In the days prior to Friday’s inauguration, Donald Trump, now the president of the United States, published a picture of himself on Twitter. He was sitting behind a grandiose desk, empty except for a statue of an American bald eagle, with a pen and paper and a thoughtful expression. The aim of the picture was to show us how he was working on the finer details of his inauguration speech, just as presidential as Abraham Lincoln ever was.
Naturally, the internet showed no mercy. Immediately viral jokes were spread showing what was really on the piece of paper Trump had in front of him: doodles with crayons and self-aggrandizing scrawl.
However, it would be mistake to underestimate Trump’s relationship with language. It is language that has made him the successor of Lincoln – and the world’s most powerful man.
So, what kind of language are we talking about? You can make fun of his playground-like way of expressing himself, but its effectiveness is unarguable: short and concrete words in a repetitive rhetoric that reflect and strengthen the feelings of his audience. Last fall, The Economist remarked that Trump was using George Orwell’s recipe for clear language, made to strip out the lies, and setting it to work against itself. “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” Orwell wrote.
The art of communicating directly with citizens has always been key for American presidents. Lincoln’s easily understood language is legendary, and Franklin D. Roosevelt had his “Fireside Chats,” in which he spoke directly to the people without the media as middlemen, using the same strategic language as Trump (concrete choice of words, faked closeness). Recently in a lengthy interview, Trump praised his Twitter account as a channel through which he could both circumvent and manipulate traditional media. “The day I realized it can be smart to be shallow was, for me, a deep experience,” he said. The ever-knowledgeable Lincoln would have recognized the timeless, Shakespearian tone in those words.
Trump’s highly deliberate use of language is another reason to more critically examine his relationship with the media. A lot of focus of late has been placed on his spectacular news conference, and a lot less on the fact that his new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, during questions in the Senate, refused to recognize the Justice Department’s recent promise not to prosecute journalists who publish national intelligence from secret sources. Many American journalists fear that [this refusal to recognize such protection] will put them in the same situation as colleagues in Turkey, China or Russia.
This week also saw the arrival of a frank letter from Kyle Pope, editor-in-chief at the Columbia Journalism Review, in which he promised American journalists would stand united, despite Trump’s attempts to divide them. “We believe there is an objective truth, and we will hold you to that,” he wrote to the new president.
It is fascinating, if not surprising, that such things need to be said. However, this is because today’s crisis is not just about the American media or individual journalists, but rather is a potential crisis for the communication model of democratic societies – the one based on public access to true and objective information and respect for fact-based argumentation and the authority of science.
In this model, the media have both a historical and an institutional role to play, affecting not only themselves but, in the long run, also the citizens and the leaders of society. Exiting President Barack Obama showed in his last press conference that he understood the important role the free media have been given by democratic society, when he said that by doing their work, journalists put pressure on him to do the best job possible.
Another of Trump’s predecessors, the United States’ third president, Thomas Jefferson, had an intuitive understanding of the dynamic between rulers and the media. As early as 1787, he was imagining with dread a society without the critical examining function played by the media: “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter."
What Jefferson’s latest successor would choose is, unfortunately, not in much doubt.