Trump, copy-editing and negging

Donald Trump’s response to Pope Francis’ recent remarks was terrifying. If someone had proposed it as potential dialogue for a Lex Luthor speech, it would likely be dismissed for being a bit too outlandish. Last week he was endorsed by a former Grand Wizard of the KKK, and then refused to denounce him, at first. This election cycle is a dystopian satire on steroids.

In the wake of the statement, The New Yorker enlisted their Copy Editor, Andrew Boynton, to provide ‘a few suggestions for revision‘. Here’s what he came up with:Boynton-Copy-editing-Donald-Trumps-Statement-about-the-Pope2

Although the article is clearly tongue-in-cheek, there’s a smug, self-congratulatory tone to the piece that overlooks the significance of Trump’s carefully selected language. This sort of draconian adherence to the conventions of ‘proper grammar’ misses the point of his rhetoric and serves as a useful reminder that writing for your intended audience is more important than observing academic prescriptions of usage.

A correction in the second line of the statement makes this point. Swapping out ‘I can promise you that‘ for ‘…will wish‘ changes the sentiment Trump is trying to convey – by using the word ‘promise‘, he is positioning himself as trustworthy figure; someone who has the authority to make promises and keep them. It’s also one of a number of examples of the editing removing some of Trump’s agency. The revised sentence loses the first person pronoun, reducing the presence of The Donald as it shifts to a more passive register.

This is one of a number of instances where Boynton’s changes alter the carefully chosen vocabulary of the statement. A little further down, ‘rip off‘ is exchanged for ‘take advantage of”, while ‘understand that I am totally wise to‘ is substituted with ‘see that I have strong stances on these issues‘. In both cases, colloquial phrases used by Trump to signal his blue-collar New York background [‘rip off‘ and ‘wise to‘] are replaced with the more polished, plastic phrasing of a classic press release. The term ‘rip off‘ is particularly important as it frames international relations in a business context, suggesting that the Mexican government are trying to swindle Trump in a financial transaction. Conflating business and politics is a tactic that Trump has used again and again in this campaign in an attempt to make his previous experience seem more relevant. ‘Rip off‘ also perhaps carries stronger connotations of criminality than ‘take advantage of’ does, which is significant when you consider what it intimates about the subject of the claim [i.e the Mexican government]. The implication is clear – the Mexicans are trying to con the US but Trump is too street smart to have the wool pulled over his eyes.

Measured word choice is the victim of the editor’s pencil on other occasions throughout the text. The term ‘immigration‘ is used in place of ‘at the border‘. It seems like an innocuous change at first, but the original packs more of a punch. Using an ethereal, abstract concept like ‘immigration‘ [the broad idea of people moving into the country], instead of a concrete physical location [people desperately making their way across the border into the US] means the image is lost and the abstraction of the immigrants presents them as a much less pressing threat. This is surely contrary to what is intended.

Boynton then does the opposite and turns the intentionally abstract into the concrete by switching ‘They‘ for ‘Mexico’s leaders‘ This is a more understandable change, as it probably makes the statement more semantically transparent, clearing up exactly who is being referred to. But this also misses the point a bit. Using ‘They‘ to describe ‘Mexico’s leaders‘ is seems to be by design. Trump has consistently used disparaging language when describing Mexicans, going so far as to call them rapists and drug dealers, and the use of ‘They‘ here is a continuation of his attempts to define Mexicans as Other.

In the final line of the text, we have ‘so many lives involved‘ crossed out in favour of ‘their government’s policies affect so many people‘. The reference to political institutions robs the idea of some of its urgency; having an ‘affect [on] so many people‘ is less dramatic than having so many ‘lives‘ involved, which makes it seem more like a matter of life and death.

Urgency is a key theme of much of Trump’s messaging and the corrections suggested in this article tend to undermine this by altering the structure of sentences and swapping activity for passivity. The amendments to the end of the first paragraph are a little difficult to follow at first glance, but the sentence changes from:

unlike what is happening now with our all talk, no action politicians

to

a result that today, because of our all-talk, no-action politicians, has not been achieved

The former is more conversational in tone and a bit sloppy, but that’s important. The amended version talks of results and achievements, making it sound a bit stuffy. The original has a clearly defined sense of urgency: our politicians failure to act is ‘happening now‘ and we need to do something about it and soon. The reshuffle also moves ‘our all talk, no action politicans’ away from the end of the sentence, diminishing the punctuating effect it has in the original.

Similarly, Boynton meddles with the rhetoric in regards to the Pope, the man who provoked this response in the first place*. Trump suggests that the Pope failed to ‘see‘ the crime/ drug trafficking/ negative economic impact and failed to ‘see‘ Obama being outsmarted in negotiations with Mexico. The edited version opts for ‘take into account‘ and ‘understand‘ instead of each ‘see‘. The elegant variation perhaps makes it a smoother read, but once again undermines the effect of the original. Choosing the verb ‘see‘ seems a deliberate choice, figuring Trump as a visionary sort of figure with superior perception and knowledge compared to the Pontifex. It functions in the same way as the earlier declaration of Trump being ‘totally wise to them‘. Furthermore, replacing short monosyllabic words with longer polysyllabic verbs upsets the rhythm and removes the power repetition has to drill the message home.

Much of Trump’s appeal derives from the perception that he ‘tells it like it is‘, even if ‘it‘ is dreadful. He’s an anti-establishment candidate and one of the ways he draws distinctions between himself and career politicians is through the way he speaks. The highly-polished, media-managed messaging of most politicians has significantly undermined the public’s faith in mainstream politics, and he eschews this by carefully affecting a casual, off-the-cuff tone at the podium.

Rubio bot
Poor Marco.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in New Hampshire where Marco Rubio imploded and repeated his carefully rehearsed stump speech twice in quick succession. It was everything that the electorate disdains about politicians: overly scripted, rote messaging mindlessly regurgitated ad nauseam. In this moment, Rubio seemed more like a cyborg than a human, and it only served to further distinguish Trump from his opponents – his off-the-cuff underprepared debating style is, at least, demonstrably human.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about how good his tagline is: ‘Make America Great Again‘. The word ‘again‘ contains multitudes. In 5 letters it captures the nostalgia towards, and rose-tinted view of, the past that characterises the whole conservative movement, as well as appealing directly to America’s innate sense of exceptionalism. It plays directly into the fears of people who are scared by rapid pace of change in the world, who are frightened by globalisation and huge leaps in technological advancement, who just want things to go back to how they used to be.

The flip side of that is, of course, that ‘Make America Again‘ implicitly suggests that things are currently quite shit. That America is not currently great. It’s an audacious statement; a sort of political equivalent of negging. Trump is politician as trainee-recruitment-consultant-in-Infernos. He’s telling a whole nation that they have pretty eyes but that their dress makes them look a bit chubby. He’s brazen and abhorrent in almost equal measure.

And his delivery is a vital part of the performance. He stands there, lips pursed, cheeks reddening and inflating slowly, like some malevolent pufferfish as he spits his vitriol and badgers on incessantly about a wall more than a member of the Night’s Watch. His jaw swings and his hair flops around manically, as if he’s some insidious Jim Henson creation. His unabashed self-confidence and his blithe lack of self-awareness, is nearly enough to convince you that he believes he is vindicated in what he’s saying. To erase these imperfections, to copy-edit his errors, is to erase the foundation that he stands on.

Ultimately, although it’s tongue in cheek, this article overlooks how effective Trump is as an orator. Boynton’s changes may be correct in terms of conventional usage, but Trump’s campaign has been from conventional. It may be right in terms of grammar, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for him or his audience. To paraphrase the RubioBot: let’s dispel with this fiction that Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing. Trump knows exactly what he’s doing.

*Sidenote: It’s staggering how incredibly thin-skinned Trump is. Is he going to wheel out a petty press release everytime one his detractors slags him off when he gets into the big office?

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