Speaking Trumpese

Aleksandar Hemon is Professor in Creative Writing at Princeton University. Born and raised in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, he ended up in the United States in 1992, as the war in Bosnia and the siege of Sarajevo began. He is the author of award-winning work in fiction, non-fiction, journalism, and screenplays, including the novel The Lazarus Project, which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. He has published three collections of short stories: The Question of BrunoNowhere Man, which was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Love and Obstacles. He published the novel The Making of Zombie Wars in 2015, and worked as a writer on the hit Netflix show Sense8. He co-wrote the script for The Matrix 4, currently in production. He has also published non-fiction, including his 2013 memoir The Book of My Lives and, in 2019, My Parents: An  Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You, as well as pieces in The New YorkerEsquireThe New York TimesThe Paris Review, and BH Dani. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003 and a “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation in 2004. He lives in Princeton, NJ with his wife and daughters.

As displaced former Yugoslavs in today’s America wake up every day to an avalanche of violent aggression on common humanity, accompanied and enhanced by maliciously outrageous lies, they’re likely to find the moronic Trumpian inferno resembling a preamble to war. We are now sadly attuned to those fascist frequencies, as it is hard not to reflect upon the undoing and not think that it was always coming. The incremental dissolution of the more perfect union and its body politic comes wrapped in a kind of unshocking strangeness—Americans might be able to perceive that what is taking place is exceedingly unusual but it’s difficult to be shocked. Such a state of mind and soul is familiar to those of us who experienced the dissolution of Yugoslavia, just as we know that it exacts a steep price on people’s relation to social reality and/or their shared civic experience.

Milomir Kovačević Strašni, Il était une fois la Yougoslavie

It is also true that the uncanniness of American nationalism is not exactly new, and that Americans have been lied to so often and so systematically that brazen dissembling is taken to be part of the performance of politics. People, including the lofty pundits of American press and media, have seen it as an aspect of will to power necessary for even entering political domain and coming up on the top. Being shocked at a politician lying and manipulating, the thinking goes, is like being shocked that soccer players foul the opposite team when the ref is not watching. It’s all part of the game. Some of us, however, have seen how that game ends[1].

Distorting and denying observable facts while relying on rank nationalist propaganda to achieve dubious goals has not been uncommon among presidents, which is to say that the difference between Trump and other American leaders might be in degree but not in kind. A solid argument could be made, for example, for direct continuity between Trump’s daily lying and the systemic Bushist fabrications leading to the invasion of Iraq and the catastrophic beyond. In fact, it is easy to relate the blatancy of Trumpian falsehoods to a Bush White House official (widely believed to have been Karl Rove) who to the journalist Ron Suskind derided “what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as the people who “believe that solutions emerge from [a] judicious study of discernable reality.” The official/Rove went on to say:

“That’s not the way the world really works anymore….We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”[2]

The fact of the matter is that Trump and the Republican Party, fully adjusted to his scorched-earth mode, have now taken Rove’s idea to its logical extremes. Their incessant lying is a way to practice power, while the very absence of any substantial consequences to that lying, however egregious, is a measure of that power. The more Trump and GOP lie, the greater their power, which is why there is no lie President could tell that could deprive him of the support of the Party and its core constituency. Although Lying is not a differential quality of Trump’s reign, Trumpists have taken the application of the Rovian idea to such an extreme that the lying, by virtue of its sheer volume and iniquity, is no longer creating reality but destroying it. It is something to experience a reality being created in contravention of one’s observable experience, and quite another to see the reality one deems to be solid undone before one’s very eyes. Trump’s differential quality is thus not his no-holds-barred dissimulation, but his commitment to radical incoherence and nonsense, a will to annihilation rooted in his pathologies, which happen to match exactly the pathologies of American capitalism and white supremacy.

Comparatively speaking, Bush’s relentless stupidity and capacity for malapropisms were merely noise as he struggled to perform the imperial president role he’d been cast in, not least by the aforementioned Rove. One can detect Bush’s desire to pursue coherence in his various hapless public appearances and speeches, his striving to reinforce some inner logic to his discourse so as to signify that he’s pursuing a social project, even if it was just a hackneyed attempt at strengthening the fading empire. Take this little excerpt from his 2000 campaign speech in Iowa:

“When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them, and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not so sure who the they are, but we know they’re there.”[3]

Bush spoke like the student who reached for his C-grade ceiling by repeating what he thought the good students would be saying, and he rarely managed to do it right. Compare his unfortunate attempts at coherence to any of the endless ramblings Trump delivers at his rallies, or to his unscripted digressions, even on the most innocuous occasions, like, say, planting trees in the White House garden for Earth Day in April 2020, when he uttered the following:

“We’re planting ten beautiful specimen trees. They’re specimens. All specimens. People may think that’s an exaggeration or that’s a Trump term. Actually, they’re sold as specimens. They cost more money, but they are better. I buy a lot of them.”[4]

Note how he destroys the meaning of trees and specimens by continuing to speak, while reshaping the utterance to fit it around himself. By the time he’s done with this particular ‘thought’ the sense is dissolved like a body in acid. The only bone left is Trump’s (money) power, present in the gratuitous lie: “I buy a lot of them.” Trump is fully, and perhaps congenitally, committed to such prolix self-centered nonsense, because what he says never needs to make sense any more than it needs to be true. But what he says and keeps saying must always be endlessly abundant, for he is a stable genius of prolix meaninglessness, emptying language of sense to infuse it with power.

Prolixity is symptom of both narcissism and authoritarianism, marking a need for silencing all voices but one and locating agency in a single infallible body/mind. There is, for instance, a whole library of texts on Hitler’s table talks, where he delivered what Albert Speer called ‘rambling nonsense’ on a variety of topics, including Christianity and eel fishing, while no one was allowed to interrupt him or contradict him. Not so long ago, Putin sat for five hours in front of the Russian state TV cameras and responded to 85 unchallenging questions, which the Voice of Russia promptly proclaimed to be a great new record. I can recall a slogan from Slobodan Milošević’s 1992 election campaign, taking place as his forces were destroying Bosnia and Herzegovina: “That’s how it should be!” (“Tako treba!”), bespeaking total confidence in the unchallengeable domination of his solistic voice. Gadhafi, whose lengthy 2009 rant at the UN is still remembered for its prolixity, could speak for hours on end too. Hugo Chavez once spoke for eight hours on his own TV show, while his heir Maduro spoke for four hours after being inaugurated as President of Venezuela. In 1986, Castro spoke for more than seven hours at a Cuban Communist Party Congress.  In a perfect autocracy, the population of nobodies never speaks, all their thoughts and feeling formulated and uttered by the leader and/or his representatives.

Milomir Kovačević Strašni, Il était une fois la Yougoslavie

While lies need to resemble at least a coherent statement in order to appear as truth,  so as to be processed, as it were, as though they have coherent meaning, nonsensical prolixity is fully dependent on being infused with power. The more meaningless and gratuitous the utterance, the greater the power of the speaker. Subject listen to a such a speaker because they have no other choice—That is how it should be!–and not because they expect to engage and acquire knowledge or measure the truthfulness against their experience.  Lies need someone to believe them, giving a certain amount of weak agency to the subjects/citizens, whereas nonsensical prolixity annihilates the audience by flooding the discursive field with vacuous language, becoming a choreography to which everyone must dance. The meaninglessness is the bludgeon for enforcing compliance, just as Trump’s speaking incessantly at his rallies confirms his power in the adoration of his subjects, passive and entranced by a kind of spectacular sacrificial destruction of language and meaning. In the period leading to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Milošević and his proxies orchestrated rallies—known as “people’s happenings“ (dešavanje naroda)—where the masses were present to publicly validate the decisions that had already been made. The narrative was already completed and it only had to be executed.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed a Bosnian woman in Miami as part of my project on displacement narratives.  She now sells high-end properties in South Florida, but, before all that, she lived through the siege of Sarajevo as a teenager, came alone to the US to college, eventually graduated from business school and, some fifteen years ago, got a job working for a Trump family business. (She quit a few years later.)  She was hired after a presentation she gave to the Trumps, who were duly impressed. Donald himself asked her afterwards: “What your story? Start from the end.”

I keep thinking about this line, as it bespeaks Trump’s absolute lack of interest in narratives that do not feature him—only the end matters because that’s where he enters. No other people’s stories have value, unless they validate his position of power, confirming his control of the narrative. To Trump the value of the Bosnian woman’s story was not related to facts or her lived experience, but to his presence, as only the narratives originated in and/or related to power can matter. Within his narrative domain, there is no chance of dialogue, let alone polyphony, no chance of democratic exchanges leading to an ethical or political consensus, no chance of coherence required for transmissive sharing.

After the long years of this country’s exposure to Trumpese, it is clear that Trump is pathologically incapable of not being at the center of any given narrative discourse. Before they were discontinued, his daily pandemic briefings, just like his rallies, were rituals in which language and its larger logical units (stories) were destroyed at his pleasure, in his exercise of power. To be sure, that is a symptom of his deep pathology—he straddles pathological narcissism and psychopathy–but it is also a useful strategy in the Republican project of destroying the political system that could disempower them by way of destroying the reality of American life as lived by the majority of its population. Trump auditioned for the role of the destroyer and was cast for his incredible talent and experience in the rich field of personal pathology.

In any case, one of the marks of Trumpism in all its stages is that a shared societal, discursive field is wholly inundated with overwhelmingly nonsensical narratives, the sheer inflation of which can make other narratives in the field utterly meaningless, attaining, for example, the shape ‘fake news.’ No story needs experiential support, nor is there a process that connects the story to truth, which is why it is completely possible to dismiss science as just one of the many things people without power say. Whatever the story may be, only its end matters, because all good stories end in power, just as they begin. Such approach favors repetitive narratives devoid of any doubt or complexity—Make America Great Again on the one hand, the Qanon conspiracy saga on the other. The malignant reproduction of narratives serves the same purpose as prolixity–the destruction of meaning–not least because proliferation of narratives is at the same time proliferation of language.

 

In the late eighties and early nineties, just before the wars of Yugoslavia commenced, I was working as a journalist in the so-called youth press. I remember the despair many of us felt as the catastrophe appeared on the horizon as a wave crest of nonsense and stupidity, soon to turn into a tsunami of violence. But I believed then, like many of my journalist friends, that if we allowed public personalities and politicians to talk unfettered—you know, freedom of expression and all that–some might self-expose as vacuous fascistoid idiots they were. The radio station I worked on (Omladinski program Radio Sarajeva) had a show called the Voice of Reason (Glas razuma) featuring, among other reality-challenged, rambling interviewees, a soccer player who tried to open a window on the plane the first time he boarded one; a former Army officer who sued Marshall Tito for losing the Battle of Sutjeska in 1943; and Franjo Tudjman, the future first president of Croatia, who reshaped Balkan history to resemble a conspiracy theory.  In a magazine I worked for after my brief radio career, we published an interview with Vojislav Šešelj, a rabid Serbian nationalist, entitled Planet Serbia.

Now it may be needless to say that our strategy of countering accelerating collapse by way of exposing the rampant idiocy and nonsense of surging nationalism didn’t quite work. I was too young to know better then, but I did have some doubts after reading an interview in a Belgrade magazine with the Serbian painter Milić od Mačve. The interviewer saw the painter as a giant of Serbian art and thought, and did not challange any of the many insane things he said.[5] For instance, Milić od Mačve claimed that Nikola Tesla, whom he considered to be the greatest Serb scientist ever, had bequethed to his people a most advanced laser technology, which would allow the Serbs to rule not only the Earth, but also the space. He also somehow assessed that at that moment there were one million fertile Serb women, which he took to mean that within a year there could be nine million more Serbs. I found the interview bizzare, even by the high pre-collapse standards, but I can’t say that I was shocked. The nonsense he was spewing was at the logical extreme of the available discourse, which is to say that I still understood where it came from—I was, as it were, atuned to the frequency at which it was all broadcast.

I understood there was no way to talk or change the minds of people who believed any of that, because our shared observable reality had already been undone by the inflation of nonsense. Those of us who foolishly believed in self-evident truths were totally fucked, because those who believed the nonsense were willing to destroy, physically and conceptually, whatever was left of our reality, including us, the people who had no other reality to live in. It turned out that there were more than enough of those eager to believe in Serb fecundity and space technology, and that they were unonditionally committed to the death cult of Serbian nationalism. Only after the fact of war did I realize that the frequency of nonsense was really the frequency of violence.

NOTES

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=En6wViD1jtY

[2] Suskind, Ron. “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush”   The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.

[3] For a pretty complete list of Bushisms, see Weisberg, Jacob “The Complete Bushisms.” Slate, March 20, 2009.

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/bushisms/2000/03/the_complete_bushisms.html

[4] Boyle, Louise. “Trump mocked for planting trees on Earth Day amid his continued failure to deal with climate crisis.” The Independent, April 22, 2020.

https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/trump-earth-day-2020-tree-planting-melania-white-house-climate-crisis-environmental-a9478846.html

[5] By the time he died in 2000, Milić od Mačve had produced more than 7,500 paintings, and tens of thousands of drawings, prints, and icons.  His Wikipedia page declares: “By his works he defended the Serbian tradition from oblivion and distortion.”

One thought on “Speaking Trumpese

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