GOP, Politics

Trump’s Empty “Words”

He spoke some words others wrote. Did he convince anyone of his sincerity?
August 6, 2019
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President Trump delivered remarks on the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, over the weekend. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“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

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The president spoke the words written for him.  He condemned the right things and expressed the appropriate sentiments.

“May God bless the memory of those who perished in Toledo,” he said. He meant Dayton, but at least he had a city in Ohio. But he got most of the rest of the words right:

He denounced “racism,” and “bigotry,” and “white supremacy,” calling them “sinister ideologies.” “Hate,” he said, has no place in America.

But what did he mean? How does he define “bigotry”? Does it include demonizing minorities? Saying that black members of Congress should go back to where they came from? What does Trump mean by the word “racism”?

Does it include referring to immigrants as rapists? Or suggesting that they were invading the country, or that they infested cities where they lived?

What is “white supremacy”? Does it involve retweeting white nationalist memes? Or providing aid, comfort, and winking endorsements to the alt right?

What does the word “hate” mean? Could it include joking about shooting Hispanics who tried to enter the country illegally?

The cognitive dissonance of Teleprompter Trump versus Twitter Trump was gobsmacking. From the Washington Post:

Such is the picture of a divisive leader trying to act as a healer, particularly in the aftermath of Saturday’s anti-immigrant attack in El Paso, where officials are still investigating but believe the alleged gunman posted a manifesto that echoed Trump’s harsh rhetoric on immigrants, including describing his attack as “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Trump, in tweets and in rallies, has repeatedly decried the “invasion” of undocumented immigrants across the nation’s southern border.

The episode and its immediate aftermath illustrate the limits on Trump’s ability to speak to the whole nation in a time of tragedy, given both his rhetoric and his focus on appealing primarily to the part of the electorate that voted for him in 2016 and still supports him now.

In the mouth of another president the words might have carried some moral weight, but Trump has squandered what little he had in his ongoing expense of spirit in a waste of shame. Nothing in Trump’s remarks Monday suggested that he took any responsibility for his own rhetoric or contributions to the toxic racial climate that has exploded in violence.

So what do the words actually mean? In Trump’s world, words like “bigotry” and “hate’  never apply to the president’s own behavior or language.Instead, they are things we must denounce because they are bad but which have nothing to do with me. 

This appears to be the designated posture of the GOP today.

It is easy and salutary to denounce “hate,” but they have defined it down to mean nothing that Trump does or says. Ever. 

Just ask John Cornyn or Lindsey Graham, or just about any Republican. The political advantage is that they can they can denounce this very bad thing, but never encounter it in the real world.

It is a moral posture without any practical effect at all; and therefore perfect for what the Republican Party has now become.

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.