Op-Ed: Trump’s jargon is infectious
Donald Trump’s triglycerides are 129. His fasting blood glucose is 89. His alanine transaminase is 27. He’s fine. He seems to be hewing to norms, for once.
But to hear the presidential physician tell it, Trump is bionic. In a news conference, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson hailed Trump’s health as “excellent” eight times. He padded his encomium with steroidal intensifiers. Incredibly. Exceptionally. Hands down. He sounded awestruck: “He has incredibly good genes, and it’s just the way God made him.”
For the record:
8:30 AM, Jan. 21, 2018This article originally stated that James Comey, the former FBI director, was a “military man.” That is not the case.
It was chilling to hear a doctor underscore Trump’s oft-expressed faith in his own genetic superiority. When Trump himself gives this “good genes” spiel, it often dovetails with his broader ideology of white supremacy. But more shuddery still was hearing Jackson pipe Trump’s special brand of overheated self-congratulation.
We know this plot by now: A man of apparent self-possession disappears into an examining room or a golf cart with the president — and comes out hollow-eyed, body-snatched and programmed with Trump’s own pieties.
We can trace the descent of those who’ve submitted to Trump through the descent of their language.
Earlier this month, the journalist Maggie Haberman tweeted, “Three Trump advisors have commented privately at various points that people around him/close to him begin to act like him.” This phenomenon goes for the media too. As Katy Waldman wrote in Slate: “Trump’s tics continue to seep into the way we write and speak, whether we think we’re being ironic or just can’t help ventriloquizing the man on everyone’s mind. We’re all the puppet.”
Sure, there are those lost souls who take up the full bow-and-scrape routine: Vice President Mike Pence, attorney Michael Cohen, Don Jr., some in the Cabinet. Hope for them is gone. But what of the less likely Trump imitators who have forfeited actual dignity to act like him? One year ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, no one’s idea of a pushover, threw over his establishment Hebrew in favor of Trump’s cloying imbecility. “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.”
Similarly, as Trump was getting close to President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi of Egypt in the fall, the Egyptian government waxed Trumpian to mark a deadly attack on a mosque in the Sinai: “As usual, deplorable @CNN coverage of Sinai tragedy today. Anchor more interested in reporters access to Sinai than in those who lost their lives!!!”
Trump almost certainly counts the rhetorical subordination of these men as a win. After all, he devised his interpersonal strategies in the 1970s, when mentally dominating others was considered a fine art. The manual for “corporate warfare” in those days was “Power!” by Michael Korda, who ran in Trump’s circles.
Korda advised aspirants to power to encroach on other people’s space, keep them waiting on the phone, and force them to mirror you. The mirror tip sticks out: Evidently you can crush your enemies if you can force them to adopt your expressions, intonations, rhythms, gestures. Trump seems to have taken tips like these seriously, insisting the media echo his jargon, beginning with the word he fed reporters looking to describe him in the ’70s: “flair.”
At least two employees have faced down Trump’s effort to dominate them. These are Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and James Comey, the former FBI director; their experiences lay bare the power dynamics latent in nearly every encounter with the president.
Bharara has described his acute discomfort when Trump tried to curry favor with him by making what Bharara calls “chit chat” in a private phone call. Bharara saw these unnervingly casual overtures as an effort to “cultivate a direct personal relationship” with him—a breach of the Chinese wall separating presidents and U.S. attorneys. After marshaling support from colleagues and family, Bharara refused the next call, sensing that if he kept playing along, Trump might one day ask him to do “something inappropriate.” Bharara was anxious: “I didn’t snub the phone call lightly.” His firing exposed the game the president plays: Trump will punish the people who refuse to let him violate their integrity.
When Comey was likewise manipulated into meeting alone with Trump, he encountered an even more pointed effort to compel echoing. In Comey’s telling, Trump hammered away at him to use the word “loyal.”
“I tried to hold the line,” Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee in June. “It got very awkward. And then I said you’ll always have ‘honesty’ from me. He said ‘honest loyalty.’ And I then … proceeded with that as I saw that as a way to end this awkwardness.”
End this awkwardness. For anyone inclined to judge someone, woman or man, for not slapping an aggressor, it’s useful to remember that even Comey — a physically imposing man who was FBI director, commanding some 35,000 law-enforcement officials — even he gave in to a bully rather than risk awkwardness.
This panic around awkwardness may explain why, even as Trump compulsively humiliates himself — monologuing, lying, lurching into locker-room talk and racist speech — many around him move reflexively to help him save face by both extenuating and amplifying his language.
Ideally, one day, we’ll hear more from those who have struggled to fight off Trump’s dominance moves: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Sen. Bob Corker, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake come to mind. Meanwhile, we can trace the descent of those who’ve submitted to Trump through the descent of their language. Sen. Tom Cotton, once an honorable Army captain and graduate of Harvard Law School, first lied to cover Trump’s racist remarks about “shithole countries,” then defended the substance of the remarks, and finally claimed he’d heard not “shithole” but “shithouse.”
Once Trump has a U.S. senator praising his demented immigration ideas and echoing his sentiments about shit-anything, he’s got that little patsy right where he wants him.
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