Tremendous Disaster

For Donald Trump, much of the world breaks down into two categories: Things that are tremendous, and things that are disasters. In total, he used these two words 65 times over the course of his three debates with Hillary Clinton.1 By comparison, Clinton said “disaster” once, and never called anything tremendous.2  Political writers have spent a lot of time trying to hash out the tenets of Trumpism (“Surely it’s not just the racism and sexism”), so it can’t hurt to try and see the world according to the terminology preferred by the man himself.

Let’s begin with the more straightforward category, the disasters. I went through all three debates and did my best to figure out what exactly he found disastrous. Table 1 shows the results, organized first by things that were mentioned more than once, and then by the order in which they were mentioned. For future convenience (you’ll see), I have also numbered the disasters, in that column on the left.

Table 1

Row Thing Mentions as a disaster Debate
1 Obamacare 5 2,3
2 NAFTA 4 2,3
3 Clinton as a senator 3 2
4 Clinton’s tax plan 2 2,3
5 Libya (specifically Clinton’s role) 2 1,2
6 the Iraq War 2 1,2
7 our inner cities 2 2,3
8 Aleppo 2 2,3
9 a government investment in solar energy 1 1
10 our energy policies 1 1
11 Clinton’s regulations 1 1
12 the way the U.S. left Iraq 1 1
13 a theoretical single-payer plan 1 2
14 “almost everything she’s done in foreign policy” 1 2
15 education in the inner city 1 2
16 jobs 1 2
17 Clinton’s plan to give amnesty 1 3
18 Clinton’s trade plan 1 3
19 Clinton’s open borders plan 1 3

Most of these are fairly comprehensible, if not exactly accurate or defensible. He’s hammering a policy unpopular with his base, one of the only famous deals in one of his only core policy areas (trade), and Clinton in general. At times he arguably overreaches, as with Disaster 14. He also likes to describe hypothetical disasters, as in Disasters 4, 11, 13, and 17-19, which refer to his understanding (to put it generously) of Clinton’s proposals; none of these things are actual disasters, because they haven’t happened (and, like 17 and 19, are not always real proposals), but he emphatically believes that they would be disasters, if they existed. This arguably describes his relationship to “the inner city” as well: I would be surprised if he were thinking of any actual places when he used that term, but then again, what could possibly be more frightening—more disastrous—than whatever inner city lives in Trump’s imagination? Still, overall this is a pretty coherent realm of political belief—these are more or less the things any Republican candidate would criticize, if not always this aggressively.

Now here are the things Trump described as tremendous, laid out the same way:

Table 2

Row Thing Mentions Debate
1 the hate in Clinton’s heart 3 2
2 the impact of stop and frisk on NYC 2 1
3 our budget deficits 2 2
4 our economic machine 2 3
5 his tax reductions 1 1
6 new jobs (from his tax cuts) 1 1
7 jobs created by the wealthy 1 1
8 the job the wealthy will do creating jobs 1 1
9 his own income 1 1
10 our country’s problems 1 1
11 the money saved building his post office hotel 1 1
12 the success of his club in Palm Beach 1 1
13 the “service” we’re providing our military allies 1 1
14 the stamina needed to be President 1 1
15 Clinton’s commercials about him 1 1
16 our country’s potential 1 2
17 his respect for women 1 2
18 the numbers of taxes he pays 1 2
19 the success we could have if we did a sneak-attack on Mosul 1 2
20 how he’s doing on the small donations 1 2
21 the wealth under our feet (from natural gas) 1 2
22 the number of people offended by Justice Ginsburg’s statements about Trump 1 3
23 the respect of the people he’d nominate as judges 1 3
24 gun violence in Chicago 1 3
25 the numbers of nuclear warheads in Russia 1 3
26 the money Clinton takes (“from certain countries that treat certain groups of people so horribly”) 1 3
27 the jobs he’ll create 1 3

The first thing you’ll notice is just that this is a much longer list—which is even more surprising when you consider that Trump actually says the word “disaster” more often than the word “tremendous” (33 and 32 times, respectively). The difference is that while the disasters are reasonably coherent, allowing the word to collect around a few key areas, the tremendous things are all over the place. Even those top few items typically reflect instances where Trump happened to say the word a few times in quick succession—the three mentions of Tremendous 1  (T1) occurred within the same few sentences, and include basically a stutter (“She’s got tremendous — she’s got tremendous hatred”). In fact, I’d say that everything in the top four is essentially an instance of meaningless repetition:

  • “But stop-and- frisk had a tremendous impact on the safety of New York City. Tremendous beyond belief.”
  • “They’ll pay off our tremendous budget deficits, which are tremendous.”
  • “Because we have a tremendous machine. We will have created a tremendous economic machine once again.”

When you hear a word as idiosyncratic and exaggerated as “tremendous”, you might expect it to play a part in Trump’s standard hyperbole, like in the first bullet point. “Tremendous beyond belief”is just the kind of absurd overreaching that he loves; it fits nicely with another of his rhetorical tics, the claim that various things are “like we’ve never seen”. But I think the other two examples may be more telling, in the sense that they are incoherent nonsense. “Our tremendous budget deficits, which are tremendous”—this is not the statement of a man who knows how high the budget deficit should be, or has been, or is right now. This is not even the statement of a man who can think of a second adjective on the fly.

On that front, the beginning of the third bullet point is incredible: “Because we have a tremendous machine”.3 Trump, as if becoming cognizant of this statement only after it leaves his mouth, quickly amends this tremendous machine we have to a tremendous economic machine that we will have. But why did he say it in the first place? After all, he never said “machine” at any prior point in any of the debates, and it is not exactly a germane or meaningful word here. In fact, the only time the word came up at all in the debates was earlier on the night of this weird sentence, when Clinton mentioned that Trump called Machado “an eating machine”. But I think that’s just it: He’s saying “machine” more or less out of nowhere because someone else said “machine” earlier on.

As David Roberts has pointed out, it’s important to understand that Trump doesn’t really use language to communicate existing ideas that he has; instead, he simply “riffs until he finds the word strings that get cheers and shouts.” I think Trump has a stock set of words that come tumbling out almost at random, albeit often centered on some broad theme (trade, or hombres); Trump then becomes aware of these words at the same time we do, and begins to try and wrestle them into some sort of coherence by cobbling them together using some of his other words, or perhaps simply repeating the same ones (“our tremendous budget deficits, which are tremendous.”) It makes sense that he would mix his own language with random words and phrases from others (like the time Clinton said, “If Trump was talking, he’d probably say something like ‘repeal and replace'”, and then Trump finished his very next turn with the phrase “So I think we’ve got to repeal and replace”). It’s all just stuff he’s hearing.4

This explains some of the difficulty of parsing the list of tremendous things. For one, they’re so repetitive that they accidentally become recursive. After saying that his tax cuts will create tremendous jobs (T6), Trump later argues: “Well, I’m really calling for major jobs, because the wealthy are going create tremendous jobs. They’re going to expand their companies. They’re going to do a tremendous job.” (T7-8) Here are the word “tremendous” and the word “job” used not only to describe the thing that will be created (“tremendous jobs”) but the quality of the creation (the wealthy will do a “tremendous job” creating “tremendous jobs”). And tremendousness may have a positive connotation, but it’s also just an intensifier, so in T10 our country’s problems are tremendous, but in T16 our country’s potential is tremendous. Trump is pretty frequently tremendous (T9, T11, T12, T20), but so are Russian nuclear armament (T25) and gun violence in Chicago (T24). And as this last one shows, the tremendous can intersect with the disastrous—after all, Chicago has an inner city.

So what does this tell us about Trumpism? I think, like every other deep dive, it doesn’t give us any new clarity about his political commitments, because those have been flagrantly obvious from the outset of his political career—xenophobia, sexism, nationalism, and self-aggrandizement. But I think digging into his language even just a little reveals something we tend to gloss over too easily: Trump is a profoundly stupid man. This is not his most problematic feature; the bigotry, narcissism, short temper, and mean spiritedness are much more alarming. But he also does not know how to produce coherent sentences or express his ideas with more than two overlapping, imprecise, hyperbolic, occasionally self-contradictory terms. Smart, well-informed people can generally do that. You don’t need a tremendous intellect to be able to string together a few dozen meaningful sentences; you just can’t be a disaster.

 


Notes
1. I got these counts by looking up transcripts and performing simple word searches. I include the word “tremendously” in the count for “tremendous”. I did all of the counting/searching in this post by hand, so it might be a little off here and there, especially because Trump’s language is often pretty difficult to parse.  

2. She said, “When President Obama came into office, he inherited the worst economic disaster since the great depression.” 

3. Reading this, I was reminded of a strange anecdote I once read about a woman whose corpus callosum had been severed. When this happens, the right and left halves of the brain can’t communicate with each other. A doctor showed her left eye a picture of a nude woman, and she laughed, even though she said she couldn’t see anything; the issue is that the half of the brain that can see out of the left eye was no longer connected to the half that produces language, so she couldn’t express what she had seen. The doctor asked her why she had laughed, and her answer was, “Oh doctor, you have some machine!” I’ve always remembered that sentence, because it’s so strange, a snap response from a brain in which the function of language has literally been severed from certain kinds of perception and self-knowledge. I’ve never heard anything like it, until now. 

4. This might also explain the only other use of the word “machine” during the debates—later in the same turn, Trump said, “But that being said, we will create an economic machine the likes of which we haven’t seen in many decades.” Now that he himself has said “machine” a couple of times, this appears to him to be a term people use to describe the economy. Once uttered, his own words simply enter the universe of stuff he has heard and can now repeat.  

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