The history of bad acting is replete with innuendo, what you might call a language within a language. It’s like the prolix eloquence in a mafia capo’s nod: the message is received by whoever needs to receive it, but it’s never spoken, at least not in plain language. It’s the perfect marriage of efficacy and deniability.
When Henry II of England famously asked (ostensibly of nobody in particular) “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”, he probably understood exactly what message he was sending — and to whom he was sending it. Once the deed was done and Thomas Becket was safely dead the king could do penance and pretend he meant something different, or nothing at all. It’s a cheap way of having your cake and eating it too.
Anyway, if you have anything remotely resembling a conscience and an average dollop of courage then you ought to find such behaviour thoroughly repellent. That’s why Republicans are so good at it, because — and let’s be honest here — these days they have neither consciences nor courage. This kind of thing comes naturally to them.
When this language within a language is used to incite a mob to violence or murder it’s called stochastic terrorism. Donald Trump uses it routinely, and he has done so ever since he first campaigned for president back in 2015. In fact, after Trump was informed back then of the possible consequences of his words by a horrified press and, no doubt realizing it was a pretty neat superpower, he has used it ever since.
These days Trump uses this language within a language to threaten judges and prosecutors and provide a chilling effect to witnesses against him. He even recently used it to threaten the President of the United States. After claiming that the legal trouble he’s in is all Biden’s fault (which it most emphatically is not) Trump hinted that if he regains power he’s going to come after Biden “in the same way.”
But the language of language, this meta language if you will, is also used in the form of shortcuts. This is not just a MAGA thing, it’s a totalitarian thing. The words are intended to burn the opposition and provide angry rhetoric for their users. Hitler referred to the “November criminals” as that part of the German high command that he falsely claimed cooperated with “the Jews” in bringing World War II to a premature end. These words are meant to shame and provoke their targets.
In being told she must testify in her father’s civil fraud trial, Ivanka Trump referred to it as “harassment.” When an outraged public demanded that Clarence Thomas be called to account for lavish vacations, huge loans he’s never had to pay back and free building work done to his mother’s house, he referred to as a “high tech lynching.” George Santos has just one word for questions about his lies, his fraudulent practices and his thefts: “fascism.” And, of course, Donald Trump refers to his current legal woes as a “witch hunt.”
Words and phrases used in this way are so inappropriate and obviously false as to be virtual non sequiturs. They’re ridiculous on their face. Yet they are given a kind of legitimacy by repetition and popular support. They are gaslighting words. We ought to be outraged every time they’re used, but they’re used so often and with such confident zeal that we start to lose sight of their horror. We sink in them like quicksand as the words take on a bizarre and horrific normality.
Even “Make America Great Again” has become a kind of shortcut for a myriad of cruelties and outrages. It’s lost its original meaning and has even become its own shortcut: MAGA. The Republican Party has slowly but inexorably been transmogrified into the MAGA party. Today MAGA conjures up an angry and defiant mob mentality, a rallying point for true believers. To us it’s as ugly and horrifying as a Nazi swastika or a confederate flag. It has become a shortcut of hate.
As children we were told that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” As adults in 2023 we realise that words have a terrible, transformative power beyond mere sticks and stones.
In realising what they’re up to and how this MAGA cult is trying to hijack our language and gaslight us with it, we can rob them of their power. We can dismantle their rhetoric and remind ourselves that, in the end, they are nothing more than liars and cowards trying to confuse us with a false language, the language of hate and oppression. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.