Pity Poor Trump! He Signals As Other

I saw part of a Father Coughlin speech yesterday (it was excerpted in a Norman Lear documentary; give me a break), and Coughlin said, and I’m quoting from memory here, that he believed there were good Jews and bad Jews.

Now, I assume we all agree that this is true. Hannah Arendt and Jack Kirby are in some sense “good” while David Berkowitz and the Rosenbergs are in some sense “bad.” Almost any religion or, in fact, group of humans has good members and bad members, and while you could probably think of a group with a uniformly bad membership—serial killers, for example—these are going to be pretty fringe groups. Coughlin was laying down a truth that nobody can deny.

And yet when I saw this excerpt from the speech, I didn’t think, “Coughlin sure knows his stuff. I agree with him.” We can be certain that the directors of the documentary did not include the excerpt in an attempt to show that Coughlin spouted truisms. Lear, testifying about his feelings hearing the speech as a child, did not add, “Of course, it was hard to disagree with the man.”

I’m often suspicious of the “dog whistle” claims that make the rounds because they generally serve to allow us to take flights of fancy while interpreting the words of our political opponents, for example, to “prove” to ourselves that they are worse than anyone had suspected. But at the same time I’m not going to be fooled by a Coughlin follower (if any still live) who claims that the speech’s good Jew/bad Jew dichotomy was any less anti-Semitic than Ezra Pound’s ostensible distinction between “Stinkschuld” and “poor yitts.” I’m picking up what he’s laying down. I’m not being paranoid, Coughlin is just being an anti-Semite. And, perhaps more importantly, Coughlin is not trying to trick me. Coughlin is also on record as saying things like, “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.” He’s clear about what side his bread is buttered on.

Trump, you will remember from a couple weeks ago, called Clinton a “nasty woman,” and the internet, you may have noticed, went nuts. Trump really went all out and said something overtly sexist this time! we all averred, shaking out heads in not disbelief but more satisfaction that we’d been right all along. The crack prompted Bossip to call Trump “Mr. Misogyny”; Carbonated said “Trump’s sexism was obvious when etc.”; etc.; etc. We all shared the links, we all saw the links our friends shared. Feminist Current came right out and asserted that “‘Nasty,’ in this case, meant ‘cunt.'”

As some people have pointed out, Trump (in his charming way) has a history of calling pretty much EVERYONE nasty, so we had to look harder to find proof that this comment was somehow different and authoritative in its “obvious” sexism. Complex, for example, dug up scholarly etymological articles (hope you have access to JSTOR, link-followers) to prove that nasty is “a word seeped in classism and sexism.” Skepchick chose to focus on the context of when Trump trotted out his bon mot (as well, to be fair, the context of Trump’s larger life choices), pointing out that: “When Trump made that comment, Clinton wasn’t actually doing anything nasty.”

There are problems here. I think it’s clear that Trump is literally too stupid ever to have read a scholarly journal article, let alone know the etymology of a single word he’s used beyond maybe afternoon. Pace Skepchick, Clinton had just zinged Trump and snarkily called him a tax dodger when he brought out the nasty. You may say that Trump deserved to be zinged (and I agree with you), but we can’t really pretend that Clinton wasn’t insulting him, or that that insult is not what prompted the “nasty woman” comment.

This was the actual exchange:

Clinton: “I am on record as saying that we need to put more money in the social security trust fund. That’s part of my commitment to raise taxes on the wealthy. My social security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald’s—assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it. But what we want to do is—”
Trump: “Such a nasty woman”

Here’s how CNN transcribed it:

Clinton: “What we want to do is to replenish the Social Security trust fund…”
Trump: “Such a nasty woman”

Although I think it would be hard to argue that Trump is not a misogynist, since he has, after all, confessed to serial sexual assault, our need to see “nasty woman” as a smoking gun nevertheless says more about us than it does about Trump.

It’s probably predictable what I think is going on. Our demographic, and by our I mean a coastal elite progressive demographic, has an arbitrary linguistic taboo against coupling certain words or classes of words. If you call Clinton nasty, you are just being mean; if you call her a woman, you are just accurately gendering her; if you call her a nasty woman you are a misogynist.

(Remember, I’m not using arbitrary pejoratively. Almost all linguistic rules are arbitrary.)

This is fine if everyone speaks the same language. But Trump, despite being coastal and as elite as an American can be, is not progressive, and is unaware of the taboos of our dialect. I guarantee you, Trump had no idea, after saying “nasty woman,” that he had said anything more offensive than usual. To be fair, Trump is probably never aware that what he says is offensive, even when he’s trying to be offensive. But he must be aware that some statements (“Ted Cruz is the son of an assassin”) are going to cause more of a furor than others, and by this metric the response to “nasty woman” seems to have surprised him.

In other words, Father Coughlin is trying to sound anti-Semitic, and succeeding. Trump is trying to be presidential (or something), and we have set up enough taboos, shibboleths,  and tripwires that he is always going to sound like what he is: not one of us.

This is, remember, what linguistic shibboleths are for: to clue you in immediately who is an Us and who is a Them. In a word, to signal one’s demographic.

It’s a little embarrassing, though, to acknowledge that our antipathy to Trump is largely that he’s “different,” so we need to create elaborate fantasies in which we pretend that our traps have somehow revealed the secret recesses of Trump’s tiny mind.

And, again, Trump is clearly a misogynist, so in this case the decoding is correct. But it is only correct by chance. It’s like the time Trump said “the blacks” when he meant “blacks.” “Hoo ha! I know not to use the definite article there! I’m so much better than Trump!” we all said, patting ourselves on the back while trying not to listen too closely at what we were saying.

If making up nonsense about the etymological implications of nasty is what it took to prevent Trump from becoming president and destroying America and potentially the rest of the world, then perhaps I would be realpolitik enough to support it. But as I’ve said before, these kind of games are dangerous. In the same way that my demographic cried Nazi/wolf so often before about anyone who veered right of their platform, making it impossible to point out persuasively the scary fascist parallels of Trump’s campaign, you only have so many opportunities to say, “This statement of Trump’s reveals what he thinks.” If you waste those times using magic to decide, with Feminist Current above, that nasty is now the same as the most vulgar word in American English, then you’re not going to be able to point out that Trump has also explicitly called for suspending parts of the Bill of Rights.

The Telegraph has a running list, the “Donald Trump sexism tracker,” of “every offensive comment” Trump has made about women; these comments are all over the place, and they are pretty consistent in signaling that Trump is not in my demographic. Whether his claim, dutifully included, that Angelina Jolie is “not beautiful” reveals Trump’s sexism is extremely dubious. I won’t be the first person to point out that Trump’s orangey yam face topped by ludicrous hair is far and away the most ridiculed presidential appearance not just of this election but also of recent memory. Trump is a funny looking man, and we all like to point it out. I understand how comeliness is a different stat for boys and for girls, but to pretend that calling a woman “not beautiful” is somehow worse than calling a man an “orange slug” requires a lot of mental gymnastics.

Try this: Run through the Telegraph list and see how many items signal that Trump is unlike you or your friends (all of them); now see how many items are sexist (some of them).

“All women are beautiful,” some people say, confident they are signaling properly. Such assertions, of course, are just a redefinition of beautiful. We’re allowed to redefine words, naturally, and coming up with new meanings for words is a classic way of indicating a subculture (can you dig, man? Like, crazy!). But pretending that there’s anything else going on other than redefinition to signal a demographic…well, that’s just a transparent lie. It’s possible to redefine the words short or left-handed such that we can say “All women (including Angelina Jolie) are left-handed” but there doesn’t seem to be much point to doing so.

I hope Trump loses today—perhaps not as desperately as you hope it, but still pretty desperately. But I also hope that he loses because we who vote against him recognize that his policies are poorly thought out, that his temperament and knowledge base are inadequate for the presidency, that it would be shameful to elect a wicked, vengeful, dishonest reality TV star to “the highest office in the land”—not because we can only vote for people who signal they are one of us.


  1. erinfinnegan · · Reply

    Apparently signaling as “Other” wins you every swing state.

    Here’s a good article from The Guardian, the relevant quote being: “I…saw a feedback develop: the loud distaste voiced against Trump by who they saw as ‘the establishment’ only added to his appeal.” https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/nov/03/trump-supporters-us-elections

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Apparently my (our) demographic is not as popular withe the rest of the country as I might have thought.


      1. erinfinnegan · ·

        I for one was ludicrously unpopular in the Rust Belt, what with my casual liberal elitism! I was instantly accepted in an urban setting with other college educated liberal elites.

        I’d like to see some sort of Pygmalion for the 21st century where an high school drop out from a red state is trained to talk and dress like an urban liberal college grad and interviews for a job with a fake resume. Do employers really care if you went to college, or do they care if you have upper-middle-class speech patterns and share their values?

        But anyway, working more towards healing a divided America… There is a language divide that you’ve outlined in this entry (and others). Can you propose a linguistic solution to bridge the growing class divide?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. This is an excellent question, but the problem is that I assume the linguistic divide is not due to accidents of history (the way an Australian accent, say, as distinct from an American one, is), but due to, or more precisely perpetuated by, a desire to preserve the class distinction.

        Wealthy Americans used to make up a distinct class — Boston’s Brahmins or New York’s “400” — separated naturally from everyone else by their ability to afford expensive clothes, lodgings, etc.; so when the Vanderbilts and other “new money” upstarts came on the scene able to afford the same things, the Astors declared that worth was based on a byzantine code of manners. Etiquette books then popped up, offering (Emily Post is quite explicit about this) wealthy but not technically upper class people the secret code book that would let them pass as upper class. Presumably we could create similar guidebooks about various shibboleths. But…

        …if we did that, how would we know who’s one of us? Obviously all classes, subcultures, and demographics in America share 95% of the same language (well, not the ones that speak Spanish or Yiddish), but we focus on the linguistic tells that reveal someone is other. “Nucular” or “irregardless” tell us someone is an outsider; depending on your demographic, “erase” or “derail” will tell you who is an insider.

        Midwesterners would be (justifiably) offended that we wanted to uplift them, Kipling style, by teaching them the “right” way to talk. They don’t want to talk like us any more than we want to talk like them.

        My assumption is that once Emily Post blew the cover off the Masonic handshakes of the upperclass, they just found a new way of distinguishing themselves from the vulgar masses. Similarly, if we all learned to speak the same, we’d learn to distinguish each other based on dress or posture or (??)ideology(??)…or race, of course!

        In the beginning was the difference. Our linguistic signals are just epiphenomena.

        Vassar Pygmalion should be your next screenplay.


      3. I apparently cannot ‘like’ something unless I am logged in, so I will just say that this comment is excellent and deserves to be its own post.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. erinfinnegan · · Reply

    Your reply really made me think… First of all, that I’m biased in thinking that the Working Class wish to leave their class, or the poor no longer wish to be poor. I read this article about 20th Century Victorian values: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/10/victorian-values-fitness-organic-wealth-parenthood/ Which says how the Victorian upper-middle wanted to differentiate itself from the bourgeoisie.

    For Vassar Pygmalion I assumed that all poor people would want the sort of high paying office-y white collar jobs that the former-middle-class have. However, lots of people would prefer the low-skill high paying jobs that used to exist in the Rust Belt, which would let them not be poor but be in the same in-group.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It certainly seems obvious to me that a high paying office job is much better than a low paying one of manual labor, but then again I’m someone who has made choices so that I can get a high paying office job; of course I would think that. The real question is do people who don’t have high paying white collar jobs think that they (and all that they entail, eg, extra schooling, increased boredom, potentially higher expectations in regards to responsibility) are better.

      It is difficult for me to tell how much of the pride of various members of what I consider to be underclass subcultures is based on thinking their way of life is legitimately superior versus being based upon a self identity resenting what they can never be (“underachiever and proud of it”).

      >However, lots of people would prefer the low-skill high paying jobs that used to exist in the Rust Belt, which would let them not be poor but be in the same in-group.

      I’d prefer we not make an effort to mold our economy to their preferences.


      1. Slave mentality, no?

        …and who exactly is this, “we” of which you speak? Because whoever it is, let me remind you, there is no ‘the economy’ — the economy is ‘us.’


      2. Slave mentality, indeed.

        I guess by ‘we’ I mean government regulators, of which I am not one. So by we, I mean they.


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