If traditional rhetoric has rules and assumed courtesies, a verbal spew just happens. Rhetoric is the product of adaptation and thought. But spew never passes near the centers of intelligence.
I had a classmate who could empty the contents of his stomach on cue. On a moment’s notice he could produce a gross barrage of undigested material that was never meant to pass a person’s lips. It didn’t matter that this childish gesture could be inconvenient to demonstrate on your mother’s new living room carpet. He didn’t have much sense about when to pick his moment. It was part of the unfortunate grade school freak-show that he had perfected.
This chunky kid was one of several characters at my hardscrabble school located a few blocks from runway 17R at Denver’s old Stapleton Airport. Planes would scream over all day. if the noise or cement playground didn’t nick you up, there were classmates who could do the trick. Happily, most later re-joined the human race in high school.
This kid reminds me of the President. I think of Donald Trump as just a larger hulk of gracelessness: a screamer of sorts, to be sure, but mostly a person who disgorges undigested gut reactions with no apparent shame. Had he known him, Mark Twain would have gladly written about this curious figure, bloated by self importance and clueless about the rules of civil discourse. I suspect Twain would have tired of him, preferring his presence to be confined to the pages of his satire on manners.
All of this is made worse, of course, by others who work for Trump or his party. Like many unsteady grade-schoolers, they pretend not to notice bully who could turn on them.
Our most damaging cultural rhetoric now appears at both the top and bottom of our national discourse.
My memory of this kid came to mind a few months back after seeing one of many tweeted insults from the President, this one referring to “a third rate reporter named Maggie Haberman, known as a Crooked H flunkie who I don’t speak to and have nothing to do with. . .” Never mind that Haberman knows how to use language with precision, and that she shares a Pulitzer Prize in Reporting with several of her colleagues at the New York Times. By his standards, this was hardly the worst of nearly 600 insults that have come from the President since taking office. But the ad hominem attacks continue to pile up. Against Trump, no insult comic could ever stand a chance.
Traditional rhetoric has rules. Verbal spew just happens. Effective public rhetoric is the product of careful adaptation and thought, even when coming from people we might otherwise disagree with. In every case we have a right to expect a speaker has has at least some capacity to measure the effects of their words.
The presence of this continual vitriol has softened us. We’ve grown accustomed to graceless verbal gestures. Indeed, Twitter has perfected them. We are getting used to putting our nation’s presidency alongside the trolls and dystopians who populate the fringes of the internet. It means our most damaging cultural rhetoric now appears at both the top and bottom of our national discourse. And like adolescents trying to fit in, we mostly marvel to the spectacle in silence, knowing that the nation’s chief executive seems incapable of much more than mimicking the kind of coarseness not seen since our days in grade school.