The Left Needs a Language Potent Enough to Counter Trump
The president’s rhetoric is dangerously populist in nature, and the left doesn’t know how to fight it.
This article was updated on August 18, 2019 at 3:08 pm.
Perhaps it isn’t possible to establish a direct connection between the El Paso massacre and the president. Anticipating that Donald Trump would be held responsible, the killer insisted in an online rant that his own white-supremacist views predated the 2016 election, and that blaming the president would be “fake news.” Perhaps the killer’s denunciations of a “Hispanic invasion” and of Democratic politicians using “open borders” to achieve political power resembled the president’s language by sheer coincidence. Perhaps the killer’s retweets and shares of Trump’s Twitter posts can’t be laid at the president’s feet.
Terrorism in America isn’t state-sponsored, and Trump isn’t the kind of strongman who orders his followers to commit acts of violence. He’s like a boy who starts tossing matches near a gasoline spill to see what happens. He rouses ugly emotions and lets the chips fall, in the belief that he’ll come out on top. At a rally in the Florida Panhandle he raised the specter of the Border Patrol turning violence against migrants: “We can’t let them use weapons … I would never do that. But how do you stop these people?”
Having set the image loose, Trump could only smile and pause for the roar of approval when a woman in the crowd yelled, “Shoot them!” He didn’t put the words in her mouth, but he made it likelier that someone would speak them. He didn’t urge a massacre of Latino shoppers on the Texas border, but he made it possible for a 21-year-old white supremacist to think he had the president’s support.
In the days before this past weekend of horror, I read a book called The Language of the Third Reich by the German scholar Victor Klemperer. Klemperer, a Jew who was married to a non-Jew, survived the entire Nazi reign in Dresden. His diary of those 12 years, published posthumously in the 1990s, recorded daily life under the Third Reich so scrupulously, so objectively, with such attention to ordinary detail, that the reader lives through the almost too-familiar story of Germany’s descent into barbarism as if each step were as shocking, unbelievable, and yet inexorable as it was to him.
Klemperer was a literary historian, and to preserve his mental balance under Nazi rule he used his diary to continue doing the academic work from which, as a Jew, he was officially banned: He studied the language of the Third Reich. He recorded how, after Hitler took power, certain words in various forms—Volk, fanatisch—soon became ubiquitous in public and in private; how religious terms imbued the ruling ideology; how euphemisms such as evacuation and concentration camp were coined to make massive crimes sound bureaucratically legitimate; how the German language grew impoverished and uniform; how Nazi language became a total system outside of which Germans could no longer think, and which did the thinking for them, to the bitter end.
Klemperer’s diary is the work for which he became famous, but he intended it only as raw material for a book he wrote right after the war. The Language of the Third Reich is little known compared with the diary, but it deserves a place on the shelf of essential books on totalitarianism. In a chapter on fascist rhetoric, Klemperer wrote:
“But a speech was not only more important than it had been previously, it was also, of necessity, different in nature. In addressing itself to everyone rather than just select representatives of the people it had to make itself comprehensible to everyone and thus become more populist. Populist [volkstumlich] means more concrete: the more emotional a speech is, the less it addresses itself to the intellect, the more populist it will be. And it will cross the boundary separating populism from demagogy and mass seduction as soon as it moves from ceasing to challenge the intellect to deliberately shutting it off and stupefying it.”
Klemperer seems to be describing Trump’s speeches—the raw rhetoric that incited a crowd in North Carolina to chant “Send her back!” and a woman in Florida to shout “Shoot them!” After the El Paso killings, the Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, a native of the city, called Trump’s demonizing language “reminiscent of something that you might hear in the Third Reich, not something that you expect in the United States of America.” In a period in America when mass killings and hateful presidential rhetoric are both at all-time highs, it’s a forgivable analogy. But Trump’s populism—the politics of championing the common people against their supposed enemies, evoking strong emotions in demotic language—is American. That’s why it’s been successful, and consistently underestimated by Trump’s opponents.
The language of the Third Reich—Hitler’s speeches, Goebbels’s newspaper articles, books of Nazi theory, government diktats, the pervasion of all these through everyday life—kept the German people in a state of perpetual fervor, bordering on hysteria, to the last cataclysmic days of the war. Every day was historic, the highest word of praise was fanatic, and Hitler’s rants against Jews and other enemies were also summons to superhuman feats of exertion and sacrifice on behalf of the highest cause—Führer and Fatherland. The appeal of Nazi language was emotional and irrational, as Klemperer wrote, but it didn’t just lower those who came under its spell. It also aroused the most sinister form of inspiration in history.
Compare this to the language of Trump’s populism. There’s not a breath of inspiration in it. The crowds attend his rallies for red meat—Hillary Clinton, Ilhan Omar, Mexicans, the media, corrupt “elites” of various kinds—and go home satisfied. Nothing whatsoever is asked of them. Their hero never paints a convincing picture of what American greatness would like look—whenever he tries to sound in any way idealistic, as in his Fourth of July speech at the Lincoln Memorial, a false note strains his voice, and you almost think he’s about to crack a smile. There’s no purpose higher than fun, excitement, and power—his own and that of his people, the “real” people.
Populist rhetoric can be uplifting—think of William Jennings Bryan’s “cross of gold” speech at the Democratic Convention in 1896. But the populism of Trump, his followers, and his party brings the cruel, cynical atmosphere of Jersey Shore to national politics. It levels everyone downward together. A recent study by three Italian political scientists found that the longer Italians are exposed to trash TV, the more likely they are to vote for populist candidates (on both the left and the right). It’s hard to believe the same isn’t true in this country.
The Nazi project required neologisms and euphemisms to shape the minds of the German people ideologically and habituate them to shocking practices. Party leaders were always out in front of the Volk. But Trump doesn’t create anything new—he amplifies existing bigotry and vulgarity by getting rid of taboos. He takes language that’s already popular at the level of talk radio, reality TV, social media, and sports bars, and uses it at the highest level of power. Here’s a tweet from one of his Twitter fans, @ThatTrumpGuy, calling attention to a video from the Mexican border: “BOOM! Watch these Homeland Security officers go beast mode on some liberal protesters who were in their way.” That’s the authentic sound of Trump’s populism. His followers like to cite his language as a virtue: He says what ordinary people think and politicians are afraid to say. But it turns out that whipping up hatred of outsiders, minorities, the weak, and the desperate doesn’t require any special courage.
The strength of Trump’s populist language lies in its openness. It requires no expert knowledge and has no code of hidden meanings. It’s attuned to some of the strongest currents in American pop culture, and it gives rise almost spontaneously to memorable slogans—“Build the wall,” “Lock her up,” “Witch hunt,” “No collusion,” “Make America great again.” It’s the way people talk when the inhibitors are off. It’s available to anyone who’s willing to join the mob. Susan Hunston, an English professor at the University of Birmingham, in the U.K., made a study of Trump’s speech and found it utterly unlike that of most other politicians: “There is, then, evidence that Trump’s language is highly distinctive, but that this distinctiveness aligns him with scenarios of casual conversation. Although his language, both in content and in style, is odd for a political leader, it is familiar to his audience. It is the true language of populism.”
For decades conservatives used an intellectual language that befit a movement of ideas. William F. Buckley favored obscure words of four or five syllables; Ronald Reagan championed the mandarin syntax of the columnist George Will; Newt Gingrich liked to talk about a struggle for American civilization. But with the rise of right-wing media, populist language began to seep into conservative discourse like a bad-smelling gas. During the Trump era it’s become the lingua franca of the American right. A few pro-Trump conservatives have tried to give his politics a high gloss—for example, the University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, arguing for the exclusion of immigrants coming from what Trump called “shithole countries,” uses the phrase cultural-distance nationalism. But attempts at elevation never stick. Trumpism without trash talk loses its essence.
The crudeness of Trump’s rhetoric makes it both dangerous and politically potent. By contrast, the language of the contemporary left is anti-populist. Its vocabulary, much of it taken from academia, is the opposite of accessible—it has to be decoded and learned. Terms such as centered, marginalized, intersectional, non-binary, and Eurocentric gender discipline separate outsiders from insiders—that’s part of their intent, as is the insistence on declaring one’s personal pronouns and showing an ability to use them accordingly. Even common words like ally and privilege acquire a resonance that takes them out of the realm of ordinary usage, because the point of this discourse is to create a sense of special virtue. Many of these changes happen by ambush—suddenly and irrevocably, with no visible trail of discussion and decision, and with quick condemnation of holdouts—which gives them a powerful mystique.
The language of the left creates a hierarchy of those who get it and those who don’t. Mastering the vocabulary is a way of signaling entry into a select world of the knowing and the just. The system is closed—there’s an internal logic that can be accepted or rejected but isn’t open to argument or question. In this sense, though much of the language of the left has academic origins, its use in the public square is almost religious. The abandonment of language that brings people in rather than shutting them out is one of the left’s many structural disadvantages in American politics today.
For most of U.S. history, from Thomas Paine to Eugene Debs to Martin Luther King Jr., the left had a populist language of its own. It used a simple vocabulary and spoke in universal moral terms that appealed to the basic goodness in people rather than inventing a sophisticated hierarchical code to label their ills. It created insiders and outsiders, but they weren’t divided between the knowing and the unilluminated, the woken and the sleeping. The populism of the left posed the same opposition as Trump’s—the people against the elites—but with very different sets of characters.
You still hear notes of this language in the speeches of Senator Elizabeth Warren, with her talk of a “rigged” economy. Though she’s spent most of her adult life in universities, she speaks with a natural plainness that reminds you of her prairie origins. But she’s running for the presidential nomination of a party whose new activists think in and are constrained by a hermetic language of the chosen few. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, another candidate, has embraced it with the zeal of a convert, and at times Warren seems to come under its influence. Trump, with his sadistic instinct for the weaknesses of others, has learned how to hurt Democrats by using divisive rhetoric and waiting for them to walk into a trap of self-enclosure they can’t see. He won’t hesitate to use an event as terrible as El Paso to keep this logic working in his favor. A force as dark and powerful as Trump’s populism can be defeated only by an equal and opposite force.