The Trumps’ nine-day journey outside the United States was “incredible, historic … because it truly was an extraordinary week.” It was “unprecedented.” “We’ve never seen before at this point in a presidency such sweeping reassurance of American interest,” said press secretary Sean Spicer.
Most of what Spicer had to say in his press briefing and Q&A on May 30 was—to be generous—intelligible if empty or, in the case of his example of “fake news,” absurdly misleading, concerning as it did a BBC error that was quickly corrected. But my point here is more general—his vocabulary and his style.
“Incredible graciousness”—Saudi Arabia’s monarchy. “A historic turning point that people will be talking about for many years to come”—his speech in Riyadh. “Right direction”—that’s where Trump moved NATO. “Holistic solution”—that’s what’s in store for ISIS. “Robust agenda”—that’s what Trump has. “Unbelievably qualified”—his Cabinet. “Fairly unbelievable”—his relationship with Angela Merkel. “Did a great job”—that’s what the president did, though I expect it will serve for my 11-year-old grandson’s forthcoming performance in the school play.
As for “such sweeping reassurance,” what was that again? Reassurance (of foreigners) that America is interested in the world? Assurance (in the eyes of Americans) that America stands first?
But reader, I am not, I hope, shooting inept fish in a barrel of the poorly educated. I’m after (sorry) bigger game.
Spicer’s offering is not aimless noise. It has a purpose. It reduces the world to black-and-white. It shows decisiveness. It’s the verbal equivalent of a body slam or a phony smile. Spicer doesn’t use other Newspeak locutions like doubleplusungood—though the time may come when his boss resorts to it on Twitter, since its 16 characters take up barely more than half the space of “the enemy of the American people,” allowing room for a SAD sequence—but he might as well. The point is to show definiteness and to discourage any reaction besides Yes! or No!
Thus, for example, “such sweeping reassurance of American interest” does not have to mean either “sweeping reassurance that America is interested” or “sweeping reassurance that American interest is good.” Either interpretation will do, or yet anything else you might think of, because the phrase has accomplished its goal of stringing together three doubleplusgood terms: “sweeping,” “reassurance” and “American.” Each is a quick grin signaling approval. Three missions accomplished.
Spicer’s style rouses the faithful by short-circuiting any neural pathway that might lend itself to a complex thought. It resembles the form of speech that George Orwell described, in his appendix to 1984, as duckspeak,
“whose intention was to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologically neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness.”
That is, Spicerisms—like Trumpisms, though less spicy—are bursts of attitude. They are not offered as reasons to think that something is true but affirmations that something is good or bad. They are either tropisms of the mouth or punctuation marks. They are either schmaltzy or percussive. Sad!