Andrew Jackson was fitfully educated at best, and yet strove to write letters of a certain fluency, as in this missive of 1824: “I have some little leisure time on my hand, when it is a pleasure to me, to hear from, & to answer my friends. It will allways afford me pleasure I assure you, to hear from you.” Dictating or not, Jackson had a sense that in public, language was to be gowned in its Sunday best.
Andrew Johnson’s parents were illiterate, and he was all but uneducated, having apprenticed as a tailor before getting into politics. However, his wife instructed him in the basics of writing, and as an adult he wrote letters couched in elegant prose: “I sincerely regret that the pressure of public business will prevent me from saying more in response thereto than to assure your Society that in all their endeavors for the amelioration of the condition …”—you get it.
Harry Truman started out as a haberdasher and had little interest in the intellectual. Yet he wrote to his wife when they were courting: “Say, it sure is a grand thing that I have a high-school dictionary handy. I even had to look on the back to see how to spell the book itself.” That is, he had a sense that crafted language was something one at least strove toward, even if one didn’t quite reach it.
Compare these examples with that of our current president’s recent tweeting. Trump called Representative Adam Schiff “Liddle’ Adam Schiff,” with an oddly hanging single quote. With this remarked upon by assorted observers, Trump responded:
To show you how dishonest the LameStream Media is, I used the word Liddle’, not Liddle, in discribing Corrupt Congressman Liddle’ Adam Schiff. Low ratings @CNN purposely took the hyphen out and said I spelled the word wrong. A small but never ending situation with CNN!
Now, never mind the “discribing” and the idea that the matter is an issue of “spelling.” More egregiously, Trump may think liddle is somehow short for little, a word of precisely the same length. He also doesn’t know the difference between a hyphen and an apostrophe. At least, he isn’t clear enough on it to have caught the discrepancy upon seeing the tweet on his screen.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump saddled Senator Ted Cruz with the nickname “Lyin’ Ted” and was very insistent on the correct spelling: “L-Y-I-N-apostrophe. We can’t say it the right way. We gotta go ‘Lyin’.” And he dubbed Senator Marco Rubio “Liddle Marco” (again making clear that he wanted this nickname spelled with two Ds.)
This evidence suggests he once understood the purpose of an apostrophe, but has forgotten it. Or, maybe he thought writing Liddle Marco without the apostrophe was slumming in need of correction?
At any rate, why does Trump present himself linguistically in such cluelessly raggedy terms? Part of the answer is the times, to be sure. Since the 1960s, Anglophones have been increasingly informal in their public use of language. The hyper-refined style of Jackson and Johnson would today be processed as absurd, and no one would expect Trump or any modern president to write in that fashion.
Hence Trump’s Twitter moniker for Schiff not so long ago, “little Adam Schitt.” It was graceless to say the least but, in the grand scheme of things, of a piece with the fact that the F-word today is less profane than salty, that we give “talks” rather than speeches, and that a sitcom with Schitt in the title is a hit. Trump is fond of using totally in the teenage sense of the word: “Rep. Adam Schiff totally made up my conversation with Ukraine and read it to Congress and Millions.” And this too is a sign of the times, if slightly jarring coming so often from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Trump’s eccentric capitalization—take that “Millions” or his “Corrupt Congressman Liddle’ Adam Schiff”—can even seem almost antiquarian, in paralleling the equally subjective way colonial Americans used capitals, as in “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
However, Liddle’-gate is of a different order. In not merely leveling but then defending this utterly bizarre—as in, downright wrong—usage, Trump displays a complete ignorance of very basic punctuation, which ought to be resoundingly familiar to anyone who reads even a modest amount.
And that’s just it. Anyone who thinks the way to write little is liddle' reveals themselves as having lived a life at a great distance from the printed word, alarming in someone running a nation. Here is the man who refuses to read briefings, even when sanded down to the level of basic instructions penned on a Magic Slate. Here is the man who pulled that splendid bit about the British threatening our airports during the Revolutionary War, suggesting he had trouble reading the teleprompter, likely because he is too vain to use visual aids. But if he’s nearsighted and won’t wear glasses or contacts at 73, this all but bars him from print much smaller than the HOLLYWOOD sign.
This means that Trump processes language orally rather than in print. To him, the spoken word is paramount; the written word is an abstraction, sterile, not a comfort zone, the province of dullards fond of, as it were, dotting their i’s and crossing their t’s.
One might suppose that oral and print language are equivalent alternatives. But they are not. Orality encourages a focus on the personal; speaking expresses feeling. Print encourages a focus on the impersonal, the disinterested, the analytical. This is hardly to say that oral language precludes such thinking; however, print makes more space for it. Orality encourages compact parcels of thought—we speak in quick little packets of eight or nine words. Print encourages the extended argument, the careful case. Orality reinforces what you know—recall “shithole countries.” Print collects information we don’t memorize, ever available for consultation and analysis—think of reflection, statecraft, leadership. The printed word encouraged and still encourages intellectual and even spiritual transformations in what it is to be human.
Trump is a president of the United States whose linguistic life is as oral as that of a medieval artisan. I’d compare him to a 7-year-old, except that many second graders already read more than he does. By defending his usage of this “hyphen,” he reveals himself not simply as a post-1960s American letting it all hang out. That little hanging mark reveals Trump as someone who takes in so little, processes so little beyond the vagaries of running conversation that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he is, quite simply, a liddle dim. Which, in a commander in chief, is a liddle scary.