From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
He Builds Walls
by Sarah Gerard
Evidence suggests some cetaceans have language, but to date only homo sapiens has been shown to demonstrate the neural plasticity necessary to hold hundreds of thousands of words in the mind at once. So it is this ability that sets us apart from the animals. Among the greatest achievements of our age has been the demotion by thinking people of language that flattens humanity. Such language causes harm. It is an abuse of language. This demotion of harmful language points to an expansion of consciousness, empathy, and awareness of our fellow man, and to the varieties and complexities of human experience. It proves evolution, for as our world changes, language adapts to it.
Among other responsibilities, the President of the United States must fulfill the role of an orator. Citizens of the world need to trust that the words he utters represent the highest orders of his thinking, and are underwritten by his best intentions, aimed at meeting the needs of the greatest number of people, and the American people first. This means all Americans, not only the few who accrue most of the nation’s wealth. In this way, the president models the core values of his constituents, protecting their dignity and bringing up the next generation of Americans to advance our goal of democracy.
When the president appears on television, when his voice is broadcast over the radio, when he posts on social media, in addition to representing America to the world, he reflects us back to ourselves. He shows us who we are. We invest our national self-esteem in his ability to perform Americanness. He must be a capable and trustworthy performer, knowing in his heart the difference between acting and lying: that an actor transcends the limitations of his character, bridging separations between people, whereas a liar thinks only of himself. A liar sows division. He builds walls.
Donald Trump is, to use a word that I see often today, an abuser. Not only is he an abuser of power, but he is also an abuser of people working in his vicinity — as suggested by the numbers who have fled or been forced from the White House and its departments since his inauguration — as well as an abuser of his wives, the American people, the media, and the English language. There is no greater offense to my sensibilities as a writer than the abuse of language. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of words to describe Donald Trump. I will set them down here, more or less in the order in which they occurred to me.
Dishonest, insulting, spineless, unqualified, irresponsible, greedy, disrespectful, cruel, stupid, impulsive, proud, amoral, talentless, ill-tempered, hypocritical, dangerous, chaotic, corrupt, incestuous, violent, misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, pedophilic, conspiratorial, criminal, warmongering, pathetic, childish, petulant, godless, toxic, opportunistic, irresponsible, slippery, self-hating, self-worshipping, demented, delusional, lonely, heartless, reactionary, hotheaded, crude, selfish, sneaky, misanthropic, unwise, inhuman, industrialist, bestial, evil, barbaric, biophobic, flatulent, nepotistic, narcissistic, grandiose, disagreeable, immature, pigheaded, conniving, embarrassing, insecure, rageful, uninspiring, lazy, denatured, unstable, unhealthy, ugly, repulsive, obnoxious, gluttonous, repellent, loveless, privileged, entitled, defensive, undeserving, vain, petty, controlling, shallow, sad, and jealous.
I glean these impressions from little more than Trump’s public persona. In particular, the way he uses words. In January 2018, more than seventy psychologists sent a letter to Trump’s physician, and to major media outlets, expressing concern for his mental health. Other psychologists marched through the streets of New York City to call for his removal. I don’t know if Donald Trump has a mental illness. My gut reaction is that such a hypothesis lets him off too easily and is insulting to neuroatypical people, the majority of whom do not exhibit the qualities I list above. We’re now facing the very real possibility of another Cold War with Russia. We have reason to fear war with North Korea is imminent. We now, against our wishes, will for the foreseeable future associate the African continent with a synonym for the anus. We have debased ourselves. Our security is in every way compromised. Queer people, people of color, immigrants, political refugees, people of differing abilities, children going to school on a normal school day, fear daily for their lives, our lives. This is in large part because Donald Trump’s words are bereft of integrity.
We cannot trust that Donald Trump means what he says. We don’t know what he believes is important beyond increasing profit, in particular his own. He thinks nothing of declaring he’ll build a costly, ineffective border wall with Mexico’s money, with no promise from Mexico. He thinks nothing of hinting that he may eradicate presidential term limits and be in office for a lifetime. He thinks nothing of signing his name on a bill stripping protections for public lands, clean air, endangered species — pillaging the natural world, which belongs to all of us — because his signature, two words that stand for his personhood, signifying who he is as a human being, mean nothing to him. They are empty. He doesn’t care if they mean something today and something different tomorrow. He doesn’t care about meaning.
But words mean things. The President of the United States must, with his words, describe for us a better America: one in which quality education, clean water, health care, fair pay, and equal protection are accessible to everyone. One in which, sending our children to school, we trust that they will come home. In which all faith claims are sacrosanct, and families fleeing political tyranny abroad will not find more of it here. We must believe in this vision. Believe it is possible.
What words will be chiseled into Donald Trump’s headstone?
Take action today:
Get involved with Safe Horizon, an organization that supports and empowers victims of domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, and human trafficking.
Sarah Gerard is the author of the essay collection Sunshine State and the novel Binary Star.