Emperor’s New Words: Trump Insists Word Salad Is Steak
From "Covfefe" to "COVID," when Trump misspeaks, denial follows. Why?
Posted May 02, 2020
Politics aside, a fair observer of Trump's public appearances has to acknowledge that the president's spontaneous speech is quite often bumbling, tangential, and bordering on the nonsensical. You can read sample quotes from Salon, Vox, Language Log, The Atlantic, or The Independent.
Put these words in the mouth of a party guest or a colleague during a Zoom meeting, and people may roll their eyes, snicker, or feel pity, assuming the person is drunk, distracted, or otherwise not quite all there. Put his words in the mouth of a child, and it may prompt a hurried call to the nearest speech-language pathologist to schedule an assessment.
Now, notwithstanding the fact that political leaders are supposed to be able to think and communicate clearly and responsibly as part of their job description in a democracy, occasions of rambling and incoherent speech are not political crimes or sins, nor signs of corruption or inherent incompetence. Misspeaking in public is neither an illness nor a character flaw. We've all been there ourselves, caught unprepared or tongue-tied, having missed our last train of thought, and we've seen our leaders there before, too. Speaking (or tweeting) badly is far from the worst thing a politician can do.
A reasonable, rational (and healthy) response to such occasions, from the politician and his political supporters, would have been to own the facts, apologize, offer a correction and clarification, and get on with the work, or at least acknowledge the tendency toward slippage, deem it regretful yet ultimately benign, and crack some self-deprecating joke about it. The president likes to riff, and with that comes the known risk of stumbling into the inscrutable. Now let's get on with doing the people's important business.
But Trump and his ardent core supporters have taken another route altogether. Whenever he's caught in another obvious incoherent fumble, they lash out at the press, the media, the deep state, or some other external entity, deny it happened altogether, deny again, or deny it was the bungle it clearly was, insisting his word salad was, in fact, steak.
That reaction, rather than the bumbling itself, manifests a core corruption of Trump and his cultists—the rabid insistence that gibberish is poetry, that covfefe is a real word, albeit secret: that, in other words, the leader's obvious faults do not in fact exist.
Politics aside, to the honest outside observer, that reaction seems both unnecessary and ineffective. And it begs for an explanation. So, what is it that compels Trump and his enablers to deny the clear evidence of our ears? To treat utter nonsense with fawning reverence?
Part of the answer—like part of any answer—has to do with the structure of the human mind. In this case, the culprit is a principle known as "context effect," which occurs when we use environmental cues around a certain person, object, or event to evaluate it. Psychological research has shown convincingly that context matters. To wit: Work that is presented in the museum will be evaluated more positively than the same work presented in a lab. A brilliant musician playing his million-dollar violin will fetch top dollar and draw adoring, and paying, audiences when appearing at Carnegie Hall, but will be ignored when busking at a busy subway station.
Included under the umbrella of context effects are the specific effects of social roles. When you go to the dentist, you let a stranger put his fingers in your mouth. Why? Because the fact that the dentist is a stranger is eclipsed in your judgment by the fact of the role they occupy—a dental professional. The role shapes our reaction to the person; thus, the role, to an extent, makes the person. So, once you occupy a powerful role, people project upon you the qualities they have come to associate with the role, regardless of your own true qualities.
The dentist's role involves having expertise about teeth. If he says something about teeth that seems odd to us, we're likely to first question our own knowledge, not his competence. The president's role involves knowing things about running the country. If the president says something about it that strikes us as odd, we'll suspect our ears first.
In addition, powerful people can demand big sacrifices. Making those sacrifices makes us more loyal to those in power since we have to justify to ourselves our own obedience. We must, in psych parlance, resolve cognitive dissonance. Those who lost a family member to war tend to become more, not less, patriotic. The country must be great and important; otherwise, how can we justify the great sacrifice? Those who've been hazed in boot camp or fraternity initiation become more, not less, committed to the organization. Those who agree to humiliatingly sever their critical faculties to bask in Trump's reflected glory and gain his approval will consequently hold him in higher esteem.
Thus, having become more loyal and dependent on the leader for their sense of power and identity, the followers are then compelled to elevate him in their minds toward the place of greatness, of infallibility. If the leader is infallible, then whatever he says can't, by definition, be fallible. If the emperor says it's a new lavish gown, then that's what it is, and those who can't see it are stupid. If the president says "covfefe" is a word, then it is, and those who don't know it are just not in on the secret.
This dynamic amounts to a hermetically sealed tautology: The leader said it because it is true. It is true because the leader said it. For many people, particularly those who feel besieged, anxious, and confused, such logic provides clarity and simplicity, which in turn offer a welcome relief from suffering.
Another part of the explanation has to do with Trump himself. Proper political leadership, quite like parenting, requires a robust measure of self-confidence. Over-confidence, however—in both parents and politicians—can turn toxic if it crosses over into narcissism. Trump's narcissistic tendencies are pronounced and well documented. He checks all the boxes that make up this construct: He possesses a grandiose self-image, an inflated ego, a ravenous need for attention, and the urge to be admired and seen as special, coupled with a habit of lashing out viciously at those who fail to see him as such.
Trump's narcissism helps explain his and his followers' reflexive blanket denial of his obvious public speech blunders, in several ways. For one, due to their disproportional (and paradoxical) sensitivity to any hint of criticism, narcissists tend to attract and select into their camp mostly followers who worship them. In turn, fervid true believers are much more likely than casual fans to go along with anything the leader says and take gibberish as gospel.
The president further fuels this devotion by heaping praise on those who praise him and scorn on all others, a "splitting" mechanism commonly used by narcissistic individuals. The praise is effusive ("great people"; "the best people"), but ultimately hollow, since it is not premised on his followers' merits but on their admiration of him. To the narcissist, people are valued only to the extent that they are admirers.
Second, the narcissist, feeling he's better than all, tends to play by his own rules while merrily violating existing ones. This is attractive to us since it fulfills vicariously our own fantasy of freeing ourselves from the hard chore of minding others, and from the bounds of doubt, guilt, and remorse. This is why movie villains are so appealing and seductive to us. They don't follow the rules and thus give voice to our own selfish and nihilistic impulses. That's why the hero-villain formula never goes extinct. We don't really want a world without villains because they represent a foundational part of our psyche. When the villain dies, a part of us dies with him.
Finally, narcissistic men tend to avoid self-reflection and, consequently, have little self-doubt. We are prone to conflate male confidence with competence, even though the two are neither inherently nor frequently connected. We are attracted to those who believe they know everything because we are anxious about the inherent incompleteness of all knowledge. This is why we make our God perfect and all-knowing—a projected fantasy of order and safety. Likewise, propping up the fiction that Trump makes sense when he doesn't allows his followers to protect their own sense of safety and security. In their world, "covfefe" is not just a word; it is "The Word."