The Unmonitored President

Trump is the first president who, rather than striding forward and speaking, just gets up and talks.

Leah Mills / Reuters

“I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia. Sort of a double negative. So you can put that in. And I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”

In this post-Helsinki feint in defense of his endorsement of Vladimir Putin’s denial about meddling in America’s election over the ironclad findings of the FBI, Donald Trump’s hallmark traits were on display in rather awesome consistency. The mendacity was as serene, the ignorance as infinite, and the sensitivity to protocol as numb as always—and all complemented by the now-familiar clubfooted approach to language. “Sort of” a double negative: Why the sloppy hedge on something so urgent, except as a giveaway that he knew he was lying? “Clarifies things pretty good”: That good is solid, backyard-barbecue colloquial, but mightn’t we use the form that goes with wearing a tie and speaking to the world: well?

And so it went in the run-up to this whole catastrophe. His estimation of NATO: “I believe NATO’s a very important—probably the greatest ever done.” But, a very important what? Greatest what? And whatever unspecified kind of institution had slipped off of his mental parsing tree, just what makes NATO apparently the most estimable example in world history of whatever it is?

“I told May how to do Brexit,” he crowed—but a complex process like Brexit is more something one superintends, executes, or, even if one seeks a less lofty tone, handles. One does rock, paper, scissors; one does kegs at a frat party—upon which it is relevant that one talks of “doing Brexit” over beers. His take on immigration to Europe: “You go through certain areas that didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago.” If Trump is perceiving new terrains emerging from the time-space continuum, it perhaps evidences the genius-level intelligence he imputes to himself.

But more plausibly, this was just unconsidered. Reading and hearing the president’s statements on grave matters of state, it’s hard to remember that it was the president who phrased them that way. Many find the way Trump expresses himself irritating, and not just in terms of uncharitable content, but in terms of sheer style and feel. Some have even speculated that his speech indicates mental deterioration.

However, what that analysis gains in drama it loses in scientific necessity. The essence of “Trumptalk” is something quite ordinary, what linguists call unmonitored language. The kink is that formality, impact, and gravity typically elicit monitored language. Writing is deliberate, allowing us to edit, amend, and correct. The formal statement—as in, to the American public and the world beyond—is typically either read from writing, or even if ad libbed is couched carefully and reflectively in the same air as writing. Unmonitored language is most of the language in the typical person’s life: casual speech, texts, tweets. Humans are genetically specified to use it and none has ever been known to lack it—it comes easily.

Trump takes it easy. It only compounds the pain and embarrassment so many Americans feel when watching spectacles such as his taking a knee before a foreign power accused of harming the U.S. electoral process. It’s bad enough that Trump lacks the substance to care about his job beyond how it impacts his score-keeping sense of ego. What makes it worse is that—in line with his lecturing government leaders on the basis of gut feelings, blithely stepping in front of the Queen, scarfing his Big Macs, and lacking an impulse to even pretend to have any interest in the arts—he is the first president who, rather than striding forward and speaking, just gets up and talks. Welcome to the queer circumstance of unmonitored language as officialese.

This improvisatory approach to communication explains all else that grates and perplexes about how this man shares his mind. Trump’s tweets often contain random capitalization: “Jerry Brown is trying to back out of the National Guard at the Border, but the people of the State are not happy. Want Security & Safety NOW!” Here, he is of all things antiquarian—by accident, of course. There was a vogue for using capitals in this way in English in the late-17th and early-18th centuries. Before English was standardized, many writers chose to capitalize words on a whim to lend a hit of Mrs. Dash. This was often done inconsistently, with some nouns capitalized and some not.

Even presidents weren’t immune: John Adams wrote in 1804: “We braced our feet against the Bed boards and Bedsteads to prevent us from having our Brains bashed out against the Planks and Timbers of the Ship.” Why not capitalize feet? Maybe because feet seem a tad undignified compared to planks? That’s a shaky case, especially when requiring us to limn bashed-out Brains as of a higher station than feet. Adams was “just writing” to his son.

Today, Trump tweets to the world in the same spontaneous, come-what-may frame of mind, growling to the media that he capitalizes “for emphasis” as if he were writing in the Jacksonian era, the last era in which anyone who wanted to be taken seriously was using capitals in this way. Trump misses that the very context of a statement coming from a president conveys a kind of emphasis in itself—because he is simply “talking,” which also explains his fondness for Twitter, a kind of fingered speech.

Or take the fact that in the very tweet in which Trump trumpeted his right to use capitals for emphasis, he told us that “the Fake News constantly likes to pour over my tweets looking for a mistake.” Unless Trump intended the liquid connotation, this is a typo, and a rather glaring one—suggesting again a basic lack of attention. Here is a president who is sharing with us without checking it over first. Generously, we might imagine that he uses a spell-check but that even such programs miss misspellings that are other words, such as pour. But this analysis founders upon Trump’s references in other tweets to “unpresidented” acts, such as President Barack Obama daring to “tapp” his phone. Trump clearly is no champion speller—“NO COLUSION” was scrawled on the typescript of his “double negative” script. Many of us aren’t—but we’d make sure nobody knew it if we were president. Trump can’t be bothered.

He who capitalizes state for no reason quite naturally pours over press criticisms of his performance—or, shall we say, press covfefe. This has been perhaps the most confounding token of Trumptalk yet, when the president regaled us one night with a complaint about “constant negative press covfefe.” The word is less mysterious than it seems—the issue is less what it means than what would lead someone to write it, and a quick look at your hands on a keyboard pretty much gives it away. Trump started to write coverage, but after the v, a finger, likely the pointer, drifted up to the f, after which the middle finger settled down upon the e up to the northwest, which lifted the pointer up a bit only to settle back down, followed by the middle finger one more time … That is, the commander in chief fell asleep at the keyboard (in his language, Fell Asleep), typed gibberish by accident, and upon jerking awake, finished the tweet and hit send without even checking the text. The covfefe text is likely the first verbiage a president has ever sent from the most utterly unmonitored of realms a human regularly inhabits: the Land of Nod.

Monitored language aims outward, referring to and addressing the wider world. Unmonitored language tends to be more about the self, more personal—hence something that always seems faintly juvenile about Trumptalk, his use of total and totally. “She totally likes you,” a young man says to another, against which we might compare Trump’s recent claim that he deserves “total credit” for increasing NATO’s contribution to defense spending. “I deserve total credit” sounds like something one of Trump’s grandsons would say, but actually reveals Trump in a finer grain. “She totally likes you” does not mean that she likes you in a complete fashion. The man saying that is implying, with that usage of total, that some people may deny that she likes you but that in actuality she does. Similarly, “We’re totally getting tickets” implies an unspoken reason that some might expect us not to. “I deserve total credit,” then, means People think I don’t deserve credit but I do. In other words, Trump’s use of total stems from his defensiveness of his own fragile ego. We seek a report in monitored language from the NATO summit, and Trump gives us unmonitored language about what he thinks about … himself.

Trumptalk is partly a sign of the times. Not too many decades ago, someone seeking political office and communicating like Trump would have been jeered into obscurity after his first few sentences at the lectern. However, that was also an era when men wore hats, dances had steps, and premarital sex was officially treated as sinful. In a less cosseted America, public oratorical standards have inevitably changed as well, such that figures like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin could achieve considerable influence despite having flagrant trouble rubbing a noun and a verb together.

Bush, however, always seemed a touch embarrassed at his gaffe-prone nature, and Palin, as quiet as it’s kept, is actually a much more fluent writer than she is a speaker—no silly Capitalization and misspeling for her. Yet as history defines deviance downward as always, it is hardly a surprise that today someone can become president who takes this linguistic come-as-you-are attitude a step further, with no sense of public service as something larger and more deliberate than yammering, petulant chest beating and trash talk. Naturally, then, he is comfortable arrantly lying about meaning to say the opposite of what he said about Putin, as if people typically leave off something as crucial as the negating n't when speaking of that which is … not. If it’s all just talk, then certainly furtive fixes are fine, as if presidential statements were scrawls on a blackboard.

Hence we see and hear Trump communicate daily in the unvarnished way we used to only experience from presidents in private tape recordings released decades after the fact. It used to be part of the very definition, albeit tacitly, of being a president that one did not “just talk.” We savor snippets of what Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Barack Obama “just said” in off-the-record reportage and latterly memoirs. But with a president who casually calls third-world countries “shitholes” in formal meetings, the memoirs will teach us little we don’t already know. What used to be peeks at the unvarnished are now just the daily news.

The gaffes, lurches, rudenesses, and infelicities allow, it must be said, a certain transparency. No one could say that Trump uses language to dissimulate: The whole man is always blazingly on view. That’s just the problem: Trump speaks as an unmonitored self, making it up as he goes along, rather than in the monitored style of a nation outlining ideals. Trump is the first president we get to hear on a hot mike 24/7.