Language gaps

I have been reflecting on two traditional habits of our media that have become not only dysfunctional but actively destructive.  First, reporting on Trump as though he is a basically serious person.  The press is, slowly, getting better about nailing Trump for lying, and using the word. Old habits die hard, and the habit of treating the discourse of a US president as being considerable, and assuming conventional links among utterance, belief, and intention is one of those. But it’s not working, because those links are broken in Trump’s case.

When someone says something, in any serious context, we take the utterance as some sort of forecast of behavior.  “Drive me around in my car and I’ll pay you $X” is a commitment, maybe enforceable in court; “I love you” uttered by anyone not a complete cad isn’t as firm an assurance of future behavior, but normal people take it as at least not meaning “I don’t care about you” or “Actually I love someone else”, and normal people say it, or don’t, knowing that.  People can change their minds, but the general rule applies,  especially for public figures and leaders: what you say is and is seen to be predictive of your future behavior. A colleague of mine said what it means to a Jew to be Bar Mitzvah is that you are now responsible to what you say.

Accordingly, presidential discourse has always been reportable as spoken: data that is predictive (not perfectly) of consequential actions. However flacks and commentators spin it, we have taken presidents’ words as considerable.   It’s time to stop what has become a mechanistic charade: we have a president whose speech, whether about values, beliefs, or promised action,  only predicts his behavior accidentally. He reneges on flat commitments like promises to give to veterans’ causes, to invest in infrastructure, and ‘deals’ like the one last fall about immigration.  He is relentlessly, doggedly ignorant about absolutely everything, so his statements of fact are not even hopes and wishes, but short-run chum for his most hateful base, whatever he thinks a rally audience wants to hear. When Trump’s rallies, tweets, and press events are broadcast the way a normal president’s events used to be, and when his environmental policies are presented as though the fact assertions they rest on are on this side of the line between knowledge and witchcraft, they are flatly misrepresented. “Trump said X today” is simply not the same kind of report as it would be regarding the utterance of a responsible adult; tradition is a poor guide now. “Trump said X” means “the last person (or rally crowd) who flattered Trump in his presence, or his latest instructions from Putin, told him to say X” and little more.


The other old habit that has become toxic is courtesy, whether to the office or to the man (and his gang of grifters and incompetents).  Unwillingness to simply say Trump lied about this or that, and instead depending on counterassertions from other sources as though what Trump says has half the legitimacy in the sense above of any randomly chosen spokesperson from outside his orbit, is journalistic malpractice. But lying is not the only thing that needs to have appropriate language wheeled up in these times.  Another is to start saying cruel and cruelty, savage  and savagery instead of harsh, firm, and the like to describe the really unspeakable programs of this administration. Bullying is much too timid, and certainly nothing about the way Trump talks about others deserves any grace or courtesy in return.

Here are a few more words that need to be used more in characterizing Trump and his practices, words writers avoid as though saying what is true, rather than Trump himself, “coarsens” our public discourse:

Cowardly.  Lazy. Cheater. Hateful. Stooge.  Especially apt and underused, Whiner.

…and a word we need this week, treasonous.  Now, this is a big deal; the constitution, as Mark K. likes to point out, defines it for formal government actions as requiring aid and comfort to a foreign power with which we are at war, and Mark remembers a very dark period a half-century ago in which treason was used sloppily to attack moderates, lefties, socialists, and liberals and shouldn’t have been.

I no longer take Mark’s side about this word as regards the Trump administration. Whether or not Trump qualifies for prosecution for “capital-T Treason” in a court, and he may well, the word applies fairly for common debate and discussion. I believe (i) his behavior towards NATO and our allies generally, (ii) broadly destructive initiatives against core American institutions and mores, (iii) use of the tax system to secure and empower a class of 1% American oligarchs, (iv) assault on the physical health of millions of Americans by encouraging industry to poison them and denying them medical insurance (v) the evidence already on the table about the election and Russian meddling, all combined with his consistent stupefyingly sycophantic treatment of Putin, constitute a persuasive case that he is in the tank to a power as nearly “at war” with us as makes little difference-and committing overt acts against us in the interest of that power.  How “in the tank”-money, blackmail, physical threat, or all those-we don’t know yet.

How all this applies to a Republican Party that has traded all its historic principles for tax cuts for its donors,  voter suppression, and a Supreme Court seat deserves further analysis.

I will not be surprised to learn that Trump OKs Russian invasion of Estonia when he gets his next marching orders from Putin this week (after all, half the population speaks Russian and “they all speak Russian” was good enough for Trump to endorse the Crimea grab); maybe formally annexing eastern Ukraine is on offer. What domestic mischief Putin orders will not be clear right away, but I am no longer on any fence about its imminence, or viciousness.

[minor edit 12/VII/18]



Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

15 thoughts on “Language gaps”

  1. Russia and the U.S. have several thousand nuclear warheads. Are you sure that the difference between the current shitty Russian behavior and war "makes little difference" ?

  2. Other words that the media ought to use to describe Trump's actions are "illegal," "unconstitutional," and "impeachable." When websites such as Slate and the Washington Post, which allow unmoderated comments, run articles about Trump's kidnapping of children and babies, some readers inevitably post comments echoing Trump's contention that their parents should have stayed home and not violated the law. These people are unaware that it is not the parents but Trump who has violated the law-that the kidnappings are illegal, unconstitutional, and impeachable. No doubt many of these people, like Trump, are willfully unaware and are motivated by racism and xenophobia, but it wouldn't hurt to point out to them that kidnapping babies is more serious than lying about a blow job. Oh, yes, "kidnapping" is another word that the media might use.

  3. Cowardly. Lazy. Cheater. Hateful. Stooge. Especially apt and underused, Whiner.

    You left out Vicious. Can't omit that.

  4. Cowardly. Lazy. Cheater. Hateful. Stooge. Especially apt and underused, Whiner.

    You left out Vicious. Can't omit that.

    1. "Vicious" sounds too much like whining. Like "Have you no shame?"

      I'm embarrassed that I would write that. But being correct isn't enough these days. Have to take the battle to the enemies of America, not just complain about them.

  5. Trump should be reported on as if he were a moody 13 year old child and just doesn't know any better than to mouth fantasies to his buddies. He's not even talking to the adults when he talks. We are merely listening in as he talks to his fellow 13 year olds, his supporters. They don't take him all that seriously, but they find him amusing, which is very important when you are 13 years old and easily bored by mere facts and reasonableness.

    The 13 year old hasn't developed his full potential for empathy or sympathy. He doesn't know what it means to give and keep his word. He doesn't know what it means to be responsible. He doesn't know much of anything but is sure he knows the essence of every matter better than anyone. (Acknowledgements to John McWhorter of Columbia University, who recently pointed out the explanatory power of thinking of Trump as a 13 year old.)

  6. At one time, "objectivity" was a word which, applied to journalism, meant something like "accurate reporting of ascertainable facts." At some point, its meaning changed to "giving both sides of the issue." Hence our present dilemma.

  7. If you want to see how it's done, check out the leader in the Scotsman:

    Donald Trump, due to arrive in the UK later today, is a racist, a serial liar, and either a sex abuser or someone who falsely brags about being one in the apparent belief that this will impress other men in a metaphorical “locker room”.

    Read more at:

  8. Well, on the positive side, it seems most European leaders are being sensible and not over-reacting. Things are not going well right now, it’s true.

    Meanwhile … there are here and there a few signs of life among the real conservatives. It’s kinda fascinating. Keep hope alive. Also, we need to organize. I keep saying it and not doing it - need to reverse that.

    1. The only signs of life I've seen among real conservatives (that is, traditional conservatives, in the John Dean / Howard Baker / Richard Luger mold) is leaving the Republican Party. I wish some of them would unite and apply some pressure to the group now in Congress. I'm thinking the kind of meeting with Mitch McConnell that several Republicans, including Barry Goldwater, had with Richard Nixon back in the time of Watergate.

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