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.