Watergate happened in audio. Bless his patriotic soul, President Nixon generously bugged his own offices and tapped his own phones. It was Nixon’s own unmistakable voice, conspiring on dirty tricks and putative obstruction of justice, that checkmated him.
President Trump is also his own wiretap, and he may yet checkmate himself. But he uses another medium, another form of speech and another genre to wreck himself. Trump’s chronic self-incrimination — most of it, anyway — is not audio; it exists in tweets and on TV.
From his televised request for more Kremlin hacks — “Russia, if you’re listening” — to his NBC confession that he fired the FBI director to snuff out the Russia investigation, Trump makes sure to get just about every micron of his venality on the record.
And nowhere does he do it more flagrantly than on Twitter. One example: The syntax and content of “No Collusion or Obstruction (other than I fight back),” from last month, was read by the journalist Jonathan Chait and others as a tacit confession that Trump was saying that he did, under the rubric of fighting back, obstruct justice.
But there are also tweets that constitute a kind of trespass in themselves. Speech that in another’s Twitterfeed would be banal is dangerous when it comes from the commander in chief. Paranoid Nixon would never have risked public proclamations like these. When Trump telegraphs attacks on Syria, for example, or sidles up to incendiary hate speech or even nuclear threats, words can be tantamount to deeds — and misdeeds.
When word and deed become one — when speaking is acting — we are often in the presence of what philosophers of language call “performative speech acts,” as opposed to “constatives.” Part of what’s so disorienting about Trump is that he uses speech in a relentlessly performative way.
Constatives are utterances that describe the world, and are responsive to fact-checking. Performatives, by contrast, are a show, and when you utter them, you enact — rather than describe — something in the world. Performatives are a subset of speech acts such as orders, threats, promises and warnings. Sound like Trump?
It’s pointless to fact-check an order. “Shut up,” for example, is neither true nor false.
J.L. Austin, the great 20th-century British philosopher who created (and later refined) the performative-constative distinction, said performatives are simply not “truth-evaluable.” Instead, as he wrote, “the constative utterance is true or false and the performative is happy or unhappy.”
Happy or unhappy! Perhaps that is how Trump’s strange utterances should be evaluated. We live in a time of unhappy performatives, which explains the dysphoria of Trump’s tweets.
A final way to understand the difference between our two nastiest presidents — Trump and Nixon — is to pay attention to genre.
Nixon’s genre was asides. “Conspire” comes from the Latin con spirare, literally, “breathe together.” Nixon liked to deliver his soliloquies to another man or other men in the style of smoke-choked back room skulduggery. He was furtive; the drama in a conspiracy happens out of sight.
But for Trump, whatever his role (if any) in what special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has identified as a “conspiracy to defraud the United States,” the drama is right in front of us, in our faces.
Trump’s a veteran, after all, of one of the strangest aesthetic forms of the last century: reality TV. On shows like “The Apprentice,” it’s the stated job of the performers, to “create drama” — and ham it the hell up.
When Trump used to call in compulsively to Howard Stern’s radio show in the 1990s, he loved getting Stern’s fawning praise whenever he said revolting “Wack Pack” stuff — that he would date his daughter, that he could have “gotten” Princess Diana. He discovered then that speech worked best for him when it delivered not truths so much as blows.
Later, he took that insight to gruesome heights on “The Apprentice” where his sadistic catchphrase was a classic performative: “You’re fired.” The statement was more order than fact. It was a hammer coming down.
The writer Karen Schwartz, just after the outset of the Mueller investigation, told me that American citizens, following this presidency at home, ought to be alert to genre. On the one hand, she said, the presidency is a reality show, where the players — former advisor Stephen K. Bannon, current advisor Rudolph W. Giuliani — who make the most noise and chaos get the most kudos and airtime.
But Schwartz also pointed out there’s another story going on here, one that conforms to a genre that’s older than reality TV. It’s a procedural.
The steady investigation of Trump’s campaign and administration for its ties to Russia has been going on for a year now. Mueller and his team keep their heads down. They don’t make noise or chaos. They’d be terrible on “The Bachelor” or “Duck Dynasty.”
The utterances of Mueller’s team that we can see — the ones in the indictments — are orderly, methodical and searing. No jokes, no rants, no tweets.
For those of us at home, just the knowledge that there’s a quieter and more consequential story of our times that’s not on Twitter, or even cable news, can be comforting. Whatever madness is happening on “The Real Housewives of the White House,” it’s extremely satisfying to know that “Law & Order” is continuing apace.
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