Language is structured by countless rules. Mostly, we don’t have to think about them. We just know what makes sense and what doesn’t. If someone asks, “How tall are you?” you respond with a range of heights. But you wouldn’t, for example, say “purple” or “tomorrow.”
Well, you could, but those would be nonsense answers. And if you kept giving nonsense answers like that—Q: What did you do today? A: “57”—pretty quickly, people would stop taking you seriously.
Which brings us to today’s Republican Party. In defending Donald Trump, they’re no longer playing by the ordinary rules of language. One sentence flatly contradicts the next. Exaggeration is replaced by fabrication. Sometimes, there’s no obvious connection between questions and answers. They’re just spewing nonsense.
GOP elites have been trending in this direction for a long time. In 2004, an anonymous White House official, presumably Karl Rove, derided liberals who lived in the “reality-based” community while conservatives forged ahead by “creating their own reality.” In 2011, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl said that Planned Parenthood used 90 percent of its funding for abortions. The actual figure was closer to 3 percent, but rather than retract the comment, Kyl’s office clarified that the claim “wasn’t intended to be a factual statement.”
Since the beginning of the Trump era, however, nonsense has become the standard form of communication. Discussing Trump’s inauguration, then-press secretary Sean Spicer made the preposterous claim that it was substantially bigger than Obama’s. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer’s claim because, she said, he was just citing “alternative facts.”
It’s a nonsense statement that has become the leitmotif for the Trump regime.
The Washington Post has been tirelessly cataloging all of Trump’s false and misleading statements since he became president. As of mid-October, Trump had uttered more than thirteen thousand of them. The Post’s database doesn’t merely document the president’s repeated falsehood, however. It portrays a presidency built on a foundation of nonsense.
Trump is facing the real prospect of impeachment as a result of a now well-documented plot to extort Ukraine’s president to promise to investigate a fabricated claim about Joe Biden’s alleged interference in a nonexistent Ukrainian corruption probe. The plot’s pivotal moment was the now-infamous July 25 phone call in which Trump made clear his demands.
Trump’s go-to explanation for that call: It was “perfect.”
As CNN’s Chris Cilizza has wondered, what exactly constitutes a “perfect” phone call? The words used? The clarity of the connection?
Trump’s response can’t even be described as false, since it doesn’t engage the premises of the issue.
It’s just nonsense.
Republican efforts to defend Trump from impeachment are foundering because the facts themselves are so damning. So they, too, have resorted to nonsense. Witnesses are “never Trumpers” or have a “pro-Ukrainian” agenda, whatever that means. Elected officials are storming secure facilities to decry “secretive testimony,” even when they have access to that testimony.
Since Trump is a never-ending font of lies and nonsense, defending him at all costs requires in-kind utterances. In early November, Trump’s daughter Ivanka suggested that the Trump appointees now testifying against him were evidence that her father had assembled a Lincolnesque “team of rivals.” Thus, Ivanka concluded, this is just “history repeating itself.”
Explaining why this is the most ridiculous historical comparison imaginable gives it too much credence. After all, it’s not intended to be a factual statement. Indeed, had Ivanka been asked which president’s cabinet the impeachment inquiry reminded her of, it would have made as much sense for her to have answered, “Purple.”
In Trumpworld, they’re not even trying anymore. Nonsense is the whole game. And the consequences are utterly sinister.
Any engagement with their words should begin with the understanding that the goal is to subvert the ordinary rules of language—to spew nonsense to defend the indefensible.
JONATHAN WEILER, a teaching professor in global studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-author of Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide and Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.
NEXT WEEK: COURTNEY NAPIER, a Raleigh native, community activist, and co-host of the podcast Mothering on the Margins.
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INDY Voices—a rotating column featuring some of the Triangle’s most compelling writers—is made possible by contributions to the INDY Press Club. Visit KeepItINDY.com for more information.