The real trouble with Donald Trump’s misuse of words and symbols

Last month a friend of mine messaged me and complained of my use of the word “comrades” in the close of my articles. It is a grievance I encounter from time to time. She was referring to what I privately call my “Hitchens Benediction.” Christopher Hitchens frequently began his public addresses with the words, “Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends.” I use those words as a kind of homage to him. I don’t doubt Mr. Hitchens got served up occasional grief for using the word “comrades” just as I have, and I am happy to suffer with him in personal solidarity and as a vestige of my admiration for my late, great, fellow-traveler.

Her objection was that it reminded her too much of “Russian interference.” It does present a quandary, not because there’s anything wrong with the word, but because it’s a word so often associated with Russia in general and the former Soviet Union in particular. It doesn’t matter that the word the Russians used, and still use, “tovarisch,” has no root in common with my word, which is derived from the Spanish word “camarada.” “Comrade” pushes certain buttons in certain people.

My point is I think the effect of those buttons ought to be actively resisted. We ought to recognize the tendency to find false meaning behind the use of certain words and symbols as a tendency that is more common among Republicans — and get over it. It is also a measure of my curmudgeonly nature that I intend to go right on using the word anyway. What’s good for Hitchens is certainly good for me.

“Comrade” was a word made particularly nasty by men like Richard Nixon, Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn, and the whole ugly, braying, blaming crowd of Cold War era hate mongers. The Kennedys didn’t do the word any favors either, but the most egregious misuses of the symbology behind words was done by Nixonian Republicans. It was a tendency that Harry Truman frequently referred to as a red herring, and I believe he was right to do so.

It is what Republicans are still trying to do with symbols and the symbology of words even today. So when Republicans today use words like “Antifa,” “socialism,” “China Virus,” “defund,” “Obamagate,” “Deep State,” “Benghazi,” “Burisma,” and so on, they imply far more than is actually there, and need it be said?, far more than they can competently and historically justify.

This foreshortening of the language into quick and false symbols misused to inspire hate, fear and prejudice is characteristically Republican and wholly inappropriate to where we ought to be today as a species. One thing that Barack Obama did that I particularly admire (and for which he got endless criticism, of course) was that he spoke in whole paragraphs about complicated topics, because the topics he spoke about were complicated and paragraphs were required.

Obama did another thing along those same lines that I like. He removed speech-making from the realm of strict rhetorical oratory and brought it into a different realm, the realm of the art of direct and personal communication. He stopped speaking at us and instead spoke to us. (Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a place for oratory. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech can still move and inspire in all the right ways all these years later. But oratory is at its best when it is used to move and inspire, not when it is used to promote and inspire hatred and fear.)

When Donald Trump speaks he speaks at us, using misapplied words intended to inflame, words that try to reach into our fears and our prejudices. He is a merchant of hate and fear and blame. He and his kind torture words until they are deformed into symbols as ugly as a swastika and as antithetical to democracy as the confederate flag. It is how the Republicans justify the protection of statues of racists. It is how they justify heaping scorn and hatred on people of color protesting their own brutalisations and murders.

It is ironic that the biggest merchants of symbolic hatreds can find whole universes behind rare excursions into the symbology of the Left. “Black Lives Matter” becomes “hate speech” in the hands of Donald Trump and his acolytes. They are just inches away from calling it “Crimethink.”

It is no surprise that George Orwell noticed this proclivity of fascism, what he called “the destruction of words,” and wrote about it with such brooding clarity in his books and articles, particularly in “1984” and “Animal Farm.” Donald Trump is likewise a destroyer of words. He has a vocabulary that is limited to very few words, like “tremendous,” “disgusting,” “strongly,” “shithole,” and so on. He complains when he mistakenly thinks there are too many words to describe one thing, like “England,” “Britain” and “the United Kingdom.”

For Trump, “China Virus” takes care of the, to him, baffling array of words used to describe the disease of the current pandemic. The terms “Coronavirus,” “COVID-19” and “SARS-CoV-2” have their usages that are distinctions too subtle for Trump’s limited mind. Besides, “China Virus” satisfies two things at once for Trump. It appeals to his bigoted xenophobia and redirects the blame for his disasterous response to the pandemic onto the shoulders of the Chinese government. Of course Trump doesn’t care if use of the term causes violence against Asian Americans. He has never cared if people get hurt because of his hateful misuse of words and symbols.

We have it in our power to do something more than symbolic in November. We can vote this repulsive monster out of office. Let’s do so, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, and stay safe when you do it.

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