Some years back, Richard Nixon’s ex-speechwriter William Safire penned a profoundly useful column, “On Language,” in which he would offer deep-dive analysis on one contemporary linguistic tic or another.
Safire didn’t live to write about the Trump era; however, if there were ever a need for a column devoted to the dark art of etymology, it’s probably now. Why? Language—news cycle after news cycle—is piled up with Trumpian inventions of language, which offer convenient distraction from actual policy moves.
For a vivid example, look no further than last Wednesday morning, when President Donald Trump invented the word “covfefe” in a Tweet about how the media keeps hammering him for minor things, like having an administration full of folks who met with Russian functionaries but didn’t see that action worth a mention to anyone.
Covfefe stormed the Internet. Every pundit, would-be pundit, quasi-humorist, and so on, had a take. And why not? For all people knew, Trump actually had a stroke before he hit 140 characters.
Trump, for reasons only he and those inside the White House know, let the Tweet marinate for a few hours, as the term trended overnight, before pushing out a follow-up Tweet mocking the situation, urging people to guess the true meaning of covfefe.
And so they did. It dominated the news cycle, taking pride of place next to policy ephemera like, oh, I don’t know, leaving the Paris Accord, seeing German leader Angela Merkel pivot away from the U.S. (signaling the end of a seven-decades-old relationship that helped keep the peace, relatively speaking, in what had been a continually war-torn continent), and other related issues.
So covfefe. Why the hell not? If your administration had just wrapped a disastrous trip to Europe, if you as the president were reduced to touting the Saudi royal family and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte as friends, you’d want to discuss fake words, too.
After all, in the words of recent indie-pop darlings Belle & Sebastian, it’s been a century of fakers.
Let’s start in the early 2000s. After the attacks on 9/11, the war machine got fired up and ready to go—and go it did, in two theaters unrelated to Saudi Arabia, the country of origin of most of the 19 attackers.
There was Iraq, a controversial theater of action, which many said was invaded for oil, and others said was invaded because W wanted to avenge his daddy and finish the job.
And then Afghanistan, lauded by what passed for the center-left as “the good war.” We were going to liberate them from tyranny, et al.
Sorry for the spoilers if you’ve been in a coma for 15 years, but Iraq somehow turned out to be a quagmire, a situation in which a government was set up that was as shaky as South Vietnam’s ever was. And Afghanistan? Our puppet controlled a couple square miles in Kabul, his brother ran the poppy fields that flooded the world with opium that apparently was immune to abatement strategies, and now our soldiers—15 years in—are fighting the Taliban, which apparently is being supplied by the Russians.
Tee hee. Whoops.
So we sold these unproductive wars, while the destruction of the middle class continued apace.
The economy heated up by easy credit and quantitative easing (a hallmark of 21st-century monetary policy). All went well enough through Hurricane Katrina, and then the financial crisis of 2008, a shit show without recent precedent, spotlighted the flimsy architecture of the Bush economy.
Then Obama was elected president. And we all have the commemorative plates to prove it.
A lot of great speeches happened. The foreign adventurism continued, with our portfolio of bombed countries expanding. The monetary supply was inflated further, with the benefit going to the top 1 percent, as those in the bottom few quintiles discovered their hard work wasn’t quite getting it done in terms of paying the bills. There was minor nibbling around the edges of the pernicious Drug War, but no substantive strategy revision; after all, it wasn’t as if cannabis could be moved off Schedule 1, and wasn’t as if the DEA were an Executive Branch agency.
And Obamacare? It worked great in theory, though program refinements didn’t come in time to ward off the skyrocketing premiums Republicans exploited during the 2016 campaign.
Whatever the faults of the Obama Administration, it has to be said: the man could deliver a great speech. For half the country, his soaring presidential rhetoric spackled over myriad holes in policy execution.
With President Covfefe, we have the opposite situation: Jabberwockian words, empty provocations and the embrace of police-state thugs home and abroad.
The common thread? We all get poorer. We all get a little more screwed over, as the gauzy rhetoric of high school government civics classes collapses under the acid test of life in a dystopian post-democratic state.