In 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump told a South Carolina rally: “I know words... I have the best words.”
Ever since, President Trump’s big, beautiful words have changed the way Americans talk, and how we talk to each other. From new words like “bigly” and “yuge” and “covfefe,” to cultural touchstones like “you’re fired” and “fake news” and “Make America Great Again,” we’re all fluent in Trump.
There’s even an informal “Trump Style Guide,” seen most clearly on Twitter:
1) Capitalization highlights words he considers “important,” e.g. our great Country, our incredible Farmers.
2) Quotation marks are used for emphasis (not sarcasm), e.g. Joe Biden “bungled” everything that he touched.
3) “Rules” are meant to be Broken!!! Sentence structure, punctuation and spelling are abandoned as needed.
A study of Trump’s tweets from CNN and the website Factba.se found nearly 200 grammatical errors or typos since Trump took office, about once a week, ranging from common (“Capital Hill”) to pretty bad (First Lady “Melanie” Trump).
Word choice is famously a part of Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of Trump as well. In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Baldwin said that he envisions the president’s pause-filled cadence as: “He was always straining to find a stronger, better word in his language … and never found it.”
But grammar and Twitter aside, there’s no question that Trump is a master of political communication.
Against more polished politicians, his direct, impromptu speech reads as authentic, and his devastating, cut-to-the-core nicknames and “un-p.c.” language strike a nerve. There’s an argument that Trump’s straight-to-his-audience tweets and constant presence in the press is closer to the intent of democracy, a man of the people without the filter of bureaucracy and handlers.
But Trump’s words don’t inform as much as they entertain – or distract. In John Bolton’s new book, he describes how Trump used inflammatory tweets over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to distract away from Ivanka Trump’s use of a personal email server. It was catnip to the press, dominating the news cycle precisely as planned.
The truth is, Trump is proof that spelling and grammar don’t really matter in politics any more. (Sorry, Dan Quayle.)
Politics used to be about persuasion: two sides arguing about ideas to convince the middle. In today’s reality of division and anger, politics is more about turning out the base, so language is used instead to signal agreement and stoke emotion with our own “tribe.”
More than one losing politician has wondered if they were even speaking the same language as the voters.
We can’t even agree on the meaning of words any more. Take “woke,” for example. Is it an aspiration, or an insult? Is “All Lives Matter” inspiring, or is it racist?
Maybe we’re just not listening.
But if there’s a “Red English” and a “Blue English” to go along with our segmented media diets and social-media bubbles, how will we ever understand each other?
Or will it be one history and language for Red America, and another for Blue America? Instead of memorizing the Gettysburg Address, which tweet will it be for future generations?
Fortunately, words are still going to be around after Trump. The same words he uses and mis-uses today will be used to write the history books (and tell-all accounts) that will serve as the ultimate judgment.
But if the lasting legacy of this political moment is a permanent fracture of our language – our most basic link to each other – politicized to the point where we can’t connect, then even the best words might not be enough to save us.
Dio Tararrel is a political writer and playwright who lives in Salt Lake City.