US 2016: Soylent Orange

US 2016: Soylent Orange

After listening to one too many Donald Trump speeches, J. BROOKS SPECTOR laments the disastrous decline in public discourse in this current American electoral contest.

On one of the author’s bookshelves at his home, there are volumes containing the transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates from 1858, transcripts from the Constitutional Convention’s debates over the draft constitution back in 1787, as well as volumes of great American public sermons such as John Winthrop’s “Shining City Upon a Hill” and Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, and other compendiums of the most important public speeches from throughout American history. These texts inspire and educate. This quality of this comprehensive store of rhetoric and ideas comes to mind – sadly – as soon as one is forced to contemplate the texture of so many of the speeches from among the candidates vying for the US presidency in 2016.

It is possible – although the campaign is still young and there is time for still worse – that 3 March may end up marking the nadir of American political language. On that night, Donald Trump – in response to an ill-spoken taunt by fellow candidate Marco Rubio that Trump’s hands were too small, and that, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, we all know what that means about other body appendages – had replied to Rubio in kind. Trump said, “Look at those hands, are they small hands? And, he referred to my hands – ‘if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.” Rubio, of course, had provoked this when he had said of Trump, “He’s always calling me Little Marco. And I’ll admit he’s taller than me. He’s like 6’2”, which is why I don’t understand why his hands are the size of someone who is 5’2”. And you know what they say about men with small hands? You can’t trust them.” Presumably these two are grown-ups whose bodies haven’t been taken over by a pair of alien pod people bent on destroying the republic. But maybe not.

Watch: Part 1 of the Fox News GOP presidential debate in Detroit

The last time this writer heard a conversation like that was probably about the time he was around 12 or 13 years old. Back then, young adolescent boys, coming out of their quick showers after an hour of a physical education class, often spent their time flicking damp towels at each other, just before they went on to comparing their respective physiques.

But if this year’s rhetorical quality has been pedestrian at its best, beyond those forays deep into the juvenile verbal mud, one can’t help but compare this to the quality of political discourse found in those volumes in the bookshelves of this writer’s home office. And 3 March came almost exactly at the respective anniversaries of two of the greatest speeches in the English language (aside from what William Shakespeare put into the mouth of a real person like Henry V, or a fictional one like Hamlet) – even if readers do not necessarily share the sentiments contained in them. Seventy years ago, on 5 March, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke in Fulton, Missouri with a speech that came to define the cold war competition between the West and the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, on 4 March 1865, a hundred and fifty-one years ago, Abraham Lincoln had set out the aims of his government, just as the Union was on the cusp of ending the rebellion of the eleven southern states usually called the Civil War.

Churchill, of course, had experienced a lifetime of hearing political conversation, writing and delivering the kind of speeches that had given power, resolve and faith to a nation and its allies in the darkest of times, and writing the kind of prose that would eventually see him given the Nobel Prize for Literature. Encouraging America to respond to the challenges of Stalin’s Soviet Union and its pressure on Western Europe, he told his hosts less than a year after the end of the fighting in Europe, in one of the most memorable exhortations of the twentieth century, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

Listen: Winston Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech

Some eight decades earlier than Churchill’s words, American President Abraham Lincoln, as he was being inaugurated for his second term of office, and with the end of the Civil War in sight, urged his nation to turn away from revenge and growing calls for a brutal occupation of the South. Instead, he said, now that slavery had been brought to an end, and facing the future, the country had very different challenges. Revisiting the rightness in bringing involuntary servitude to an end, he had concluded with these words:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Lincoln, of course, while not a highly educated man in a formal sense, had read everything he could lay his hands upon in his formative years. As a result, in his public language, he drew upon both the earthiness of the frontier, as well as the cadences of The Bible, Pericles’ Funeral Oration over the Athenian Dead, Shakespeare’s plays, Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans and even Bracton’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.

But in contrast to these examples, the crudeness of Donald Trump’s public discourse seems, instead, to draw from the worst of reality television, the smirks and bravado of the men’s locker room, and the language of Fox Network situation comedies like “Married with Children.” It must be a first for a candidate for the country’s highest political office to say of another candidate that she had been schlonged – a word derived from Yiddish street argot – implying either her having been the recipient of a less than totally consensual sexual act, or, in faux-mafia-speak, of having been “hosed down” into defeat. This Trump-ian language has become so strong he seems to be sucking virtually everyone else challenging Trump for his party’s nomination into his own baleful linguistic vortex. And all of it comes almost entirely policy-free, unless one believes the fairy tale of the fifteen metre wall between the US and Mexico is a real plan, or exclusion of every Muslim seeking entry into the US and 45% tariffs on Chinese imports represent rational policy making.

His constant reiteration that the nation loses at everything, that the country is weak and failing, that its leadership lies and dissembles at every turn, have all become a verbal Gresham’s law – gutter-speak driving out any reasoned discourse. To watch his bombast at his most recent speeches such as his appearance in Orlando, Florida the other day is to watch a man toying with his audience, drawing on all the real and imagined angers and fears of individuals worried over the shifts in the nation’s demography, the changing tides of economic globalisation, and playing to their desperation or eagerness to find scapegoats – whether they are Mexicans and Muslims – or anybody else Trump has decided to dislike on a particular day.

Veteran political reporter, Elizabeth Drew, in trying to make sense of Trump’s rhetoric, wrote the other day in The New York Review of Books, “It’s hard to fathom what, exactly, Trump knows about public policy. He’s intellectually lazy and he evinces no respect for knowledge itself. What does he read? Why does he persist in marrying fashion models? Does he not comprehend that there may be a problem with his retweeting the ravings of hate groups or a saying of Mussolini? How could he not get the joke of the Twitter bot @ilduce2016, showing Mussolini’s profile with Trump’s hair? The satirical website Gawker set up this account last year for the purpose of trapping Trump. What seemed on the edge to suggest not long ago—that Trump’s candidacy has an aura of fascism, in the behavior of both the candidate and his unquestioning followers, is now widely discussed. His concept of governing, of which he’s been asked almost nothing, was made clear when he held his ‘press conference’ instead of a victory speech Tuesday night at his Palm Beach home, standing at a gilt trimmed podium, with American flags arrayed behind him and Chris Christie standing there as if his lieutenant or vice president. Asked about the speaker of the house, Trump said, ‘Paul Ryan, I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him. And if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price—okay?’

The demeaning spectacle of last week’s Republican debate, with three candidates shouting at and talking over each other, was a new low in political behavior. The conduct of Marco Rubio and Trump, with Cruz competing with Rubio to throw Trump off, was so far from presidential as to make one wonder if these candidates can ever be seen as possessing that quality. Trump and Rubio took it to a still lower level the next day with exaggerated tales about each other backstage during commercial breaks—both men made fun of the other’s wiping away perspiration, but only Rubio went so far as to suggest that the strain of the debate had caused his foe to wet his pants. In the first days after the debate, Rubio took to referring to Trump as a “con artist” and implicitly questioned the size of his genitals; Trump sneeringly referred to “Little Marco Rubio” (he also refers to ‘Lying Cruz’). Bob Dole’s saying in a television interview after he’d lost the 1988 New Hampshire primary that George H. W. Bush should ‘stop lying about my record’ now seems benign: we have three Republican contestants competing for who can say ‘liar’ more often.”

For this writer, the Trump-ian presence channels far too easily replays of historical recordings of Benito Mussolini addressing vast rallies in Rome, or those of two home-grown authoritarians – segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace and Depression era rabble-rousing Louisiana Governor Huey Long, the man Franklin Roosevelt had called the most dangerous man in America. The content of their respective politics almost seems beside the point. Both Long and Mussolini offered a curious amalgam of socialism and fascism woven into their ideologies. (Or just perhaps Trump is just channelling the nasty drunk who is one of your neighbours or even that loud-mouthed uncle who has ruined more family gatherings than anyone can remember. Neither of those archetypes should be given a chance to hold onto the nuclear launch codes, of course.)

And the Democrats are no longer totally immune to this siren call to bombast either. Increasingly, to listen to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders deliver his stump speech, voice harsh, his arms waving, is to hear a man railing against the sins of the moneychangers at the temple in the 21st century persons of Wall Street wheeler-dealers and those big banks. And Hillary Clinton’s own version of all this will almost certainly follow suit as well as time moves on. We’re only into early March, after all, and the months from April all through the first week November still await us. But, so far at least, while is Donald Trump who is in the saddle and who is riding the collapse of civil discourse, it seems only a matter of time before this new low becomes the new common standard for political discourse in America. We should all be ashamed. DM

Photo: Businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at The Wexford Center in Cadillac, Michigan, USA, 04 March 2016. Michigan voters go to the polls to cast their votes in the Michigan primary on 08 March. EPA/TANNEN MAURY.


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