A Night Off From Language Abuse–Not Quite

 

As expected, there have been plenty of news organizations and social-media watchdogs to point out the substantive problems in President Trump’s speech last night to the joint session of Congress: the factual inaccuracies, the hypocricies, the credit taken for things that already had happened or were under way before Trump took office. But for once, Trump’s remarks—written by smarter people and read from a teleprompter—did not give editor geeks like me too much to work with. On any other night, his off-the-cuff ramblings would contain so many unfinished sentences and other grammatical errors, so much hyperbole and vague language, that I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

Still, as an editor, I do have a couple of complaints. This minor one is from the Department of Redundancy Department: “I will not allow the mistakes of recent decades past to define the course of our future.”

Now the Stephens who wrote the speech might argue that both “recent” and “past” were necessary for full clarity, but this Stephen strongly disagrees. “Decades past” alone would not have focused sufficient attention on the “mistakes” of the Obama administration, but “recent decades” removes any need to add the word “past.” Recent is defined as “belonging to a past period of time comparatively close to the present,” so “recent decades past” is redundant, period. There is no “recent future.”

Another editor’s complaint involves a passage that is a combination of hyperbole and illogic, and may have been overlooked by the fact-checkers precisely because it doesn’t make enough sense to be singled out as factually inaccurate.

“The rebellion started as a quiet protest … But then the quiet voices became a loud chorus … Finally, the chorus became an earthquake, and the people turned out, by the tens of millions, and they were all united by one very simple but crucial demand: that America must put its own citizens first.”

Huh?

OK, before I pick this statement apart, I will acknowledge that its intent seems clear. And even though Trump probably didn’t write it, it’s a page right out of his playbook: keep repeating that I inspired a huge turnout, that I won in a landslide, and that I’m one of the most popular presidents ever, and people surely will believe me and love me.

There was no earthquake, no huge turnout. People have turned out by the tens of millions for presidential elections since before I was born. In terms of sheer numbers, both Barack Obama election years saw higher turnout. In terms of the percentage of eligible voters, 2016 had the smallest turnout in twenty years.

And of course, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million. And the voters were not united in their values or “demands”—they were very sharply divided, and still are. Again, the only thing resembling an “earthquake” here is the fault line between red and blue America.

My parting shot comes not directly from Trump’s speech, but from a campaign incident that last night’s event brought immediately to mind. In the emotional high point of the speech, Trump paid tribute to Carryn Owens, the widow of William Ryan Owens, a Navy SEAL who died in a January raid in Yemen. No further comment on that tribute, except to say it stood out in sharp contrast to Trump’s exchange during the primaries with the parents of US Army Capt. Humayun Khan, an American Muslim who died while serving in Iraq. The soldier’s father, Khizr Khan, gave a memorable speech at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia in which he questioned Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and respectfully offered him his pocket-sized copy of the US Constitution to read.

In the aftermath, Trump belittled the Gold Star parents and then defended himself by saying he had been “viciously attacked” by Khan.

In its definitions of “vicious,” Merriam-Webster offers words including “savage,” “malicious,” “spiteful,” and “dangerously aggressive.”

You saw it. Khan delivered his criticism of Trump in gentlemanly, reserved tones, offering his copy of the Constitution as a pointed but polite challenge. There was nothing remotely vicious about it.

Trump’s response was hyperbole. It was loaded, exaggerated wording that can’t be defended. It was abuse of the English language. I wouldn’t accept it from students, and I don’t accept it from Donald Trump. But he does it all the time.

Last night, crutches at hand, Trump sounded, for once, almost articulate. If I sound disappointed, I’m also sure it won’t last. Before you know it, he’ll be in front of a microphone again, without a script.

And his next Twitter rampage can’t be more than a day or two away.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon

 

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