One of the most revealing exchanges in the 2016 presidential campaign happened during Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s first debate. Clinton was trying to get Trump to admit that he had said something that he had, in fact, said. Trump did not flinch. Instead, he shrugged. “It’s all words, it’s all sound bites,” he said.
Clinton took offense at Trump’s refusal to stand by his own statements—or any statements, for that matter. She proclaimed, “Words matter. Words matter when you run for president. And they really matter when you are president.”
Only minutes later, Trump held Clinton to her own standard, faulting her for failing to use the words “law and order,” and then faulting her for using the term “super predators” in the 1990s to describe flailing, violent young Americans (and particularly young African-Americans). Clinton did not respond to either criticism.
Trump had already, in several speeches, faulted Clinton for failing to use the words “radical Islamic terrorism.” Clinton’s response to that charge was, in part: “From my perspective, it matters what we do more than what we say.”
This year’s presidential contest pitted a man who openly refused to stand by his own words against a woman who sometimes seemed to insist we judge her by her words and sometimes seemed to insist otherwise. No wonder most Americans, in an Associated Press-NORC survey conducted during the campaign, described their feelings about the election as frustrated, helpless, and angry.
Language lies at the heart of politics, and democratic politics in particular. When Aristotle proclaimed that people are political animals, he rested the claim on the fact that people are beings who talk. Because we can use words to reflect and reason with each other, Aristotle said, we are able to discuss the terms by which we want to live. Therein lies politics. Laws, after all, are nothing more than pledges made in speech; language is both the precondition for politics and its essential tool.
Even Nietzsche, who looks unnervingly sensible in the wake of this campaign season, saw the capacity to make promises as the distinctive quality of our species, the origin of our greatest potential. A healthy politics requires a healthy respect for our words—our own words and each other’s.
The fact that speech itself took a beating in this presidential election is thus deeply worrisome. But Clinton and Trump are not singularly to blame here, blameworthy though they may be. Both candidates embodied longer-term trends; our relationship to words in the United States has been on the rocks for some time now.
Twenty years ago, in fact, the historian and Commonweal contributor Christopher Lasch lamented what he saw as the rise of a dangerous kind of cynicism about language in America: the “cynicism that makes no distinction between power and persuasion” and “that refuses to distinguish between ideas and propaganda, argumentation and intellectual warfare.” Understanding the centrality of speech to politics, Lasch regarded this kind of cynicism as the greatest threat to American democracy.
Like any cynical posture, Lasch wrote, this one is defensive and born of disappointment. We are most susceptible to becoming cynical when we are shamed by our own vulnerability. When our experience has taught us that it is not safe to trust others, especially those in positions of authority, “we inoculate ourselves with irreverence.” The rising inequality in the United States and the continuing failure of elites, especially those on the left, to address the material needs of a failing middle class struck Lasch as ominous trends. They seemed like precisely the conditions that would lead more and more Americans to develop a knee-jerk distrust of anything that people in power say. (Think: “Climate change is a hoax!” Think: “The media are liars!”)
What is even grimmer about such cynicism is that it does not solve or ameliorate the real problems out of which it emerges. Rather, it speeds the cynic into a black hole of disbelief, into increasing states of paranoia and despair. Cynicism leads to an embrace of the lowest common denominator, to arbitrary acts of defiance, and to the suspicion that big problems cannot be solved. The cynic becomes unable to discriminate between serious and showy leadership. “Cynicism confuses delusions of grandeur,” wrote Lasch, “with grandeur itself.”
Cue Trump: Trump shrugs, says that “it’s all words,” says he has “the best words,” insults a member of the elite class, and retires to his garish monstrosity of a home on Fifth Avenue. One does not have to be a prophet of Lasch’s caliber to predict that under the administration of President Trump, cynicism is likely to grow—and threats to the republic along with it.
FOR HER PART, Clinton, never a talented campaigner, was particularly ill-equipped to take all this on. Her wonkish inclination to focus on details and the immediate task at hand—the same inclination that makes her an excellent policymaker and bureaucrat—led her to focus on the cynic who was right in front of her, rather than the broader cynicism he represented. (In the debate I mention above, for instance, rather than pick up on Trump’s sly evisceration of her claim to believe that “words matter,” Clinton said, “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president.” She would conclude the debate, with an air of triumph, by noting that Trump had once called a beauty queen fat.) And her own relationship to words, as Trump exposed, was fairly suspect.
It’s clear in retrospect that, rather than to concentrate on the man, a better approach for Clinton (not to mention Trump’s Republican opponents in the primary) would have been to concentrate on the message and the mood—on the cynicism that Trump harnessed and the sense of vulnerability out of which that cynicism has long been growing.
Those fans of Bernie Sanders who insist he would have beaten Trump may be overstating the case, but it does seem certain that Democrats would have done better to do something like what Sanders did: to speak consistently and candidly about the terrible inequalities of contemporary American life, to identify those inequalities as structural, and to present serious and even radical proposals to combat those inequalities. Democrats, in other words, would have done better to be good democrats.
If, as is likely, Trump’s administration allied with a Republican Congress fails to make any serious structural changes to combat the real insecurity and shame felt by so many Americans, and cynicism in the population increases, Democrats will have at least one more chance to combat it. That will be something of an uphill battle, even if Trump is an evidently disastrous leader. Cynicism is contagious and corrosive, and once you get to this point, where cynics scoff at words themselves, things are really bad.
Still, all of us would do well to remember that aggressive disbelievers are usually heartbroken people who yearn to believe. This is a republic (at least for now) of anguished patriots. And while in moments of anguish, faith may be hardest to find, it is in moments of anguish that faith is most desperately sought. In this year, when American politics has been in so many senses beyond belief, let us all work—in words as well as deeds—to restore it.
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