Writers love words. Journalists love words. We spend our professional lives typing them out, shifting them around, cutting and pasting and refining. The reason we do so is that we feel we have something to say, and we keep trying to find a clearer, stronger, and more precise way of expressing exactly what we want to express.
This was one reason journalists loved Obama. Like a very small number of political leaders throughout human history, from Marcus Aurelius to Abraham Lincoln to Winston Churchill, he was, or seemed to be, a man of words. Certainly he wanted to be seen that way.
Indeed, everything about the way he gave speeches — the posture, the gestures, the tone — made him seem very much like someone who wished to be thought of as a philosopher king, right out of Plato via Central Casting. He loved playing the role of president as professor, loved the mellifluous sound of his own voice, loved standing in regal fashion at a lectern and proffering what he expected to be received by his audiences as pearls of wisdom.
And whether it was wisdom or not, journalists loved it. Because — oh, the words, those glorious words! The sentences, the passages, the transitions! At one point during the 2008 campaign, somebody in some newspaper or magazine actually diagrammed a sentence by Obama, not from one of his magnificently polished speeches but from some impromptu response to a question at a press conference.
The point, of course, was to show what a wonderfully complex and coherent thinker he was, and how skilled he was at expressing his thoughts in unscripted, elegant, and grammatically correct statements. Obama’s sentence was contrasted with an off-the-cuff statement by George W. Bush, which, needless to say, was much more simply put together — indeed, barely coherent, and certainly far from literate.
The conclusion was obvious: Obama was a man for whom the wording and construction and delivery of a speech, or even an answer to a reporter’s query, was a matter of supreme importance. The man always came off as thoughtful, sophisticated, supremely articulate.
Throughout his 2008 campaign and then throughout his presidency, journalists’ respect for him as a highly serious man of highly serious words remained unshaken. Whatever his policies, and whatever the success or failure thereof, one fact about him could not be challenged: he was a man who took very seriously the act of putting ideas into words, and of polishing those words (or ensuring that his speechwriters polished them) to a golden, perfect sheen. And for this reason – in many cases, perhaps, more than any other – journalists revered him.
Then came Trump.
When it comes to all of these matters, Trump was Obama’s exact opposite. He never pretended to be a philosopher king – far from it. On the contrary, he made a flagrant point of the fact that he enjoys speaking off the cuff, in simple, punchy, repetitious, and often vulgar language. And to the shock and dismay of America’s journalists, millions of voters didn’t care. Indeed, a lot of them liked it. For many of us who write for a living, who labor over language, and who regard words with an almost religious awe, it can be unpleasant to be reminded that most people don’t care about such things.
Indeed, millions of Americans found it refreshing that Trump wasn’t a man of words. Golden-tongued Obama had made them suspicious of words – of fine words, pretty words, words that in retrospect could seem to be little more than rhetoric for the sake of rhetoric. More than a few of them even felt that Obama had used his beautiful words to pull a fast one on them – had sold them on a mantra of “Hope and Change” that his wizardry with language seemed to imbue with profound significance and a promise of grand historical transformation, but that, several years later, could not have seemed more empty of meaning.
Journalists puzzled over why such massive crowds of voters could turn out in one place after another to cheer Trump, this man who spoke – who thundered – with such a total lack of grace. But that was just the point. His very simplicity, crudity, and urgency of presentation underscored his apparent sincerity.
And so what if when he praised anyone or anything, it was excessive? So what if when he made criticisms – going after Rosie O’Donnell, for example – it was invariably coarse and cartoonish? He was, billionaire or not, a regular guy, prone to alternate statements based in profound conviction with the most lowbrow kind of barroom banter. Even his recent sucking up to the Saudi king (“a wise man”) was obviously overkill, the kind of backslapping you engage in with a customer when you’re trying to sell him a car.
That was a big part of why Trump won – and why he confounded journalists by doing so. Because journalists forgot that most voters aren’t writers or journalists. Not even close. They didn’t want a man of words. After Obama and all his yap-yap (and confronted with the sluggish, somnolent alternative of Hillary), they wanted a man of action. And all those shiny steel and glass towers in Manhattan proved one thing: that Trump was, indeed, just such a man – a man who made big things happen instead of just talking about it in highfalutin words designed to telegraph uplift.
Yes, he called his opponents by such rude monickers as “Lyin’ Ted” and “Little Marco.” But his fans felt the same way about these nicknames as he did. From one perspective, they were simply jokes to be laughed at. From another, they were sounds that were emitted in moments in time, and that served their purpose even as they evaporated into air.
After the election, Trump showed that he was perfectly ready to work with Ted and Marco – for the words hadn’t been meant to hold any long-term significance. They weren’t declarations of eternal war. Nor were they scripture, carved into stone. They were just means to an end, in the same way that words are in most ordinary people’s lives.
All of which leads to a supremely straightforward point: if political journalists in the mainstream media expect to serve anything like a useful purpose during the Trump presidency, one thing they’re going to have to do is take a more intelligent view of this man whom they almost uniformly view as stupid, very largely because of the way he puts words together.
They need to start recognizing that it’s not all (or even to a remotely consequential extent) about words, that this man who has built an empire while earning billions of dollars – without ever trying to be Pericles – is anything but stupid, and that Pennsylvania coal miners and Michigan factory workers somehow grasped all of that in a way that they, with their J-school preoccupations and priorities, didn’t come close to doing.