In response to recent Time Capsule entries, readers suggest that I am missing the obvious point: that neither Trump nor his audience expects his statements actually to mean anything. I think the three comments below point toward an emerging, important insight about the spectacle of Trump-era politics.
One reader writes (emphasis added):
I enjoyed your piece on Trump’s Gilley’s goof-up. But you overlooked the most recent and well-publicized example of a politician being pilloried over such a faux pas: Ted Cruz’s infamous comments about the “basketball ring” he made during his final campaign push in Indiana. These tin-eared attempts to pander to hoops-loving Hoosiers were a widely covered part of Cruz’s failed efforts to unseat Trump as GOP leader in the primaries.
Now why Ted is expected to know all about basketball (which is, after all, the 2nd most popular spectator sport in the U.S.) and Donald is given a pass for not knowing the bull (when we all know that he is more familiar with “bull” than any other person alive) is an interesting question. I am sure Trump was quite aware of Debra Winger at the time of Urban Cowboy. And he was clearly aware of the device, which is why he commented on it in the first place.
I am afraid that Trump’s speech is no longer looked at as carrying actual content. Instead, it has become pure gesture, merely indicating moods and relationships rather than explicit ideas.
A Trump rally in some ways resembles a rock concert, where the crowd cheers at one point in the program for the angry song, later for the big ballad, and goes crazy at the end when the singer does his biggest hit (in Trump’s case, the Mexican Wall bit). His rhetoric is so transparently pure rhetoric, so layered with dog whistles and emotional words that modify no actual nouns or verbs, that his listeners are not looking for meaning. Instead, they are thrilled by the emotion of his speeches, which are only possible because has liberated himself from the usual quotidian purposes of language.
By speaking all the time in the style of a commercial’s tag-line, he has escaped even the expectation that his words will have a meaning when written down or recorded. This is why so many supporters can say they disagree with what he says, but love him for saying it “like it is.” He captures a feeling that goes beyond rational thought. It is the political equivalent of the incoherent swearing a man does when he hits his thumb while trying to hammer a nail: It’s an outburst of urgent emotion with no logical structure.
I appreciate your work on the Daily Trump and its opposite, American Futures.
A second reader with another perspective:
I’m a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, about four years sober. It just occurred to me that the entire Trump campaign to date makes more sense if you look at Trump as if he were a drug addict—only instead of being addicted to drugs, he’s addicted to attention.