Donald Trump, Wonderland, and the Meaninglessness of Words

12/09/2016 11:12 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2016

Robert A. Rees and Clifton H. Jolley

In a Wonderland they lie, Dreaming as the days go by, Dreaming as the summers die.” —Through the Looking Glass

Summer is over. Winter is upon us. And Donald Trump and his surrogates are making no more sense than ever. In fact, they have begun to suggest there is no sense that needs to be made. Or can be made. To defend outrageous language and behavior, they are insisting that words themselves lack the conviction of their meaning or can mean whatever they say they mean.

We have entered a wonderland where news is false and false news is evidence, where politicians do not merely lie (as is their habit and job description) but lies become the fabric of the body politic, the fundamental discourse of a president-elect who appears not to know (or, worse, not to care) the difference between what is true and what he wants or needs to be true.

“‘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 wildly fictional speech of President-elect Donald Trump was evident from his declaration of candidacy, through the primaries and the presidential campaign, and it continues to this day. So, we have every reason to fear it will continue once he is elected. He has groundlessly accused and ignorantly defamed cultures and religions, and he will continue to accuse and defame. He has claimed intelligence superior to our intelligence agencies, and he will continue to claim his own nonsense as intelligence. He claimed military knowledge and insight more advanced than military experts, and he will continue to dismiss facts of others for the fictions of his own invention. And he has found an audience for this sort of robust dismissal of the meaning normally carried by language and the expectation of words.

Which may be why instead of Trump’s fear-mongering rhetoric quieting after the election—as pundits have continued in false faith to hope at every stage of his improbable rise to power—it has escalated—erupting at the slightest excuse or provocation and sent instantly and at odd hours to his millions of Twitter and Facebook followers. Before the election, Trump claimed the popular vote was the only fair one. But when it became clear he had not won the popular vote, he capriciously preferred the wisdom of the Electoral College (only to return to arguing he would have won the popular vote had he only found it to be important). As Clinton’s popular margin has ballooned to nearly three million, Trump claimed on Twitter that the popular vote was rigged: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally!”

Trump didn’t need a source for such nonsense, but in this case he got it from one of the most irresponsible and reactionary voices on the planet, Alex Jones and his InfoWars website, the same source that claimed that the capture of Osama bin Laden and the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School were staged!

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

And the more irrational and off-the-wall Trump’s assertions, the more some people believe him. Or seem not to care whether he’s telling the truth or not. As Paul Smith, a Kentucky coal miner, said, “Trump’s going to get us killed, probably, but I’ll vote for him over Hillary.” Or as Cindy Hedges, also from Kentucky, declared, “We need somebody spectacular.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master…?”

There are many who have begun to argue that Trump is not only about to become “master” of the most powerful nation on earth, but that he also is the master of words. CNN political commentator, Scottie Nell Hughes, on the November 30th Diane Rehm Show: “—on one hand, I hear half the media saying that these [Donald Trump’s statements] are lies. But on the other hand, there are many people that go, 'No, it's true.' And so . . . people that say facts are facts—they're not really facts. Everybody has a way . . . of looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There's no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”

In other words, words are not really words, but a construction of empty vessels waiting to have poured into them whatever meaning of the moment is useful to Donald Trump. Ms. Hughes’s argument amounts to assuming we are so inebriated by the fictions of reality TV that we no longer know the difference between reality and invention. Which makes it possible for Trump to behave as though he is the Emperor of Reality—that a manufactured persona spouting naked fictions has become not only our entertainment but our President.

“Even a joke should have some meaning….”

If the President of the United States cannot be relied upon to be faithful even to his own word and—much less to the meaning of words—if he feels he can say anything, no matter how false or unrestrained—and can even be rewarded for doing so—then who in the world can rely on whatever he says?

Any nation pays a high price when its leaders play fast and loose with the meaning of words, with the truth, which, we are told in an old book, will make us free. When their speech, especially by the presumptive leader of the “Free World,” is intemperate, ungoverned and unmoored by reality, very bad things can happen…as have already begun to happen. Hate crimes have multiplied, minorities have been increasingly maligned and marginalized and the general character of our conversation has been reduced to the incoherent, incomplete sentences and unsupportable accusations of Twitter

Such speech isn’t normal, it isn’t funny and it certainly isn’t harmless. History shows that real people suffer and die from the kind of unpredictable, reckless and dangerous language--the kind of crazy talk--that has been coming out of the mouth of our president-elect.

“Why, sometimes, I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Wonderland.

Robert A. Rees, Ph.D., is Visiting Professor at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley

Clifton H. Jolley, Ph.D., is a writer and founder of Advent Communications.

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