We awoke this Sunday to another edition of “presidential examples for our nation’s children not to follow.” The United States having hit rock bottom — one prays that we are as near to making a shitty movie called “Idiocracy” into a prophetic documentary as we are going to get — it might be time for us to admit that we need help. We have become so linguistically beaten down by the likes of Dan Quayle, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump (a notable dearth of Democrats on that list) that it’s time to undertake the only two-step program that provides any realistic hope for recovery: 1) acknowledge that words have meaning, and 2) know what they mean before we use them.
Positive examples of how to behave are nice, but learning is helped along even more crisply by examples of how not to behave — or in this case, how not to write. It is in that latter sense — and only in that latter sense — that Donald Trump is of any use to civilization. Our last president was, in his elegance and eloquence, the proverbial shining city on a hill, a beacon light to be admired and emulated. Our new president, on the other hand, in his vulgarity and indiscipline, is more like stinking, smoldering rubble at the bottom of a sinkhole — a place to be avoided or, if need be, evacuated.
Let’s dance the two-step to recovery. This morning, the President of the United States issued the following official statement: “With all of its phony unnamed sources & highly slanted & even fraudulent reporting, #Fake News is DISTORTING DEMOCRACY in our country!”
Let’s skip past the banality and childish cadence — and also the attack on our free institutions that this tweet represents — and get to the question whether Donald “I have the best words” Trump 1) realizes that words have meaning, or 2) knew the meaning of the words he tweeted this morning before using them.
As to (1) above, Donald Trump does not choose words for their meaning, but for their impact. He understands marketing at the level of base instinct, which is why he so easily connects with the vast army of rubes called Trump supporters. “Make America great again,” for example, is much too vague to express any discernible cognitive meaning. It’s just a string of words that elicits grunts and fist pumping from stadiums full of mindless human emoticons.
As to (2) above, that would depend on whether it makes any sense, in the context of Trump’s tweet, that the media would be “distorting democracy.” Trump has been known to inadvertently switch out one word for another. I’m guessing that when he wrote “distorting,” he meant to write “destroying,” but couldn’t pull it off in his present state of mental decay. But let’s play along.
What does distort mean?
In a sense, distort might fit somewhere deep inside Trump’s “point,” such that it is. He certainly seems to suggest, as he always does, that the free press is twisting or giving a false sense of something. The problem is that he placed the present participle distorting in front of the noun democracy and then attributed the resultant distortion of democracy to the media (#Fake News).
What does democracy mean?
For starters, the United States, as a constitutional matter, is not a democracy. It is a republic (note that the definition above conflates the two; nonetheless, this definition suffices to elucidate the folly in Trump’s tweet). Legally speaking, a pure democracy is a system where the people directly participate in all decision-making. In a republic, people elect representatives to act on their behalf. Our system is only democratic (in the purest sense of the word) in that a republican (representative) form of government necessarily requires, at some level of its political infrastructure, that elections be held. Without elections, representative government is not possible. And in elections, at least theoretically, the people participate directly in decision-making.
To be clear, in the context of American political history, democracy means only the fair and uncorrupted execution of elections (what courts call “the franchise”). The rest of what many among us sloppily conceptualize as “democracy” has nothing to do with direct participatory decision-making and everything to do with the enumeration of rights in the Constitution — things like freedom of speech and religion, due process, the equal-protection principle, and, ironically enough, the free press. These things are necessary for the success of any democracy, but they do not define democracy in the first instance.
American democracy — which is to say our elections — can certainly be twisted, manipulated, and made to yield false or untrustworthy outcomes (in other words, democracy can be distorted). For example, a campaign might collude with a foreign power to hack into email servers and election software; undertake a carefully managed campaign to undermine an opposing candidate; and load massive amounts of disinformation, fake news, and conspiratorial hysteria onto social-media platforms.
But it’s anybody’s guess what Trump might have meant by saying that the media has distorted democracy with its phony unnamed sources and slanted reporting, especially since he seems to be referencing press accounts surrounding Donald Trump Junior’s potential criminal exposure. Is that reporting somehow twisting or undermining our elections or the right of every qualified citizen to vote?
Donald Trump, of course, is a malignant narcissist, which means that nothing on this planet is more distorted than his own view of himself. It stands to reason that when he sees himself portrayed as he really is — as a ridiculous, unserious, cartoonish buffoon — he sees this reality as itself being a distortion. He cannot abide the truth of his own ugliness, and so he lashes out against it.
So what Trump meant to say (if he meant to say distorted rather than destroyed in the first place) was that the media has projected an image of him (and by extension his presidency and his family) that is twisted and dishonest. He might even have said, in his more lucid times of yore, that the media was distorting the news.
But we swim in an ocean of stupid, where words don’t have to be placed in any particular order. They’re just tossed into a sort of word salad, left to mean whatever the reader or listener wants them to mean, but devoid of any cognitive content. Whatever Trump meant to say, what he did say was that, by relying on unnamed sources in their reporting on the Don-Junior-Russia story, media outlets are tampering with our free elections or portraying them in a false light. And that, my friends, is idiotic.