There’s something intrinsically false about the rhetoric of healing and unity, no matter who it comes from. A friend of mine, a professor of English with left-of-center tendencies in politics, likes to say that “the rhetoric of consensus is always coercive.” Any time you talk about what “we” believe as Americans — what “this country” was founded on, who “we are” as a nation — you’re forcing a certain kind of unity that many of your listeners, maybe most of them, are excluded from. The rhetoric of consensus may be appropriate on occasions of high ceremony — an inauguration, a State of the Union address — but otherwise it sounds false and cheap to everybody but the winners.
– Barton Swaim. I’ve been reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well with my students and he castigates politicians for using overly-flourished language that hides meaning. It’s the same criticism George Orwell exposed in “Politics and the English Language,” the classic (and just) description of political discourse. But it’s been interesting to read these charges this year, because Donald Trump’s approach has disposed of the usual dressed-up political language. He’s not using faux-sophistication to blur his meaning, nor is he using the approach Barack Obama preferred, the language of unity and eloquence (which, as Swaim points out above, possesses its own implications).
But that is not to describe Trump’s language as more revealing or specific. When he says, “The thing I’m doing, I’m cutting taxes big league,” he’s not hiding behind sophistication or eloquence. Yet neither is he using concrete or specific language. Does “big league” mean anything in particular? To say John Lewis is “all talk” and “no action” certainly lacks sophisticated eloquence and common respect, but isn’t it also meaningless invective? That is, what would the “action” be that would gain respect in this context? Isn’t Lewis’s action in creating a federal health care system exactly what Trump is trying to undo?
Trump’s approach is no more honest than the classically lambasted political discourse, but it is completely different, and I find that Zinsser and Orwell’s indictment of political language, if applied to Trump, are off target. It’s one reason I’m enjoying Barton Swaim’s commentary so much this political season. He is no Trump fan, but he’s tracking Trump’s rhetoric and attempting to articulate what is going on and why, in its own way, it is working.
One reason, he points out (in the article referenced above and in others), is Trump’s approach is markedly different than what we’ve grown used to.