Taking Donald Trump to task over his English language skills is nothing new. In early 2016, Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute (LTI) performed a readability analysis of the speaking habits of presidential candidates in the 2016 primaries. The researchers found that Trump tended to lag behind most the other candidates, who used words and grammar typical of students in grades six through eight.
A day after the LTI analysis was published, a writer for the Independent piled on, writing that Trump’s linguistic skills weren’t as polished as Hillary Clinton’s.
By now it’s no secret to most Americans. The president’s off-the-cuff remarks are quite as polished as the majority of those who came before him.
But so what? We don’t hire presidents based on their oratorical skills. If in the next four years, Donald Trump signs into law a health care bill that does what Obamacare never aspired to do (make premiums portable across state lines, for example), simplifies the tax code, and secures the nation’s southern border, no one is going to remember whether he dotted every i.
This last point is reaffirmed in the opening sentence of an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times that has as its main theme the lesser issue of Trump’s linguistic shortcomings. The author is Charles Blow.
I know that there are things of graver consequence in Donald Trump’s regime than his diction, but as a person whose vocation concerns him with language, I am simply appalled by Trump’s savage mauling of that language.
His usage isn’t only idiosyncratic or some act of bungling idiocy, although it is surely both. But his usage is also a way of reducing language to the point that it is meaningless because the use of it is mindless, and in that compromised state, language becomes nearly worthless. As a consequence, truth becomes relative, if not altogether removed.
You see, Trump’s abuse of language isn’t simply a thing to blithely mock.
Blow’s performance here, on the other, is something to mock — and the blither the mockery, the better. His writing here is some of the most amateurish, flatulent, and ham-handed I’ve had the displeasure to read.
Alex Griswold, who writes for The Washington Free Beacon, was one of the first to weigh in on this mess, tweeting out in rapid succession:
“obfuscating with linguistic obtuseness,” wrote a human being pic.twitter.com/rLGwtUOcmk
— Alex Griswold (@HashtagGriswold) July 17, 2017
Some of the replies to the pair of tweets deserve special mention:
Supercilious verbosity formulated to make the writer sound sophisticated by using prose excessively polysyllabic has the opposite effect.
— Razor (@hale_razor) July 17, 2017
— Christopher Snowdon (@cjsnowdon) July 17, 2017
This made my head hurt more than Trump’s diction ever could.
— Mary DiPasquale (@MaryDiPasqal3) July 17, 2017
A couple of responders mentioned George Orwell’s excellent essay “Politics and the English Language,” and one graciously offered a link.
— Charlie Peters (@CDP1882) July 17, 2017
Blow does his readers — and his detractors — the service of linking to an article that ran last week at The Washington Post that hammers Trump for his “indiscriminate” use of beautiful, which he uses “the way a teenager might use ‘cool.’” Maybe the Post and Blow would prefer that Trump follow Barack Obama’s lead and eliminate the middle man:
“In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue,” he told the more than 12,000 graduates in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about. That’s not keeping it real or telling it like it is. That’s not challenging political correctness. That’s just not knowing what you’re talking about. And yet we’ve become confused about this.” [Emphasis added]
In closing, I’d like to offer a suitable epitaph for Charles Blow:
It’s as if he put language through a meat grinder and what emerged was nearly unrecognizable, in either comprehension or certitude.
Except for changing the tense from present to past, the tribute fits — especially since the author is Charles Blow.