Mar 25, 2017 by

The Time interview provides unusual insight into the principles and deep structure of Trumpspeak, the political discourse distorting our democracy

donald trump
‘Our first impulse might be to run this verbal stew through a fact-checking rinse’ Photograph: UPI / Barcroft Images

Donald Trump’s elastic connection to reality was richly on display in his interview with Time magazine, published on Thursday. Much of what the president said was unsurprising – that is, to those who have spent the past two months radically recalibrating their standards of what counts as presidential speech.

Devoted to the topic of “truth and falsehoods”, the interview gave the president a chance to substantiate or explain his most offensive deformations of the factual record – that Muslims danced in the streets of the New Jersey as the Twin Towers crumbled, that 3 million undocumented aliens threw the popular vote in Hillary Clinton’s favor, that Ted Cruz’s father trucked with Lee Harvey Oswald, and that Barack Obama tapped the phone of then candidate Trump.

Predictably, the president offered nothing in the way of substantiation or contrition. Instead, he overwhelmed his interviewer with such a profusion of misstatements, half-truths, dodges and red herrings that one grows dizzy trying to untangle it all.

Our first impulse might be to run this verbal stew through a fact-checking rinse. But as Spinoza once said about scripture, sometimes it’s better to study a text for its meaning, not its truth.

In this regard, the Time interview is a particularly helpful document, as it provides unusual insight into the principles and deep structure of Trumpspeak, the untethered political discourse presently distorting our democracy.

What follows is an informal inventory of the most revealing quotes:

  1. “I didn’t say that. I was referring to … a newspaper story with … a picture of Ted Cruz, his father, and Lee Harvey Oswald, having breakfast.”

In Trumpspeak, a speaker can never be accused of lying if he’s simply repeating the statements of others; it is the responsibility of those who make original claims to check for the accuracy and truthfulness of their assertions, not the person who repeats them – even if that person happens to be the most powerful person and speaker on the planet.

2 “But wiretapping was in quotes.”

Trumpspeak is figurative. It lives in quotation marks. This is not only because Trumpspeak works by repeating the statements of others (see point 1), but because it is gestural, performative. Trumpspeak is unscripted; words cascade forth only to be rearranged and endlessly massaged to say whatever is needed in the moment.

3. “Sweden. I make a statement, everyone goes crazy. The next day they have a massive riot, and death, and problems.”

In Trumpspeak, truth is not factual, it’s imagistic (this is related to point 2). Truthful statements do not necessarily offer an accurate account of events in the world. They provide an approximation or exaggeration of something that might, in theory, have occurred. Whether a terror attack in Sweden ever took place on the night named by the president is irrelevant. Nor should we care that the riot was not massive and there was no death. Close and maybe are good enough.

4. “Remember they said there was no way to get to 270? Well I ended up at 306.”

Trumpspeak confuses prophecy with honesty. The president accurately predicted his electoral victory and therefore must be a man of his word. Conversely, if a news organization failed to correctly anticipate the president’s win at the polls, Trumpspeak treats this as evidence of the falsity and mendacity of that organization’s reportage about all of reality.

5. “The country believes me.”

In Trumpspeak, belief is a signal of truth. If his supporters believe him, then what Trump is saying must be true. Conversely, if his detractors disbelieve him, this too is evidence that what he is saying must be true. In Trumpspeak, detractors claim Trump is a liar because they are his detractors; and in calling Trump a liar, they in fact are lying.

6. “I’m president, and you’re not.”

Finally, Trumpspeak is transactional. It places no independent value on truth. The value of speech is to be measured exclusively in terms of its effects. If a statement gets me closer to my goal, then it is valuable; if it does not, it is worthless.

Valuable statements, then, are true by virtue of the fact that they advance my interests. Statements that fail to do so are worthless and thus false. I was elected president, so that means that every statement that got me here has validity.

This does not claim to be an exhaustive list of the principles of Trumpspeak. Nor do I mean to suggest that Trumpspeak is a conscious construct of the president. In the Time interview, Trump describes himself as a “very instinctual person”, and however we parse this obscure characterization of self, we should acknowledge the president’s peculiar gift at concocting verbal mayhem.

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