Boris Johnson obviously considers himself a master rhetorician. His fascination with striking words and images, combined with his inability to structure a sentence — perhaps out of indiscipline, perhaps attention deficit, perhaps just out of a general mismatch between high education and mediocre intelligence — makes his speeches read like something out of one of William S. Burroughs’s less successful cut-up compositions.
The clash of tone and images can be jarring, as in the quote on the cover of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph:
Given the leanings of the Telegraph, I’m assuming this was intended to flatter Johnson, not to mock him. And yet… Illustrating an accusation of finger-pointing with a photo of the accuser pointing his finger? And that’s before we even get to the hoary Labour is Stalinist accusation. In 2019? Really? So Johnson has to show that it’s not just a tired slogan by bringing some historical detail into it. With foreign words. So they’re persecuting kulaks. British kulaks should tremble! Before the horror of Jeremy Corbyn, who would be just like Stalin: a notorious scold!
I’ve just been reading Eric Foner’s masterful treatise The Fiery Trial, on the evolution of Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery and race. I was struck by this passage from Lincoln’s speech in Chicago, during the 1858 senate election campaign. Referring to the suggestion that citizenship was inherited by blood from the patriots of the Revolutionary era he said that half the current population had no blood tie to those English, but
when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.
So I wondered, why is he referring to an “electric cord”? This is long before any household electricity. I’m guessing he is thinking of a telegraph wire. I find it surprising that he could expect his audience to have a meaningful association with this specific element of what was then a brand new technology, and I wonder what feelings went with it.
Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler used to be the gold standard for political obfuscation, with his declaration (when he had to reverse previous insistence that no one in the White House was involved in the Watergate break-in “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.”
Trump, recognising that his Watergate reboot won’t pull in 21st-century viewers if they have to watch a “third-rate burglary” investigation playing out over 2 1/2 years, is ramping up the malfeasance (Russian espionage! billion-dollar bribes!) and the pace, while still hitting the classic Nixonian marks (asking the CIA to block an FBI investigation!) One place where they’ve been exceeding their originals is in the obfuscatory rhetoric. Following on Kellyanne Conway’s celebrated rechristening of lies as “alternative facts”, we have budget director Mike Mulvaney explaining why Trump’s explicit promise not to cut Medicaid was now being reversed. NY Times reporter John Harwood:
at briefing today, Mulvaney told me Trump promise not to touch Medicaid had been overridden by Trump promise to repeal/replace Obamacare https://t.co/WSafn6ighT
“Overridden”! Like a good reboot, it’s reminiscent of the Zieglerian original, yet somehow punchier, with a novel twist. (Tens of millions of poor people losing access to healthcare. Great cliffhanger!) The critics, though, might carp at them reaching for effect this way on their policy statements, where Nixon himself was pretty solid, leaving perhaps less headroom for further amplification when we get to the corruption charges.
Some are saying the show might not even be renewed for another season.
By the way, I’ve just read Evan Thomas’s biography Being Nixon. I’ve never had much patience for those who claim that Nixon got a raw deal over Watergate — the burglary and cover-up were just the most salient aspect of the presidential malfeasance and abuse of power — but I understand better why many people would have seen his fall as tragic. Great talents that could have served the country well, sadly bonded to a flawed personality that dragged himself and the country into a mire of recriminations.
Comparing Trump to Nixon is deeply unfair to Nixon.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Wednesday denied reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos clashed over an upcoming executive order expected to weaken protections for transgender students.
“There’s no daylight between anybody, between the President, between any of the secretaries,” Spicer told reporters at his daily press briefing.
I am fascinated by political rhetoric. And while I have been talking a lot about how Trump’s rhetoric breaks the bounds of normal US presidential rhetoric, I’m also interested in the ways in which he pushes the normal to its logical conclusion. To wit, the White House statement Monday on the wave of bomb threats against Jewish institutions:
Hatred and hate-motivated violence of any kind have no place in a country founded on the promise of individual freedom. The President has made it abundantly clear that these actions are unacceptable.
The White House on Monday denounced a spate of threats made against Jewish Community Centers around the country.
For context, this comes after the president explicitly refused to comment last week, and instead attacked the reporter for raising the question. Given that pressure has been placed on the president precisely because he has not made the position of his administration clear, this statement seems less a forthright condemnation of the threats than an explicit refusal to make the president’s position any more “abundantly clear” than he already has.
This is a common political trope, and I’m never sure how to interpret it. I guess it’s supposed to put to rest accusations that one has not yet denounced whatever one was supposed to denounce, while not thereby accepting the accusation that one has failed to denounce it in the past.
But it can come off seeming like another refusal, still giving comfort to those who were supposed to be denounced. That’s especially true in this case, where the statement also fails to say anything about the particulars of these incidents: It condemns violence — in fairly anodyne terms, it must be said — but not threats, which are the particular issue here, and once again refuses to explicitly mention Jews.
This comment from Trump’s rally to launch his 2020 reelection campaign has gotten a lot of attention:
You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening. Last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.
(I’ve repunctuated from my source, since “You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden” doesn’t work grammatically.) Narrow-minded commenters have obsessed over the fact that nothing out of the ordinary happened in Sweden. (Not than anyone has presented proof that nothing happened…) But he didn’t say anything unusual happened. All he did was to ask “who would believe this?” They took in large numbers. TRUE! It’s a testimony of faith that “they’re having problems like they never thought possible”. Every day, including last night. Trump is inviting the elect to testify to their belief. “Belief” is considered a good thing in church, why not in politics? John McCain, at least, is on the same page:
“Can Americans be confident that a Republican-controlled Congress can investigate this President thoroughly if necessary?” Chuck Todd asked McCain on NBC News’ “Meet the Press.”
“I hope so and I have to believe so,” McCain said. “More hope than belief.”
We have to believe! We believe in congressional action unseen. Just because you’re in the Senate does not mean that you are responsible for causing the action to occur. It will happen. We just have to believe.
This is probably the best title for a reality TV show ever proposed in a presidential inaugural address. And then there’s this.
Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories, scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.
And you have to admit, most of us really are tired of our education system being flush with cash. Such a burden, and what do you get for it? Early-onset gout from the rich cafeteria food, and gold-plated textbooks that give the children scoliosis from having to lug them around, that’s what. And the rest of the economy starved for talent as the best and the brightest compete for the overpaid classroom posts. We really don’t know what to do with all that money, and our young and beautiful students won’t learn anything anyway. (We don’t care much what happens to the non-beautiful…)
That’s why we need Trump as president: Someone who has learned his whole life to cope with the burden of extreme wealth, and is willing to lift it from us.