterfeit show of strength.
He's in a bad spot now, and "perfect" reflects that, an adjectival overreach so ludicrous that it doesn't make you rethink the negative (and accurate) interpretations of the phone call; it makes you think Trump has lost his marbles.
"Lynching" raises the temperature dozens of degrees from "hoax" and "witch hunt," his go-to phrases for Robert Mueller's investigation. "Human scum" is the howl of a trapped animal. And his unfinished thoughts, enigmatic references and sentence fragments reflect his confusion about how to wriggle free.
His torture of English is rooted in the torture of being Trump — with all those wants, all that need, all that vanity, all that spite. He's never eloquent and barely articulate but always expressive, because you say a lot when you say it all wrong.
Written by: Frank Bruni
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES