When Abraham Lincoln ran for President as the nominee of the Republican Party in 1860, he remained home in Springfield while surrogates canvassed the country on behalf of his candidacy. That was the custom then, for all candidates, not just Lincoln. Humility was a public virtue. Candidates for President, at least in theory, were to be discovered, promoted, and acclaimed by their fellow citizens. Willingness to run for office and ample self regard were not enough.
That time of nascent civil war was worse than ours. It wouldn’t be among the times of greatness from which our nation, in Donald Trump’s estimation, has fallen to such depths as to require his superhero intervention to “make America great again.” But then, how far would his candidacy have gotten if he remained demurely in the Trump Tower while surrogates did the mouth and photo-op work? No matter. That issue is mute now, of no consequence. Besides, I get queasy when issues of ‘greatness’ arise. Aggrandizement is a longstanding habit of ours. We expect too much and as a result exaggerate prodigiously, belying a level of self esteem below our hard earned worth and our due as human beings. So Donald Trump, his claims, and his legion of supporters mostly discombobulate me. They represent a big step backwards from American greatness, however one defines the word.
Yet, an idea comes to mind. Why don’t we who love words ask media interlocutors to ask Mr. Trump and his supporters about the meaning of his words? Why don’t we ask for details? Why don’t we do the same for other candidates? Might not understanding be enhanced that way?
I have a theory of modern life, which I suspect was true in Lincoln’s time too. Events have overrun and overwhelmed us. We’re buried in rapid happenings and rabid history. We’re trying desperately to breathe, dig out, catch up, and gain control. Our brains are virtual garbage dumps of maddening bits of electrified information, with more “this just in” news piling on top hourly. That’s the theory. We suffer from media mash and political claustrophobia, with its associated panic, terror, depression, and despair.
Look at the sophisticated way we use words in politics. We usually mean something other by what we say than what the words actually mean. That’s the key fact. It’s not just the habit of Donald Trump and his minions. It’s ours too. Some of this difference is intentional lying, yes, that’s true. Some of it is simple discretion and tact, surely it is. Some is clever disguise, I agree. But most of it is shortcut and substitute for hidden, complicated, rarely told personal stories. For example, if I say “President Obama is our worst President,” or you say “the national debt is an unforgivable burden to pile on the backs of our children,” or another says “we must return to the constitution and recover our freedoms,” or still another says “politicians are all liars,” all of us are making shorthand allusions that stand in for deep, hidden analyses and personal perspectives we’d like to tell and have understood. Our quick, one-line zinger summations substitute for buried stories, our stories. These iconic shout-outs pile up and contort into a moving image of citizenry who have lost the capacity for civic engagement and transfigured into a parade of grotesques, forming an ongoing memorial to its own buried national history.
Of course, telling such stories would take time, and time is short; there is too little, never enough. On that people agree. We’re on the run, so get on with it, say it quick or not at all, we’re late and have to go, this in an age where listening and reading time are in steep decline, and an electronic “like” and “share” culture is ascendent. There is no chance to fully understand each other. Besides, strangers, not ‘liked’ friends, are who really count in politics, and we all are strangers and passers-by now. We can’t know each other. The chances for inter-personal understanding are minimal. So we exchange grunts and soundbites with each other. We can spot probable friends and likely enemies on the cheap that way.
Our political statements, to summarize, are truncated, battle tested, provocative sound bites. They pinch hit for personal stories conveying circumstances, journeys, careers, beliefs, values, and commitments. Since everyone is in the same boat—under the sway of news claustrophobia,—these ways of talking tend to divide into two cultural piles in our two party political system. That is perhaps one of the reasons we are so ‘polarized.’ Americans usually get along just fine as long as they keep their mouths shut about politics.
But then along comes the political candidate or elected government official. That politician, with the clever help of advisors, consultants, think tankers, pollsters, editorialists, campaign managers, public relations firms, and the like, grinds out a similarly truncated piece of hocus-pocus that calibrates with his half of the electorate. The result is a mishmash of political babble. If lucky, you find that your particular zinger feature statement has been preempted and regurgitated into an even more clever slogan by your favorite candidate. Opponents, to be sure, will soon conjure ingenious, fiendishly cute responses in return. The parade of the grotesque marches on.
So here is a proposal to interviewers of Donald Trump and his followers, as well as to other candidates and their followers. Return the candidates’ words back to them for extraction of meaning, and ask them questions that promise to reveal the hidden, substituted story of our nation, whatever horrible nightmare or shiny dream may be hidden at its core.
In the Trump case, for examples, we have his soundbite, “I will make America great again,” and a media consensus that his supporters are “angry.” Questions are endlessly revealing, and the number that could be asked of a person on any subject is infinite. I find that encouraging! Here are a few I am curious about for the respondents, Trump and his prototype follower.
A few for Trump:
- Has America been great from the get go, and great until now?
- Or, has it been up and down, great/not great, over the years?
- What is “great”? What’s not? What’s its opposite?
- How does that differ from “good”/“bad,”or “better“/“worse?”
- Are good and great the same thing?
- If not, is “great” better than “good,” or vice-versa?
- When did American greatness peak?
- When did America greatness hit bottom?
- Did any other President make America as great as did Polk? Who?
- Be truthful, President Truman is said to have “lost China.” Is it President Obama who lost America’s greatness?
- Did you say yes? I thought so? How on earth did he do it?
- After your Presidency, what marks of greatness will be obvious?
- Admit it, America is still great, isn’t it?
- Are you prone to exaggeration? Tell the truth now.
A few for the angry Trump voter:
- Are you bothered, concerned, irritable, pissed off, or angry?
- If angry, have you always been angry, or is it new for you?
- Is it hard to be angry? I mean, can you do it all the time?
- How does it feel? Do you take any medicine for it?
- Have you ever been happy? When? What happened?
- What’s your economic situation? Is that what you’re angry about?
- Are you angry with yourself or at someone else?
- If your political enemy wins, will you get angrier?
- If your favorite candidate wins, will happiness return?
- Do you expect to be angry the rest of your life?
- Have you asked what your country can do for you to make you happy?
Well, that’s the general idea. Feel free to add your own questions before sending the pile on for use by a favorite journalist or interviewer. Donald Trump has taken us beyond words to utter speechlessness. Words are nothing to him but sound bombs and dirty weapons. Still, there is ample time to recover our breath, dig out, and try mightily to force the candidate to speak like a thoughtful man, whether he’s been in the habit or not. Words have meanings and consequences. He should be held accountable for his.
Will Callender, Jr. ©
March 4, 2016
Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good