Donald Trump (Reuters/Mike Carlson)

Donald Trump, human dog-whistle: The 2016 election, the left and the place where language ends

The rise of Donald Trump represents our failure of language—and the only way to defeat him is to rise above it


Willie Davis
May 21, 2016 7:59PM (UTC)

Faith is a double-edged virtue. On one hand, it gives the world a narrative logic that allows us to connect to the mysteries of life. On the other hand, faith means I believe God not only created Donald Trump, but prefers him to me. He’s a billionaire despite never successfully selling anything but his name. Although he looks like a beach ball made of decomposing chicken-anus, he has a gorgeous wife, a loving family and a daughter he and I both find sexually attractive.

We’ve shouted “Last call” on the primary season, and the Republicans are going home with a man who has the same complexion, articulateness and destructiveness as the Kool-Aid man. Meanwhile, we leftists look on with smirking horror. That smirk could damn us all. The nomination of Donald Trump shows a failure of imagination from both the right and the left—one we’ll all pay for equally. 

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Being progressive isn't a virtue—being empathetic is

Somewhere, buried under the layers of bravado and tanner, Trump has a message worth hearing. In the first debate, he said that he gave money to every candidate on stage and could get them all on the phone. He was showing how the game gets rigged. That’s Bernie Sanders’ message as well. Whereas Sanders says, “Let’s get a new system,” Trump says, “I’ll buy whoever wins anyway, so cut out the middleman.” And he’s not wrong. Because every great liberal hope has promised what Bernie Sanders promises, and every president has delivered what Donald Trump delivers.

Think of the lies you swallowed during this campaign. Bernie says Hillary isn’t qualified to be president. To qualify for president, you must:

  1. Be born in America
  2. Be least 35
  3. Get the most votes

We’re even willing to overlook rule one (for Ted Cruz) and rule three (for George W Bush). Before anyone votes, that’s a club whose members include Jerry Sandusky, Mitch Albom, the smackhead who wrote for “ALF,” Judge Judy and Lisa Marie Presley. They don’t even have to do great things (i.e., shooting a lot of smack and writing ALF dialogue). Bernie’s words give credence to the notion that a different set of qualifications exist other than the democratic ones.

Those qualifications do exist—we expect our president to be a lawyer, to be educated at an Ivy League school, to be married, to speak in reassuring platitudes. When Bernie said “unqualified,” Hillary’s supporters rallied around. “Unqualified? She’s an Ivy League educated lawyer who hasn’t said anything interesting since 2006! This is because she’s a woman.”

It’s possible Bernie aimed to motivate his base of young leftists by implying women were unfit to hold office. But does anyone believe that? Do the people writing it believe it?

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When asked if he would still vote for her, he said of course. He’d vote for someone unqualified? Yes, because he doesn’t believe she’s unqualified. It’s our fault for taking him literally. He said something he doesn’t believe, gets called sexist by people who don’t think he’s sexist who then demand an insincere apology. Nothing to see here, folks, just another news cycle going by—try not to accidentally believe something and cripple your idealism.

Donald Trump is different, for better or worse. Well, actually, he’s just different for worse, but different. Some say, “You might disagree with him, but you know exactly where he stands,” but I believe the opposite. He has no core values, stands nowhere and believes in nothing. How will he fix the economy? “I’d create deals.” What deals? “Great deals.” How would you create deals? “I’d call the Chinese motherfuckers until they did what I wanted.”

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If I had a scintilla of respect for Trump’s intelligence, I’d call it satire. “These other guys are talking about their penises metaphorically—I’ll say it.”

Donald Trump communicates beyond language. When he high-fives Jeb Bush, it’s Trump who holds his hand out first. He doesn’t have to say which one of them is more powerful. While Rubio yammers through another canned response, our eyes look to Trump, giving the universal “You kidding me?” face. He doesn’t do the jerk-off motion, but he may as well. He’s saying “These people aren’t worth my language.”

Trump doesn’t need language; bullies never do. When a bully has to explain himself, he’s lost. Bullies are almost never the problem—it’s the people standing next to the bully, laughing at his jokes that hurt. Without them, the guy calling you “dickwad” or “gaywad” (’90s bullies were very wad-centric, I’m belatedly realizing) looks ridiculous. The people laughing with the bully validate him. Trump is this campaign’s bully, and the left, playing his game, is validating him.

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Labels preempt thought

The Huffington Post, a website founded by gazillionaire Arianna Huffington and staffed, like most online magazines, by hyperactive chipmunks on Ecstasy who have to call every human interaction “AMAZING!”, ends each article about Donald Trump thusly:

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist

Let’s assume this statement represents the genuine feelings of Arianna Huffington, Scruffy McGiblets, et al. Is it true?

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Yes. And no. It depends on your definition of indefinable words. If you click the link that proves Trump’s racism, you have an article listing nine examples, the first of which being, “He claims to have ‘a great relationship with the blacks,’ which is totally something a normal person would say.” (Additional crises of faith: “Why did God tell the unfunny about sarcasm?”) Well, fine, “the blacks” is strange phrasing, but if every sentence you say is recorded, you’ll use some odd phrases.

Other examples include a time in 1993 when he insulted a group of Indians working in a casino. In 1993, Arianna Huffington worked as a conservative commentator, helping Newt Gingrich lead the Republican Revolution.

Is Trump a misogynist? Again, kind of. Looking at footage of Trump talking about his infant daughter’s boobs, I think he looks at women the way a junkie looks at cars—a commodity to be broken into parts and sold. It’s the same thing I feel when I see The Huffington Post publish their endless streams of celebrity side-boob pictures. But, they tell us, Trump calls women “fat pigs.” He called Rosie O’Donnell a fat pig, which is rude and petty. But it’s not an attack on women. It’s an attack on a particular woman he’s fighting with. If you call Bill Cosby a scumbag, you aren’t attacking black people. This isn’t a difficult distinction—we only act too stupid to understand it when stupidity fits our purpose.

Is Arianna Huffington a racist misogynist because of opinions she had 20 years ago and because she is trying to make money in the only way possible on the Internet (with boobs and exclamation points)? No, but you can see how easy this is if you have no standards of what you call racist and misogynistic.

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During the last Democratic debate, Bernie dismissed Hillary’s victories in the South. This rubbed a lot of people the wrong way because Hillary won that region by overperforming with black voters. Is Bernie racist for dismissing black Southern voters? I doubt it, but Bernie was being a tremendous idiot.

When Ted Cruz lambasted Trump for embodying “New York values,” people lined up to stomp the self-righteous feces out of the Texas senator. He assumed all New Yorkers thought the same way (impossible), embodied the same set of values (incoherent) and conspired against the rest of America (bigoted). Bernie did the same thing. But Bernie talked about Alabama, one of those poor states we don’t care about. To our tribe, Cruz’s offense wasn’t his dumbass bigotry—it was that he disparaged New York.

We couldn’t leave Cruz’s stupidity alone. We had to say that when Ted Cruz said “New York values” he meant Jewish values. Cruz hasn’t said anything anti-Semitic; fundamentalist Christians, like Cruz, tend to love secular Jews. Are Bernie Sanders’ attacks on Wall Street anti-Semitic? Why did liberals believe Cruz hates Jewish people?   Because the other tribe is evil.

I am a male who voted for Bernie in my home state of Kentucky's primary. That makes me a “Bernie Bro,” which means “a male Democrat who hasn’t forgotten about the Iraq war.” People say “Bernie Bros” like they’re voting for Bernie because they fear a female president. What does “Bernie Bro” mean? What does “Bro” mean?

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I teach at a historically black college, and the only people I hear say “Bro” unironically are my black students. I cringe when white liberals use a word from the black vernacular, that black people use to describe one another, as an embodiment of evil. White liberals don’t mean blacks when they say “bro,” but what do we mean?

Last week, I went to the racetrack with a friend. We walked past a group of men in polo shirts downing beer and high-fiving. My buddy told me to watch out for the “Southern frat-bros.” I mentioned that she went to a Southern college and was in a sorority. That’s different, she said, because bros are drunk party guys. It seemed relevant to point out that we were both drinking at noon. That’s different, she said. Bros wear pastel polo shirts and cargo shorts, and pound beer from red solo cups. Sure, but then say what you mean. You’re a fashion critic. Bros are people who dress differently than you.

We love labeling our opponents because labels preempt thought. I don’t listen to him because he’s a bro, because he’s a misogynist, because he mansplains, because he doesn’t check his privilege, because he wears a pastel polo, because he golfs. Our disagreements no longer live in the realm of ideas: only in labels.

Go back to The Huffington Post’s list of Trump’s sins. Who are they trying to convince? If you guessed “nobody,” you’re smarter than a chipmunk. We’ve stopped trying to convince the other side, and instead we want to congratulate ourselves.

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I have no words

When politicians use abstract words—pride, glory, honor—it’s an indication they’ll go to war. Honor must be restored, America must reclaim its glory: I don’t know what those phrases mean, but I usually hear them before the first bomb falls. Politicians who speak in concrete terms aren’t always smarter, but they show a better sense of what they are sacrificing when they ask us to go to war.

More and more, however, we aren’t using concrete or abstract words—we use no words. When we call Trump a racist, we aren’t really using language at all, any more than yelling “ouch” when we stub our toe uses language. It’s a way of saying “Out of bounds. We don’t have to think about that as it is outside our purview of approved thought.”

Look at how similar the writing is on left-wing websites. “Because of course.” “As one does.” “Because… reasons.” “Ugh.” “I just can’t even.” “I have no words.” What do these have in common aside from the writers having attended the Rachel Maddow “People are Afraid to Tell Me How Unfunny I Am” School of Comedy? They’re all saying, I’m not talking about this. Talking requires empathy, and I’d rather use a GIF of Mindy Kaling rolling her eyes. My moral and logical superiority is self-evident. I have no words.

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We’re not wrong to say “I have no words.” It’s just that we should be ashamed of having no words. If we have no words it's because we lack the capacity to process this event and offer a coherent reaction.

Instead, we ask the questions we assume to be self-evidently obvious. “Can America be represented by someone who talks about his penis on stage? Who calls his opponents ugly? Someone so un-presidential?” Well, here’s the thing. “Acting presidential” means “acting like a president.” That’s a value-neutral way for a president to act. LBJ nicknamed his penis “Jumbo,” had staff meetings on the toilet, and taped himself talking to his tailor about his “bunghole.” He also gave us the Civil Rights Act, the Great Society, and the War On Poverty. By all means, President Trump, act like that.

Frankly, I don’t care about dignity. Dignity is an abstract term we feign respect for, but can’t define. Is it undignified for a president to appear on “Saturday Night Live,” to bow to a foreign leader, to criticize American policy from abroad? Who cares?

Come November, I’ll vote for Hillary Clinton, an intelligent and respected woman. Even her opponents admit she’s very presidential. She also voted for the Iraq war. Granted, she faced immense political pressure to vote for the war. But there will be pressure for a new war sometime in the next four years. How will she react?

If Hillary Clinton had been president in 2003, would we have gone to war? Almost certainly not. But that doesn’t forgive her vote. Sure, it’s fun to imagine Trump’s America, where the president judges wet t-shirt contests in Arlington National Cemetery, does live commercials for Cheetos during the State of The Union, and replaces Abraham Lincoln’s portrait on the five-dollar bill with one of Emily Dickinson blowing Kid Rock. But one hundred times out of a hundred, I’d rather live in that universe than one with a dignified, respectable America that invaded Iraq.

In 2003, the noise of The Great American Horseshit Machine (aka the media) was relentless. A vote against the war was a vote to “undermine soldiers,” and it showed they “didn’t support the troops,” were “French-loving elites” “blame America firsters” who “coddled terrorists” and didn’t get “real Americans.” Are those arguments dumb? Oh God. Sweet stupid mother of Christ, yes. But it bullied people into voting their way.

“You don’t care about American soldiers,” they said. So we nominated John Kerry, a decorated soldier. They snickered and said, “Oh God, that’s your idea of a war hero? You’re so pathetic.” So mainstream Democrats voted for war. And that is why no Republican has ever questioned a Democrat’s patriotism again.

Recently, there's been discussion on the left about whether we should shame Trump voters or pity them. This is a master-class in flattering ourselves. To shame them, they have to care about our judgment. They’re not listening. They stopped after we called them toothless, obese, racist, misogynistic trailer-trash. We’re not insulting them to shame or educate; we’re doing it to feel the “ping” in our brain—the exact same “ping” that hardcore racists feel—when we hate someone different than ourselves. People live in trailers because they’re poor. People are obese because they have depression issues, addiction issues, because their body chemistry is different than yours, or because the cheapest foods are fattening and many obese people are poor. Toothlessness isn’t a fashion statement, but a side-effect of poverty. But it’s uncomfortable to admit we are mocking poor people for being poor, so we pretend the problem is these people have dangerous ideas. They’re racist and sexist. End of story. That’s the same level of self-righteousness as the people who bullied us into war.

“Trump voters are racist!” we shout. If they point out that Trump has a black spokeswoman, or argue they also like Ben Carson, we say, “OMG, that’s your idea of a black person? You’re such a loser.” Recently, people have been called racist for not particularly caring about Beyoncé’s marriage, for finding Larry Wilmore’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner routine flat, for being unconcerned whether white people rap or belly-dance. In the age of labels, there’s no room for personal opinion or nuance.

No one writing these piece-of-shit articles believes them. Meanwhile, we get dumber, more prejudiced, and less willing to believe those on the other side are valuable humans. In our dismissal of Donald Trump, we have become Donald Trump.

If you look for prejudice, you can find it anywhere. Given that biases exist in every interaction, shouting “That’s not okay!” isn’t just obnoxious, it’s meaningless. Dog whistles exist and pose a real problem. But instead of deciphering dog whistles, let’s stop being dogs.

Humans understand subtext—but we can also demand more text. When some people say “New York values,” they are being anti-semitic, but others are merely being jerks. Which one is Ted Cruz? If he had to answer, we’d find “New York values” is a meaningless term he used because he has less than zero to say. Some people call Hillary Clinton shrill because they find all women shrill, but some people think that’s an accurate description of her voice. If we talked about it, we’d see it’s a stupid factor in deciding how you vote. What does Donald Trump mean when he calls opponents “losers,” when he says he’ll get “great deals,” when he promises the Iranians won’t be laughing at us in his administration? A little bit of examination treats Donald Trump’s policies like an alarm clock treats a dream.

Donald Trump represents a failure of language. We can’t shame Trump supporters—we sound bigoted and moronic when we try. Our only resistance is to not become Trump. When confronted with bigotry, let’s not say we have no words: we have only words.

We have a sacred responsibility to not hate the people who believe differently. Language confers value—if we could ever accurately describe a mountain, we’d never let anyone tear one down again. The same is true for people. If we reject the sugar-high that comes from being a member of a tribe, and instead recognize that our opponents are approximately as good and evil as we are, then President Trump could wake up in an America he won’t recognize. He would have made America great again by making it a country he is in no way fit to govern.


Willie Davis

Willie Davis is the author of "Nightwolf," a novel forthcoming from 713 Books.

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Bernie Sanders Classism Donald Trump Editor's Picks Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton Language Racism

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