You can call a slimehead by the better-known name of orange roughy, but it’s still an ugly fish. The same goes for President Donald Trump’s attempt to euphemize a first year in office that was historic for all the wrong reasons.
A regime that gave the world “alternative facts” has been working overtime at year’s end to banish words it doesn’t like or believe in, and to take credit for, or reframe, good things that it had very little to do with.
Our 71-year-old president is a slow learner and creature of bad habits. But he does seem to understand the authoritarian axiom that repetitive political language can make “lies sound truthful,” as George Orwell wrote in the definitive essay on the subject.
Thus, “climate change” is forbidden for the American public servants working to protect the natural world from a changing climate. Law enforcement, under the special counsel Robert Mueller, is now “a coup,” in the favored word of state-run television, Fox News. And a “so-called judge” is the president’s term for a real federal authority with years of courtroom experience, not the monumentally ill-qualified people he’s been stuffing into said positions.
But guess who’s going to prevail when the White House word police go up against the real police? The so-called law. And what happens when a disgusted majority finally gets a chance to exercise the most powerful tool in a democracy? A so-called election.
That’s why I’m optimistic, as we crawl out of the darkest days of the year, that the words Trump has tried to erase, or change the meaning of, will come roaring back to haunt him next year. You can ridicule “the resistance,” as Trump did while urging people to vote for an alleged child predator this month. But that only makes it stronger.
You can suggest, as a Trump-inspired bureaucrat at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did in a recent memo, that words such as “science-based” and “vulnerable” not be used. But it won’t make the Trump enablers in Congress any less vulnerable when voters get their say in November.
As president, Trump employs the same charlatan’s gibberish that served him well as the owner of a failed casino and a fraudulent “university.” He says “terrific,” “phenomenal” and “incredible” to describe a routine meeting, or someone he just met. His favorite words for those who cross him are “loser,” “moron” and “lightweight.” As he explained last year, “I know words — I have the best words.”
Of late, Trump is down to a single best word to describe himself — “I.” He puts it in quotes, just like that. From a tweet in which he was trying to make down into up, on the loss he suffered with the Alabama Senate race, Trump wrote: ‘I also predicted “I” would win.’ Oh, I, me, mine!
Now let’s look at the words the public uses for him. When Americans were asked in a recent survey by Quinnipiac to describe, without prodding, the first word that comes to mind when thinking of Trump, the most common reply was “idiot.” That was followed closely by “liar,” “incompetent” and “moron.” That last word, of course, is the one that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson uttered to describe his boss, and he employed an unprintable modifier in front of it.
“Liar,” as applied to Trump, is something that can be quantifiably proven. A mere 4 percent of the president’s public statements — 4 in 100! — have been rated true by PolitiFact. His first year may also be evidence enough to verify the description from Nicholas Soames, a British member of Parliament and a grandson of Winston Churchill. He called the president a “daft twerp.”
The National Park Service, the good soldiers of our best places, has come in for more than its share of lashing from Trump’s thought police. It started with the inauguration, when Trump was enraged by a Park Service photo comparing the size of the crowd at his swearing-in with that at President Barack Obama’s.
Now Trump is trying to scrub “climate change” from ranger tweets about the threat of biological death in some of our most loved parks. This, after he took away 2 million acres of national monument designation — the largest rollback of federal land protection in the nation’s history — and described it as a win for the people.
The words of the year, as put forth by various dictionaries, are reactions to Trump’s awful effect on the culture. “Complicit” was the favored expression from dictionary.com, and also the perfume used in a terrific “Saturday Night Live” sendup of Ivanka Trump. “Youthquake” was Oxford Dictionaries’ nominee. Merriam-Webster chose “feminism.”
The popularity of these vigorous expressions would seem to disprove the great line (and title of a coming film) from the Republican strategist Rick Wilson: “Everything Trump touches dies.” For in 2018, the youthquake, aided by the roused forces of feminism, are going to have a reckoning at the ballot box for those who are complicit with the tyranny of this president. All the best words, deployed.
Timothy Egan worked for 18 years as a writer for The New York Times, first as the Pacific Northwest correspondent, then as a national enterprise reporter.