No currency is cheaper or more inflationary than words. While words can sometimes be inspiring, educational, or entertaining, most are used to wheedle, manipulate, flatter, mislead, control, and deceive. They obscure motives just as often as they reveal them. They conceal information just as often as they disclose it.
Thus, a writer’s responsibility is a grave one. The internet is an explosion of words, like the world’s worst-tended all-you-can-eat salad bar. And while the ranch dressing may be rancid and the eggs laced with botulism, people still want ranch dressing and eggs on their salads.1Look, I don’t know about salad. Do I look like a rabbit to you?
Of course, word inflation is one of the least dire consequences of Donald Trump’s presidency. Beside the cascade of tell-all books, hagiographies, and think-pieces,2Yes, read The Atlantic. there is Trump himself, reflecting the narcissistic strongman’s typical predilection for rambling through hour-long speeches given in a language only a follower can understand.
One of the ways Trump cheapens speech is by belittling and dehumanizing opponents. “Losers,” “suckers”…oh, wait, that’s the military. In any event, the cascade of rhetoric Trump and his enablers employ is well-documented. Another strategy is to manipulate voters through fear-mongering rhetoric. Trump doesn’t want to panic the American electorate by being honest about COVID. He seeks only to panic the pliable, lightly-hued portions he needs for re-election.
The methods of propaganda and gaslighting are not unknown—they are well-documented and easily employed. Consider the dictionary definitions of the word “manipulate.” The lead definition is to “handle or control, typically in a skillful way.” The secondary definition is to “control or influence cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously.” Trump’s incompetences are manifest, but the tools of propaganda are not complicated ones. These are they.
To honor reason, of course, is much harder, which is why the Constitution was designed to protect the people from their own passions and prejudices. In large part, those protections proved dysfunctional, and were either stripped from the document (the indirect election of Senators) or now exacerbate the dysfunction they were meant to protect against (the electoral college).
The result is a structure of government that has adapted too little to the challenges of current life, and what adaptations have been made may have caused questionable consequences. As just one example, Trump alone has already spent nearly $1 billion to run his incompetent, gaslighting campaign. Biden is catching up in the money race, and will likely spend at least as much. Political races across the country may cost billions more. And yet, America’s GNP may approach anywhere near $22 trillion a year. The amount of money spent on politics, when compared to the stakes, is a rounding error.
And so, the vast part of the American public is stuck in a political purgatory. With regard to their political leaders, they are virtually ignored as those with a material slice of the $22 trillion dollar economy spend mere pennies on the dollar to buy influence in Washington. The nickels under the couch cushions are enough to buy you a stick of gum, but for interests like Koch Industries, they can power an entire right-wing shadow government.
And as this problem of access persists, the American public is factionalizing at warp speed. There is a temptation to call it “extremism,” and in some cases it is. But more to the point, it is the manifestation of Madison’s fear that a republic fails when a majority faction cements itself in power. It is undoubtedly a problem no matter which faction ends up being in the majority. And the only problem worse would be a minority faction seizing and maintaining power without even claiming majority support.
Under such circumstances, it shouldn’t be surprising to discover that America’s options are relatively poor ones. But this, in no small part, is where Trump’s power derives from—as with every other situation, he uses America’s weaknesses against it to maintain his standing. He needs America in ruins to justify his existence. And so much is wrong with our current politics, but re-electing Trump would be like throwing 97,000 eels into the bathwater with the baby, lighting the bathroom on fire, dropping a bomb on the house, and bulldozing the wreckage for a statue honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest.3See, this is easy. I can write like a Republican all day. I used to be one. One can only assume America can do better.
Of all the ironies that the Trumpified Republican Party presents us, this is perhaps the grandest. To be saved, America must be destroyed. If this sounds more like a Marvel super-villain than one of America’s two major political parties, I sympathize, but imagine my surprise when a political party I belonged to for 36 years of my life started expressing it. And until the Ultron Party gets its act together, America’s already tottering political structure provides only one other option.
Which brings us back to the premise of this piece. Words are cheap, flexible, and can be used for any purpose. It’s one thing to throw around words like Republicans do, meaninglessly and thoughtlessly spouting terms about the “Left,” “child sex trafficking,” “socialism,” and “Antifa,” divorcing them from context or definition and then—after reveling in their self-created dystopian nightmare in which “the Left,” “socialists,” or “Antifa” play a central, enemy role—declaring their Christian love for their fellow man. Please. Whatever this page does, it will never revel in, or even recognize, meaningless pieties such as these. And in the right-wing’s fever swamps, we are all of these things, even if we are none of them.
But this is only the first part of the analysis—to understand that in this great debate of our time, worse even than conservatism’s destructive malice (and it is terrifying in itself) is its insincerity. Like all else, words are just a conservative’s means to an end, and so long as the end is Trump, conservatives find no other ends worth pursuing. Famously, Trump himself is unable to explain what he would do with another four years, leaving white boomer males to fill in the blanks. Shudder.
To put it mildly, those who oppose Trump hold higher standards. It is therefore unsurprising that the introspective, the questioning, the open-minded, and the complex have gravitated to the Democratic Party, leaving the Republican Russian-bot echo chamber behind. Of course they have.
But still that isn’t enough. America remains predicated on checks and balances. There should be two parties. There should be debate. This needs to be a two-winged bird. But Republicans can’t break both the bird’s wings, then pretend it can fly. The bird will have to have surgery, heal, and then be retrained to fly.
To that end, (1) Americans must understand what actually broke and (2) know how to fix it. The first is easy. The Republican Party broke, and is attempting to take everything else down with it so as to mask the fact. The second is harder. A viable opposition is necessary in a small-r republican government, but fascism is not a viable opposition. Hence, a legitimate opposition has to be rebuilt out of something quite vile. Put a different way, the manifest danger of Trump and the Republican Party are easy to establish. How to turn that danger into something productive going forward? It’s a problem to address, but I’m not sure there’s an answer. Elections have consequences, and some bigger than others.