“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” The slogan of the authoritarian regime of George Orwell’s 1984 rings uncomfortably true in many parts of today’s world, in Western democracies as well as repressive dictatorships.
Each element of the formula is a contradiction in one way or another, but tyrants and demagogues can twist them into purported truths in all sorts of ways: “Making war on that country at this time will produce peace.” “Complete freedom leads to anarchy and rioting in the streets, which makes us slaves to our worst impulses.” Most cynically of all: “Public ignorance feeds the strength of the ruling class.”
Charles M. Blow in a New York Times opinion piece yesterday writes that Donald Trump’s use of “reduced rhetoric” is “not without precedent and is in fact a well-documented tool of history’s strongmen.” (Think Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici” – “I came, I saw, I conquered.”) Trump’s speech, Blow writes, is “some manner of sophistry peppered with superlatives…a jumble of incomplete thoughts stitched together with arrogance and ignorance.”
Blow’s powerfully articulate rhetoric in itself poses a defiant challenge to the Trumpian “tyranny of gibberish. But bowled over by Blow’s eloquent phrasemaking, we may be forgiven for failing to appreciate a broader perspective on the matter. As he himself points out, pounding out words or phrases one after another without connecting words is a technique called parataxis, whose place in rhetoric has been recognized for millennia. It certainly need not be “gibberish.” Nuance and qualification may or may not be present. Trump is guilty of ignorance and perhaps a stunted intellect, but it’s his attempts at making points on the issues of the day that reveal garbled thinking. Slogans and pronouncements like “Make America great again” and “Politicians are all talk, no action” aren’t gibberish. They’re powerful calls to action.
As Charles Topher put it during the primary campaign last year, “By using short, simple sentences, crass insults and a very basic vocabulary, Donald Trump is speaking to the neo-con dunce in the language of a fourth grader.” But the dumbing down of politicians’ rhetoric began long before the rise of Donald Trump. In late 2015 the Boston Globe reported on Trump’s words in comparison with those of other candidates and past presidents:
He used fewer characters per word in his announcement speech, fewer syllables per word, and his sentences were shorter than all other candidates…The utterances of today’s candidates reflect a continued decline in the complexity of political speech. President George Washington’s “Farewell Address” in 1796 was written at graduate-degree levels: Grade 17.9, while President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” in 1863 was at an 11th-grade level.
Trump’s grammar did beat one past President, though, according to the March 2016 Carnegie Mellon study Blow cites: George W. Bush.
So while Trump may be an avatar of civilization’s decline, it had already been proceeding quite nicely without him. A Roman Trump might well have said “Veni, vidi, vici,” in just those words – building his strength on citizens’ ignorance.