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Attending to the Language: Trump and the GOP Leadership

February 13th, 2017 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

In one of his books Christopher Hitchens advised his readers to always attend to the language used by the people they are studying or covering. The way the person uses language will often tell you things far more important than whatever the person is actually saying, Hitchens said.

I’ve thought of Hitchens’ advice a number of times while observing the establishment conservative handling of President Trump so far.

Here is one example:

“There’s a widely held view among our members that, yes, he’s going to say things on a daily basis that we’re not going to like,” said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Senate Republican, “but that the broad legislative agenda and goals that we have — if we can stay focused on those and try and get that stuff enacted — those would be big wins.”

To hear Sen. Thune describe it, you’d think that President Trump has stumbled into the occasional inadvertent verbal faux pas, the spoken equivalent to something like President Obama’s selfie with the Danish Prime Minister at President Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa.

Let’s review, then, some of the “things (Trump says) that we’re not going to like,” as Thune so euphemistically put it.

If we go back to the campaign, we can add these things to the list:

Oh, and he bragged about sexually assaulting multiple women.

When Sen. Thune says that the president will occasionally “say things,” we need to be clear on what this means. It does not mean “He had a mostly innocent faux pas while speaking through a translator to a foreign leader,” or “he was caught calling an opposition leader a ‘moron’ on a hot mic after an interview.” These are normal presidential gaffes and while they aren’t good and should be avoided, they are still ultimately garden-variety errors that you expect to see a few times during a president’s term in office.

It means, “He has used the presidency to promote his family’s business interests,” “he has bragged about assaulting women,” “he has used racial language to attack opposition leaders,” “he has wondered aloud in front of the CIA about casually stealing another country’s oil via armed force,” and “he has publicly accused a sitting US Senator of lying.” Also, he has used the phrase “so-called judge” which is not a thing in the American governmental system.

How does the third-ranking GOP senator describe all of this? “Saying things we’re not going to like.” Even by Washington standards, that is extraordinarily euphemistic.

It all brings to mind this bit from George Carlin at the National Press Club:


I just wanna put this behind me and that’s an expression we hear a lot these days in all walks of lives. From people in all walks of life usually the person in question who has committed some unspeakable act.

Yes its true I strangled my wife, shot the triplets, set fire to the house and sold my young son to an old man on the train (LAUGHS) But now… I just wanna put this thing behind me and get on with my life (CLAPS, LAUGHS). That’s the problem in this country too many people getting on with their lives. I think what we really need more of is ritual suicide, you know. Never mind the press conferences get the big knife out of the drawer.

The absurdity of it all highlights a more important point as well. In one sense you might defend Thune’s remarks by saying this is all business-as-usual in Washington:

Obama sued a bunch of nuns, droned innocent villagers, deported way more people than Bush, and blundered his way through the Syrian conflict. But that’s OK with most of the Democrats because his approval numbers are solid and he gave us Obamacare.

Likewise, Bush got us into a war on false pretenses, tortured enemy combatants, presided over the Katrina debacle, and that’s mostly OK with the GOP (these days, at least) because he was good on a core set of key issues.

For legislative leadership to rally behind a flawed president in service to ideology is normal in Washington. It’s what everyone does.

But, then, that is precisely the problem: In a functional, healthy republic you have core governing principles that dictate how the government functions and elected officials are loyal to those principles rather than their own parties. Viewed this way, the Trump administration could be an absolute gift to citizens of our republic because it affords the ruling party many opportunities to take principled stances against their own party’s president on grounds that he is trampling the system of government we have in this country and no one will blame them or think they’re crazy because this president is so abnormal.

And, indeed, there have been a small number of examples of people with ties to the administration or the GOP doing precisely that: A handful of Republican congressmen opposed Trump’s executive order. Judge Gorsuch condemned Trump’s criticism of the 9th Circuit ruling. Secretary Mattis condemned Trump’s endorsement of torture. These are the kind of moves that should be normal in any healthy republic and they should be particularly common under the Trump administration.

Tragically, they are not.

Instead of trying to return our republic to founding principles in order to create a rebirth of liberty and communal life in America, the GOP leadership has, en masse, chosen to follow their president, even when his deviations from the (small “r”) republican values of our nation could not be more apparent.

Actually, forgive me: Trump isn’t doing any of those things.

He’s just saying things.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).