“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, 1872
For those of us who care about words, who believe them to have almost talismanic power and value, especially when spoken aloud, Donald Trump’s claim today — that when he said, only yesterday, in the midst of his nauseating paean to the strength and authority of Vladimir Putin, that he didn’t see why Russia would interfere in the 2016 election, he really meant to say that he didn’t see why Russia wouldn’t — not only adds another transparent lie to his long record of public mendacity, but also notches a new low in this particular president’s abuse of language, a disregard for specificity, nuance, and referents in reality that perfectly reflects — as language will — a state of mind.
Presidents have entered this looking-glass realm of pathetic unbelievability before, of course, and they remain branded by those moments. There was Nixon’s cringe-worthy “I am not a crook,” George H W Bush’s utterly out of character “Read my lips,” Jimmy Carter’s melodramatic sense of a national “malaise,” George W. Bush’s karma-flouting “Mission Accomplished!”, Bill Clinton’s finger-wagging, angstrom-splitting “I did not have sex” (pause for finger quotes) “with that woman.”
But few if any of our chief executives have had the soulless chutzpah, the reality-bending self-absorption, to claim along with Humpty Dumpty that the word he plainly said, in a context consistent with it, meant its opposite, no matter how out of context that would have made it. Rebecca Solnit presciently said it in today’s LitHub:
“More and more I come to see the compulsive, frenetic pace of lies by the president as a manic version of that prerogative of dictating reality. It’s a way of saying, I determine what’s real and you suck it up even if you know it’s bullshit. He has abandoned credibility for dictatorial power. When you’re a star, they let you do it, and the size of your stardom can be measured in how much you can force people to accept—or pretend to accept—contrary to their own intelligence and orientation and ethics.”
Our President, sad to observe, is a craven liar, and no amount of claiming that up is down and black is white and would is wouldn’t will redeem this irredeemable presidency. The only question is Humpty Dumpty’s, which was purely rhetorical in his looking-glass world, but which we must not allow to become rhetorical in ours: which is to be master – truth or Trump?