There’s an old joke about Soviet Russia that you might have heard, where you reverse the two parts of a sentence: “In America, you break law. In Soviet Russia, law breaks you.” The joke is an example of chiasmus, a rhetorical form that repeats words or clauses in transposed order—but this particular version has a name: the “Russian Reversal.” In the United States, the Russian Reversal flourished during the Cold War. Bob Hope, for example, told a form of it at the 1958 Oscars, reminding his audience that though there was a television in his Moscow hotel room, “it watches you.” The comedian Yakov Smirnoff popularized it in the 1980s, hawking Miller Lite with the slogan “In Russia, Party always finds you.”
It’s easy to see how the Russian Reversal and Cold War–era Soviet politics relate: the joke turns a subject into an object—something, or, more tellingly, someone, who does not act but is acted upon. The individual becomes subordinate to the agency of some abstract force—the law, say, or the media, or the social order. The politics of democracy versus communism, neatly distilled into rhetorical form.
We don’t need to craft our rhetoric with particular care for it to reflect our politics. In fact, often this phenomenon occurs naturally, a sort of efflorescence of the political unconscious made visible in the words we use. As the cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues, language and belief are deeply intertwined, and forms we give our language can serve as keys to our values and beliefs. To borrow one of Lakoff’s recent examples, if we want to describe laws that limit, say, industrial waste, using the word “regulation” (which carries associations with rules and restriction) to describe such laws implies a radically different way of thinking about them than using the word “protections” (which has overtones of safety and preservation) does.
Compare the Russian Reversal to history’s most famous chiasmus, JFK’s 1961 remark, “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy’s words aimed to inspire post-war Americans to service, and the shape he gave them is the Russian Reversal’s symmetric opposite. In JFK’s speech, the individual becomes the agent, and the abstract force—your country—becomes what is acted upon. The politics, like the grammar, consists in making the passive active.
Our current president, Donald Trump, is not really a representative of any historical political party or position. He can only be defined as reactionary, and from the standpoint of language use, he is unparalleled. His idiolect is so unique practically anyone can parody him, but there’s more to Trump’s “bad” style than chaos or inexperience. The precise nature of his grammatical blunders has something far more significant to tell us about his leadership.
In general, the adjective is Trump’s part of speech of choice, and Trump’s is an adjectival politics. Whether deploying adjectives as fear-mongering nouns (like “cyber,” “nuclear,” or “illegals”), or stirring up his followers with his favorite positive adjectives (“tremendous,” “YUGE,” “great,” “big-league,” “amazing,”) he deploys this part of speech with astounding frequency and lack of grammatical sense.
The persistent overuse of adjectives signals the speaker’s doubt that they have something to say in the first place.
Adjectives have gotten a bad rap from many a writer and editor. Voltaire claimed that “the adjective is the enemy of the noun,” meaning that adjectives serve to misdirect, dissemble, and tell us how to think and feel about hard truths. Mark Twain famously wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it”—a dictum that the grammarian Ben Yagoda took for the title of his 2007 style guide. Strunk and White, the most enduring of style-guide writers, claimed in their 1918 The Elements of Style, “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place” (a piece of advice many writers have noted for its irony—the statement itself contains three adjectives). Their point, irony notwithstanding, is one that bears considering.
As anyone who has ever taught a writing class knows, the greatest problem faced by writers is not knowing what they’re writing about. Without a clear idea of what needs to be expressed, expression suffers and, in the most extreme cases, devolves into nonsense.
The persistent overuse of adjectives signals the writer or speaker’s doubt—doubt not only that they’ll be able to convince their audience, but that they have something to say in the first place. Trump’s grammatical troubles suggest precisely this problem: often, his sentences lack a center. He is not merely a compulsive adjective overuser, deploying that fickle part of speech as a means of indirection from the inadequacy of his nouns—he very often omits nouns altogether.
At the first presidential debate, he warned that “we have to get very, very tough on cyber,” emphasizing the difficulty of this issue by pointing out that “the security aspect of cyber is very, very tough.” “Cyber,” of course, is a modifier. Strictly speaking, on its own it means nothing, since it requires an object, something to which the attribute “cyber” is applied.
In an interview with the New York Times in March, he addressed a different issue that he claimed was even greater cause for alarm, stating “right now we’re protecting, we’re basically protecting Japan . . . we get calls from Japan and we get calls from everybody else, and “Do something.” And there’ll be a point at which we’re just not going to be able to do it anymore. Now, does that mean nuclear? It could mean nuclear . . . [the] biggest problem, to me, in the world, is nuclear.” Not nuclear power, nuclear arsenals, nuclear bombs or weapons. Simply “nuclear,” full stop.
In a listening session on opioid addiction at the end of last month, Trump told an audience of medical health professionals, victims of addiction, families, and survivors, “we want to battle drug addiction and combat opioid, and we have to do it.” He could quite easily, and much more naturally, have said “opioid addiction” or just “opioid use.” By instead repeatedly omitting the noun, he showed evidence of what can only be described as a full-on grammatical tic.
What’s unique about this tic is that it doesn’t merely produce an inelegant style; it often leaves listeners unable to understand the president’s meaning. Trump’s style of usage does nothing more—and nothing less—than conjure up associations and feelings, leaving its listeners lost in a fog of notions and connotations without a noun to guide the way.
Writing one year after the end of World War II, George Orwell sharply criticized the political writers of his time for trying to deceive their audiences by using vague language. Unclear writing, in Orwell’s words, “falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.” For politicians, this blurriness serves a purpose: “political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
It’s like a restaurant menu that lists items as “delicious, mouth-watering, very big” without telling you if you’ll be getting beet salad or pulled pork.
Trying to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind: one couldn’t find a better way to describe speech that piles adjectives upon adjectives—but leaves out the nouns. It’s like a menu in a restaurant that lists items like “delicious, mouth-watering, very big” or “authentic, amazing, subtle, flavorful” without ever telling you if you’ll be getting beet salad or pulled pork.
A practical motive for Trump to leave his listeners perpetually wondering about whether he “really” means what he says is that it gives him a wide margin of interpretation—room to maneuver. Post-facto explanations of Trump’s speech, whether from his own podium or his spokespersons’, make possible any gloss on his language that might serve him at a later moment.
During a meeting with business leaders on February 23, for example, Trump talked about his administration’s moves to expel undocumented immigrants from the country, which he described as a “military operation.” When this statement was reported in the press, the international community immediately began to express concern about the idea of using the military to carry out Trump’s planned deportations. In addressing these concerns, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump was using the word “as an adjective,” saying that “[deportation]’s happening with precision and in a manner in which it’s being done very, very clearly.”
Whether he is telling us what part of speech the president meant to be using or encouraging us to take a Trumpian decree “figuratively” (as he did in his role as RNC Committee spokesman in March 2016, attempting to explain what Trump really meant when he said that if he failed to win the nomination there would be “riots”), Spicer’s role has been to manage the media’s and the American people’s interpretation of the presidential register, acting as a kind of rhetorical translator. When Trump accused Obama of “wiretaps” last month, Spicer suggested, “The President used the word ‘wiretaps’ in quotes to mean, broadly, surveillance and other activities.”
This strategy was repeated by the Republican chair of the house intelligence committee, Devin Nunes, who told reporters at a March 7 press conference, ‘‘I think a lot of the things he says, I think you guys sometimes take literally.’’ In an interview with Spicer on March 26th, Ted Koppel asked the press secretary, “Are we really at a point where we’re being told we shouldn’t take the president of the United States literally?”—a question to which he received a meandering and unclear response.
The reason for this perpetual ambiguity between the figurative and the literal is that the very existence of such poles relies on the presence of an underlying meaning. A figurative statement only works if it has a literal truth beneath it. This problem is further complicated by the fact that, these days, the word “literal” has come to signify hyperbole, as in, “I literally did nothing all day.” And hyperbole is the form Trump himself identifies as central to his rhetorical approach.
Trump’s success in exploiting the appeal of such language is by now undeniable. In The Art of the Deal, a book at least inspired—if not exactly written—by him, he “writes”:
The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.
Bravado may well do the trick in the arena of real estate deal-making and celebrity PR campaigns, but trying to build a policy out of hyperbole is another thing entirely.
The danger of hearing such vague and hyperbolic language from a president is that it’s difficult to hold such speech accountable. But though Trump’s adjectival style may have been effective at generating popularity, a presidency must be built of more than language. In the realm of politics, adjectives piled high without a noun to stand on will eventually come tumbling down.
Trump himself recognizes this basic truth in a later Art of the Deal passage when he acknowledges, “you can’t con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”