“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
A lot of the attacks on Donald Trump miss the point. By labeling him a racist, a misogynist, a nativist, they play into his strength, which is character assassination, and very few people can play that game like the presumptive Republican nominee.
Trump may well be all those things, and then again he may not. And that is the dangerous point. He is whatever he pleases to be, whatever he thinks will get him the most attention and the most adoration from his base. A racist? Don King endorsed me. A misogynist? “I’ve hired a lot of women for top jobs.” A nativist? “And you know, the Latinos love Trump and I love them.”
Most of us choose words to try to make our meaning clear. But Trump uses words that send a message and enable him to him to deny it at the same time – such his infamous description of Gonzalo Curiel, the U.S. District Judge overseeing two class-action lawsuits brought against the defunct Trump University: “The judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great.”
Here is a sentence (it’s actually not a sentence, but never mind) that means nothing, can easily be denied (“I never said I believed”), and isn’t true (Judge Curiel was born in Indiana). Trump, the straight talker, attacks by innuendo – and we all know where he is going.
This is the language of demagoguery: “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.”