What Are Words Worth?

Perhaps the ultimate irony of the Trump era arrived during the voted-out President’s most recent impeachment trial, with the defense’s video montage of prominent Democrats using the word fight.

Here, in perfect Pee-wee Herman “I know you are but what am I?” fashion, lawyers for the greatest serial liar of the modern age attempt to show that there is no difference between their client and members of a party that he calls “Radical Left CRAZIES.”

In the Senate Chamber, 43 know-nothings affirmed their knowing nothing of Constitutional law—for instance, Brandenburg v. Ohio, which holds that protected First Amendment rights do not include “inciting or producing imminent lawless action.” They did so by acquitting their Gambino-in-Chief, making him free to incite lawless action on many other days.

This abysmal (though expected) outcome somehow reminded me of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s famous remark upon unleashing the destructive forces of the atomic bomb. “Now I am become Death,” he quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita, “the destroyer of worlds.” For Trump: Now I am become Lie, the destroyer of words.

Trump established his lie-riffing the moment he came on the scene in the 1970s. He may have fancied himself channeling Muhammad Ali’s poetic preening, but New Yorkers placed him in the column of Jerry Carroll waving his arms in those old Crazy Eddie commercials—the ones demanding that “We CANNOT be undersold!” on audio equipment.

For Donald Trump the real estate developer, words were simply the content of street hustle theater—a combination of lies, innuendo, evasions, and the intentional use of a low-literacy vocabulary to describe complex (and probably illegal) property transactions. His spoken exaggerations before cameras were worlds apart from the content of his NDAs, endless preemptive litigation, and claims that whomever he was currently victimizing was committing the very offenses he was perpetrating. We know the backstory.

But then tragedy happened upon America, and Trump’s street hustle theater evolved into racist propaganda. Here was a ruthless, unfeeling, and uncaring man who understood the mix of the obtuse and the precise to inflame white grievance. When you are trying to establish a white nationalist autocracy using the language of democracy, contorting words is a necessity. The moment Trump took his oath to “American Carnage,” the clock began ticking on the sacrosanctity of accountability and truth.

Trump’s constant stream of lies—whether outright falsehoods or shadowy rhetoric to obscure and undermine known fact—has devalued those aspects of our language that make it sharable and functional. Winston Churchill told the British people the truth in the months leading up to the Battle of Britain—that fighting back Hitler would require blood, sweat, and tears—and they loved him for the truth. Eighty years later, Donald Trump told the American people that COVID-19 was hoax that would miraculously go away with sunshine—and whatever percentage of the millions who constitute his base loved him for the lie.

Trump paved his own way for the Big Lie of November 3, expertly grooming a base that would endorse the overturning of a democratic election on cue, like an enormous flock of starlings that can change direction in a split second in perfect unison. The defiling of the Capitol, the people’s house, was the physical culmination of years of these cues.

Since the shock of January 6, it feels as if Trumpism has reached new ideological ground where democratic rhetoric isn’t even necessary. The strongman language of dominance is out there in the open, and Trump supporters no longer need to lie about anything but numbers. When the counting of the certified votes resumed late on January 6, Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan in his circa-1989 seventh-grade Catholic school wardrobe repeated his bald-faced lie that 80 million Americans were questioning the election results. This was a handy number to lob since Trump would have won the popular vote if he had received 80 million of the votes cast and not 74,222,593.

With Trumpism’s more open embrace of white nationalist autocracy, the theater of political warfare has changed. When Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene sent an incendiary tweet ahead of Trump’s impeachment, Rep. Jason Crow described her and her ideological colleagues as “morally bankrupt,” “depraved,” and “dangerous.” Nowhere did you hear the outrage that followed Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment—probably because Greene believes Clinton to be a pedophile who drinks the blood of her child victims.

One of the most emblematic images of the new 117th Congress was Greene wearing a face mask that read “CENSORED”—much like René Magritte’s surrealistic painting of a tobacco pipe proclaiming “This is not a pipe.” Senator Mitch McConnell also pulled a Magritte at Trump’s impeachment: after voting to acquit, he condemned the former president as “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events” of January 6.

What are words worth? Trumpism’s assault on the language that supports our democracy got me thinking of an old song—the Tom Tom Club’s “Wordy Rappinghood”—that considers the same question.

Words in papers, words in books
Words on TV, words for crooks
Words of comfort, words of peace
Words to make the fighting cease
Words to tell you what to do
Words are working hard for you
Eat your words but don’t go hungry
Words have always nearly hung me

The same year this song came out—1981—Donald Trump bought a 14-story building facing Central Park, planning to raze and replace it with luxury condos. But first he needed to get rid of its rent-stabilized tenants. He spent five years fighting the tenants, real estate lawyers, New York state regulators, and city officials. He knew quite well what words are worth. §