The Proper Insult

Political insults used to be so much better – Ulysses S. Grant said of James A. Garfield, “Garfield has shown that he is not possessed of the backbone of an angleworm.” Woodrow Wilson said of Warren Harding, “He has a bungalow mind.” George Bernard Shaw said of Theodore Roosevelt, “His idea of getting hold of the right end of the stick is to snatch it from the hands of somebody who is using it effectively, and to hit him over the head with it.” But the Brits are best at this. Benjamin Disraeli said of Lord John Russell, “If a traveler were informed that such a man was the leader of the House of Commons, he might begin to comprehend how the Egyptians worshiped an insect.”

Those were the good old days, but drop an American in Britain and he might get inspired:

Donald Trump is a ‘vulgar, demented, pig demon’ who only appeals to ’emasculated’ middle-aged men, the former innovation adviser to Hillary Clinton has said. Alec Ross, who was senior aide to Clinton during her term as Secretary of State, was speaking at The Hay Festival in Wales about the industries of the future.

Ross said that the most open countries would have the greatest success in the coming decades because the biggest emerging markets were big data and genomics. But he warned that America could become a more closed society if Donald Trump was elected president.

They may have not listened to that last part, as it’s hard to get past the vulgar-demented-pig-demon worshiped solely by emasculated middle-aged men – the image is compelling – but Ross was offered context:

We’re having this struggle very publicly in the United States right now where a vulgar, demented, pig demon named Donald Trump is trying to make the United States a more closed society.

We’ll be saying no more brown people, no more Muslims, let’s get women back in the kitchen. Let’s make America great again.

What he’s talking about is taking emasculated men in their forties, fifties and sixties who are not living the life they hoped for in their teens and twenties and saying, “You know what? There are people to blame for this. And we’re going to build a wall and we’re going make America great again.”

That fills things in a bit, and there was Ross’ general point:

At the core of that is the struggle between being an open society and a closed society. And so if you want to know where the trillions of dollars of wealth-creation that are going to come with the commercialization of genomics, and the creation of big data companies, and the AI machine learning companies and all of the industries of the future, my overarching line here is it’s going to be the most open societies.

Open societies mean that upward economic and social mobility is not constrained to elites, it means that religious and cultural norms are not set by central authorities and it means that it is wildly rights respecting, in terms of the rights of women, religious minorities, racial minorities and ethnic minorities. The industries of the future will be overwhelmingly concentrated in the most open societies.

That may be true, but he lost them at the vulgar-demented-pig-demon thing, or he won them over and anything he said after that was just fine with them. Insults can win an audience over, as Donald Trump himself knows, and the American novelist Lionel Shriver was there to pile on next:

I don’t understand this. If you were to write Donald Trump as a serious nominee as a character in a novel he would not be persuasive, nobody would buy it. This guy is too much a buffoon; it would come across as farce, and bad farce it would not make good reading.

He never completes a sentence grammatically. Honestly, he bothers me as much as a pedant about English as anything else. He is so broad that he is fictionally incredible. He would never work on the page.

That’s not as snappy as the vulgar-demented-pig-demon thing, but Shriver too had a general point:

We have never thrown up candidates who were so unqualified and uncouth and I am afraid that it is a sign that the American electorate is no longer taking the country seriously, it’s no longer regarding the United States as a country that leads the world, that it has responsibility, that it is a beacon of freedom. No, we’re just a rabble and we can elect whoever we like.

It’s like crawling into the TV and being on the wrong side of the set. And I find this very disheartening in terms of the state of the nation.

It’s not just the bigotry, it’s the not feeling a sense of responsibility to your country or the world. There is something nihilistic about a willingness to put someone like that up for the presidency.

Well, put it that way and there is something nihilistic about America now, but the framing is everything. Don’t say Trump’s grammar is bad. Stick to the vulgar-demented-pig-demon thing. That we’re considering one of those for president says it all. That should shame us as much as it amuses us, but another rule of insults might be don’t leave this to amateurs:

Ben Carson didn’t hold back Monday morning describing the direction he sees the United States going.

“America right now is like a cruise ship that is about to go off of Niagara Falls with tremendous carnage and death,” the former GOP presidential candidate warned during a Memorial Day appearance on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends.”

Royal Caribbean doesn’t ply Lake Erie. The approach to the falls is five or six miles of shallow rocky rapids – no big ship could get near the falls. The image is cartoonish – it requires too much work to even begin to imagine. Obama as an incompetent cruise ship captain and Hillary would be worse? Over the falls in the Love Boat from that late seventies sitcom – is that the idea?

Some insults work better than others. Some don’t work at all, but folks keep trying the Hitler thing with Trump. At Salon, David Niose writes about our Memorial Day collision course with fascism:

The rise of Donald Trump as a presidential contender has been accompanied with dire warnings of a coming fascist tide. In both his style and substance – belligerence toward opponents, policy proposals aimed at specific religious and ethnic groups, constant appeals to making the nation great again – Trump makes it easy for pundits to draw analogies to historical fascists.

A Trump presidency would undoubtedly mean difficulty for certain minorities, Muslims and Mexicans being obvious examples, but few observers honestly believe that it would bring about a fascist nightmare, with a complete loss of civil liberties, for most of the general public.

Experts point out that the conditions for the rise of real fascism – most notably a devastating economic collapse and political upheaval – are absent in America today, making warnings of a lurch to fascism somewhat exaggerated.

So, Trump is really not Hitler, but then maybe he could be:

That said, Trump is a new phenomenon in American politics, one that arguably creeps closer to the fringes of fascism than anything preceding it. What should concern Americans is not the possibility that Trump is an American Hitler or Mussolini, but that he is a continuation of a rightward trajectory that the country has been following for decades. His election would be strong evidence that America is vulnerable to demagogic and fascistic tendencies, and that given the right conditions – a catastrophic economic breakdown, for example, perhaps combined with a military humiliation at the hands of China or Russia – a real fascist turn would be conceivable.

This is the argument, that Trump or no Trump, the conditions are right for a Hitler:

The United States is by far the most powerful military force the world has ever seen, with land, air and sea forces extending around the globe. At about $600 billion, the nation’s military budget is almost 40 percent of the entire globe’s military spending, an outrageous amount that, even more stunningly, is rarely questioned by the public, the media, or any politician on either side of the aisle. This militarism permeates the culture in countless ways and ultimately leaves the nation at risk of a slide toward fascism, should the right conditions arise.

Fascism needs militarism, not just for its brute force (though that’s part of it) but for its emphasis on sacrificing individualism for the sake of the state. It’s hard to imagine the Nazi rise in Germany, for example, without that country’s deep-rooted martial tradition, particularly Prussian militarism, as a foundational element. Even in Italy, which had no similar tradition of militarism, Mussolini’s power was secured by force and accompanied by militaristic policies and actions that were uncharacteristic of Italy historically.

By its nature, militarism encourages other tendencies that create a fertile environment for fascism. Militarism and nationalism invigorate one another, for example, so it’s no surprise that American culture incessantly affirms notions of patriotism and national greatness. These themes are reflected throughout the culture, in advertising, sporting events, and virtually any public function, where patriotic references and the associated military pageantry are rarely missing. Such actions are usually assumed to be benign – what could be wrong with love of country, right? – but they invariably solidify the importance of militarism as a cultural value.

Point two:

Even more insidious is the way that nationalism is instilled into young psyches via the daily school ritual of pledging allegiance. The fact that Americans take the pledge exercise for granted is only proof of the effectiveness of the psychological conditioning underlying it, for no other developed country expects daily pledges of national loyalty from its youth. Again, Americans tend to see it as a harmless expression of values – liberty and justice for all – when in reality such persistent patriotic exercises are encouraging an obedient, nationalistic population.

Point three:

Magnifying the problem is the fact that America defines patriotism by using theistic elements, creating a sense that the nation is doing God’s work. Thus, children pledge that we are “one nation under God,” and the national motto is now “In God We Trust.” These divine patriotic references, both adopted in the early years of the Cold War, would please anyone seeking to create conditions ripe for fascism. The best defense against fascism is an intelligent, educated, and critically thinking populace that is engaged in participatory democracy. This is not what we get when we have a hyper-patriotic nation that believes God is on its side.

And so on and so forth, ending with this:

The accurate view of Trump is not that he is fascism incarnate, but that he is the latest step on a troubling rightward path that America has been following for decades. That path has been cut with values – nationalism, acceptance of authority, anti-intellectualism, chauvinism, conformity – that are encouraged by a culture that glorifies militarism. If you’re worried about a fascist turn in America – and you should be – look beyond Trump to the expansive and unquestioned militarism that nurtures fascistic tendencies.

So forget this particular vulgar, demented, pig-demon, who only appeals to emasculated middle-aged men. We were going to get one of those sooner or later anyway. Point at Trump and shout HITLER all you want, but it’s not a particularly effective insult. It not him, it’s us.

The blogger “Democracy in America” at the Economist puts that this way:

That there is debate among conservative thinkers about whether the Republican nominee might in fact be a fascist is quite a thing. Andrew Sullivan thinks that to apply the label to Donald Trump might be an insult to fascism. Robert Kagan thinks Mr Trump is a precursor to a 1930s revival in politics. The problem with the comparison is that it comes with an accusation of impending genocide that overshadows whatever enlightenment might come from making it.

A bit of history helps here:

Mr Trump is not a fascist, if by that you mean a successor to Mussolini or Hitler – but there was more to fascism than those two ogres. In the mid-1930s fascist movements cropped up in most advanced democracies. At one point it was sufficient to put on an adventurously colored shirt (any color as long as it’s not white) to start one. France had the Greenshirts, Ireland the Blueshirts, Britain the Blackshirts. Even tiny Iceland had its Greyshirts. America, being a big place that prizes consumer choice, had both Silvershirts and Khakishirts.

All these movements had a charismatic leader at their head. None had a coherent set of ideas. Early fascisms had more in common with socialism. Those movements that survived to form dictatorial governments embraced a corporatist sort of capitalism, and set about killing left-wingers. These fascist movements were propelled by the young. Trumpismo, by contrast, has more appeal to the elderly. Perhaps because of this they looked to the future and venerated modernity, whereas Mr Trump often seems to be trying to bring back the 1950s.

There’s only one thing to consider in the current case:

What does have a familiarly thirties ring to it is the combination of elite-rot and discredited ideas that Mr Trump feeds on. European elites looked unworthy of the description in the 1930s, after a war that had killed more people than any other before it but resolved nothing, followed by the biggest crisis ever faced by capitalism. In Latin America alone 16 countries suffered coups or takeovers by strongmen within a few years of 1929.

“Early fascist movements,” writes Robert Paxton in The Anatomy of Fascism (published 12 years before Mr Trump’s rise), “exploited the protests of the victims of rapid industrialization and globalization-modernization’s losers, using, to be sure, the most modern styles and techniques of propaganda.” Their successors, in America and in Western Europe, where far-right parties are also flourishing, do the same. Like early fascisms, they have few ideas to speak of. Rather, they point out that the elites don’t know what they are doing and promise an alternative world of prosperity for all with no sacrifice necessary. Plenty of voters take this as plain-speaking.

Plenty of voters buy lottery tickets too, but there’s no need to worry Donald Trump bringing us American fascism:

I don’t think such a thing is possible in America or Western Europe now. The dislocations of the 1930s were on a completely different scale to the foreign- and domestic-policy failures of the past decade. Having suffered late-fascism once, the West has some immunity from it, because we know what it looks like.

That said, I didn’t think Mr Trump would be the Republican nominee either.

Yeah, there is that, but then there’s Paul Waldman at the Washington Post arguing that Hillary Clinton is not very good at running for president but in the end it probably won’t matter:

The headline “Dems Panicky over Upcoming Election” is sort of like “Parents Flummoxed by App Popular with Teens” or “Kardashians Continue to Seek Attention.” It’s certainly true, but not exactly surprising. That’s the stage we seem to be entering now in the presidential campaign, with furious hand-wringing by Democrats over the prospect that their presidential nominee is ruining everything. And even though Hillary Clinton could be leading the polls by 20 points and you’d have no trouble finding a dozen Democrats in Washington who would tell you that her campaign is a disaster in the making and it’s all about to crumble, there is a fundamental truth underneath it: For all her many skills, Hillary Clinton is just not that good at running for president. That doesn’t mean she won’t be good at being president, and it’s a reminder that the two are not the same thing.

Hillary Clinton is just not that good at running for president because that requires the quick effective insult, and all she does is attract those:

A different candidate would probably be farther ahead of Trump. Clinton brings with her the baggage of a quarter-century of controversies, most unfair but some not, that shape how the public looks at her. It must gall her to no end that while Trump tells so many lies both large and small in a given day that we in the media can barely bring ourselves to correct them anymore, she’s the one who’s supposed to have a trustworthiness problem. And Clinton does not have the easy charisma of her husband or George W. Bush – like many previous presidential contenders (most but not all of them unsuccessful), you can see the effort she brings to campaigning.

That means that no one “knows” her:

Clinton’s staff and friends often protest that the real person they know doesn’t come through on the trail and through the media’s filter. They say she’s funny and caring and thoughtful, and if people really got to know her they’d see that. Clinton would hardly be the first about whom you could say something similar; if you saw the behind-the-scenes documentary “Mitt” (which was released after the 2012 campaign ended), you couldn’t help but think more highly of Mitt Romney than you would have if you had just been watching the campaign, no matter what you thought of his policy ideas.

But there are two other issues:

Clinton is also simply not very good at one of the main things presidential candidates have to do, delivering speeches. She has none of Bill’s (or Ronald Reagan’s) conversational ease, or Barack Obama’s mastery of rhetorical rhythm and tone. She tends to over-pronounce every syllable as though she’s reading something for a transcriber and doesn’t want there to be any mistakes, which robs her of anything resembling a natural flow. And of course, as a woman she gets criticized for “shouting” when male politicians raise their voices all the time when speaking over cheering crowds, and no one seems to mind or call them “shrill” (just listen to a Sanders speech some time).

And then there are the strategic questions. Almost four months ago I wrote a piece noting that while both Trump and Sanders have a simple, easy-to-understand message that explains what they think the problem is and why they are the solution, Clinton had yet to come up with a resonant theme for her campaign. She still hasn’t. For a while it was “Breaking Down Barriers,” though you probably didn’t notice. Then for a day or so they tried out “Stronger Together,” which promptly disappeared. Now “Breaking Down Barriers” may be back, but it’s hard to tell.

Perhaps quick pointed insults are the answer:

The point isn’t that she needs a slogan per se; it’s that she needs a way of summarizing what her campaign is about, so that when people vote for her, they have a broad idea of what course they’re choosing for the country. She can’t find it, and neither can the people who work for her. Clinton’s top advisers are actually spending time trying to come up with a Trumpian nickname to hang on Trump – Dangerous Donald? Poor Donald? Dipstick Donald? That tells you something about their ability to see the forest for the trees.

They might try the vulgar-demented-pig-demon thing, but the point is that the perfect insult is a powerful political weapon. With Trump, however, there is a problem:

What do you do when Trump blurts out his latest lunatic idea, like defaulting on the national debt in order to save some money or pulling out of NATO? What do you say when he floats another conspiracy theory, like Ted Cruz’s dad being involved in the Kennedy assassination or the Clintons murdering Vince Foster or global warming being a hoax invented by the Chinese? How are you supposed to respond to that? Nobody knows for sure, because we’ve just never seen a candidate with Trump’s bizarre combination of ignorance, buffoonery, demagoguery and bluster.

There’s too much, and it comes too fast, relentlessly, and she’s not like Donald Trump, ready with the immediate short insult – Little Marco or now Crooked Hillary. She didn’t immediately come up with the vulgar-demented-pig-demon line. It’s not in her, but Waldman says that really may not matter:

The things in politics that require intuition and natural talent are not where she excels. The things that require careful study and diligent preparation, on the other hand, are where Clinton can outperform almost anyone. The best candidates can do both, but Clinton was never going to be among them.

Fortunately for her, she has enough built-in advantages, particularly an Electoral College that requires Republicans to sweep almost every swing state in order for them to win and an opponent systematically alienating nearly every key demographic group, that it’s highly likely she’ll win even if she isn’t knocking them dead on the stump. And then we’ll see whether her smarts, her deep understanding of policy, her experience in government, and everything she’s done to prepare for that day can make up for what she lacks.

She lacks the instinct for insults, which can get you elected. An instinct for insults is also the worst possible trait for a president – riots in the streets here and wars abroad are sure to follow. But the perfect insult at the proper time is rather delicious. It’s our guilty little pleasure, even if there is something nihilistic about it, and Donald Trump really is a vulgar, demented pig-demon, who only appeals to emasculated middle-aged men. Cool.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Proper Insult

  1. Rick says:

    Let’s face it, Hillary Clinton couldn’t insult her way out of a paper bag.

    But maybe that’s a good thing!

    Maybe Hillary should proceed instead by differentiating herself as the candidate who’s not hurling cheap shots and personal low blows. If she doesn’t denigrate him, she reduces his opportunity to strike back with denigrations of his own, which he’s not only very good at, it’s really the only thing he is good at.

    Maybe she can concentrate not only on what we, as a country, need to do, but how to do it, in a way that demonstrates her command of knowledge — something he lacks. For example, she could show that his policies would contribute to the impoverishment of Mexico, and that would actually hurt both countries — if they don’t have jobs down there, we can neither sell to them, nor buy from them, and will force Mexicans to go back to those days when they actually were flooding across our borders. How does Trump counter that?

    She should bombard him with facts. He’s not really very good at those. Besides, hardly anybody ever counters his misstatements of fact anymore — for example, that rather than immigrants being responsible for so much crime in America, studies have shown that the incidence of crime in immigrant neighborhoods is actually lower than in other neighborhoods.

    And she shouldn’t be afraid to show us how much she knows. The people who don’t respect intelligence will be voting for Trump anyway. She needs to remind the rest of us why we should go to the polls on election day.

    I know that that’s a hard game plan to succeed on, considering how little it helped those other Republican candidates who tried it, but maybe the fact that the general election voters will be so different from the primary voters will help her with support from so many non-KoolAid-drinking-Republicans that those GOP candidates couldn’t avail themselves to. At least I hope so.

    But one more suggestion:

    Maybe Hillary should even announce ahead of time that she’ll be doing this, maybe even in her acceptance speech at the convention:

    “My Republican opponent isn’t very good at much, but it’s impossible to deny that he’s very, very good at insulting and belittling other people, especially his opponents — mocking them for being shorter than he, or insinuating that they lack his energy.

    I guess being good at insulting people is a skill that comes from a lifetime of practice, and I’m happy to confess that I’ve not had any reason to develop, much less perfect it, since showing a lack of respect for those you disagree with is not an ability that is of very much use in public service — which is what I’ve spent my life doing. In this sense, my Republican opponent, who has lived his whole life outside of government, has a big head start on me.

    And this is why I want everyone to know right now that I don’t plan on playing that game with him.

    I realize it will be hard to resist countering his abuses, but that’s what I plan on doing during this upcoming election season. Instead, I will try to stay focused on telling you what I think we, as a country, should be doing, and also, how I believe it can be done.

    But don’t get me wrong! I don’t plan on refraining from ever criticizing my opponent, or holding back from expressing my heartfelt belief — and it’s a belief shared by millions, if not billions, around the world — that Donald Trump is not in the least qualified to be president of the United States!

    Even if you think he is a plain-speaking man who “tells it like it is”, he isn’t. In fact, when expressing himself about world affairs, he plainly hasn’t any idea of what he’s talking about. But saying this is not to insult him, especially in a snarky way, nor to belittle his appearance, nor is it meant to humiliate him — it’s merely to point out his serious shortcomings in regards to the office that he’s seeking.

    Will I be “going negative”?

    Well, yes, I suppose I will, but only in the sense that I do plan on showing why I think I’m qualified to be president, and why I think Mr. Trump is not. But I do not plan on “going negative” with personal insults or speculative innuendo about things that have nothing to do with my opponent’s capabilities to be the country’s Commander in Chief.

    And so on.

    But if possible, just to maximize full impact, they should not leak either the text or the general contents of the speech ahead of time. Otherwise, they will rob the speech of its ability to pull the rug out from under Trump. This way, everybody gets to watch Trump to see what he does in the coming days, but also to watch her, just to see how well she stays to her word.

    The better she does, the better she will look.

    Rick

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