Humpty Trumpty and the “Wouldn’t” that Couldn’t

“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?

3 thoughts on “Humpty Trumpty and the “Wouldn’t” that Couldn’t

  1. Excellent piece Keith! I was able to release a little of my own anxiety and angst around this a-hole. Thank you for sharing! xo Aim


  2. What makes me stark raving mad is the idea that he thinks we would believe him or give him a pass on his lie. His “recant” is a total lie intended only to calm his critics after the damage is already done. He NEVER intended to say “wouldn’t.” Which statement do you think Putin believes?

  3. I don’t think he even cares if we believe him – honestly, for him it’s another news story that has him in the headlines. He got his hand slapped, for which he actually tried to walk it back – first time I’ve seen any evidence of anything less than “The Emperor’s Clothes” behavior of not caring what others think. But he doesn’t really care. All he needed to do was to give Trumpers something to hang their shredded dignity on. So absurdly transparent. We’ll see if there’s a price to pay at the mid-terms – let’s keep this one on “replay.”

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