This morning, on my drive to work, I listened to a radio broadcast of the House Judiciary Committee’s debate over the two articles of impeachment that Democrats have brought against President Trump. This was a mistake. I struggle to imagine the undecided audience both parties imagine as they make statements for and against punishing an executive whose abuse of power is as blatant as it is sloppy — in fact, it sounds more like they’re trying to shore up the voters who already share with their views. This means they want to sound confident. Poised. Smart. Then, perhaps, their respective bases can go out and parrot the talking points for them.
Well, look. There are 535 members of Congress. Some of them are just… not that bright. A few plainly struggle to read aloud. Others are trapped by the stupidity of the president into repeating his stupidest arguments.
And then you have the guys who make up words. Why not!
But when they’re not outright mangling the English language, our elected leaders fall back on several choice terms that conjure the air of knowing what you’re talking about. Or not. Because when you start to break them down, they aren’t saying a whole lot — or inspiring any confidence in the brain trust leading this country down the drain. This tweet paints the picture quite well:
In that same spirit, here are five verbal red flags to watch out for:
What is vitriol, exactly? Going by context clues in 2019, it’s a noxious substance particular to whomever you happen to be screaming at. You can tell the Twitter dummies and bots picked up “vitriolic” by listening to soundbites from Congress, because they only ever use it to whine that they’re on the defensive, and losing. If a wound is grievous enough, accusations of “vitriol” amount to claims that the other side is too mean — as if we had not long ago jettisoned the appearance of politeness, or brusque comments can be refuted on tone alone. But speaking of the do-nothing, “civility”-obsessed folks in Washington: They love this word because it lets them smear the entire system at once, without naming names. Michigan Rep. Paul Mitchell, a Republican, announced his retirement on the grounds that he was exhausted with the “rhetoric and vitriol.” This was shortly after Trump’s racist “go back where you came from” tweets aimed at sitting Democratic representatives, which, surprise, Mitchell did not vote to condemn. Weird!
There’s an annoying trend in TV and movie comedies these days, and I’m sure you’ve noticed it: The goofier, more outlandish character in a scene does something goofy and outlandish, and the grounded, sarcastic character raises an eyebrow, saying: “Really?” I find it no less grating when Democrats in the House and Senate announce, over and over, how incredulous they are at the GOP’s eagerness to cover for naked corruption. It’s as though, after every day of Rep. Matt Gaetz’s conspiracy-peddling and Rep. Jim Jordan’s outright lies, they still expect their opponents to straighten up and engage with them in good faith and candor. If you can do no better than perform surprise that this coalition is willing to do whatever it takes to retain power, stay home and apply for jobs better suited to the terminally naïve. This Latinate gee-whiz routine won’t make the Trump loyalists feel shame, and we’re three years into the administration of a guy who routinely attempts to dunk on a 16-year-old. The time for disbelief has passed.
I love when politicians start moaning that this investigation or that proposed bill is “partisan,” which feels as close as any of them will ever get to admitting that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution didn’t have everything figured out. The document famously does not mention parties, but even George Washington, in his 1796 farewell address, warned against their “baleful effects” — a warning we would happily ignore for the next two centuries. To take issue with the partisan nature of any struggle in government is to 1) state the painfully obvious; 2) overlook the actual topic at hand; and 3) inadvertently suggest we reconsider the foundational mechanics of how our society moves along. Hey, I agree with the last bit; sadly, the dingbats who say they want to guard against highly partisan policy and statecraft are all but guaranteed to be the ones who’d rather side with their hierarchical organization and spread propaganda than support a measure that majorities in both parties support. Ah, the art of compromise.
When someone up at the Capitol wants to indicate that they don’t like a thing, while imbuing it with a depth of gravitas and meaning that is entirely beyond their reach, they will call it “tragic.” Maybe they will even be incredulous at the tragedy that is our partisan climate. The patina of the tragic is useful for removing any thought of human agency — tragedies are inflicted upon us from the outside, seemingly without reason, like hurricanes. Republicans label the impeachment process “tragic” the same way they do each mass shooting, to discredit the idea that it is avoidable, in this case via Trump’s basic awareness of laws or ethics. Identifying a tragedy most often entails a faux solemnity (I truly care what’s happening) as well as permission not to analyze underlying causes, and therefore to make no effort at preventing the next incident. It’s not good enough to get the president off for a single, enormous fuckup; they must also make his galling behavior sound unforeseeable, or a problem outside the scope of their duties. Tragic!
Oooh, it’s unprecedented. A thing that has never happened before. Scary! No, it’s a value-neutral word, except when Trump’s hysterical defenders harp on the “unprecedented” nature of the inquiry into his self-dealing. That could be accurate insofar as we’ve never had a modern president quite as catastrophically dumb as this one, but that doesn’t equate removing him from office with the literal apocalypse. You know what else was unprecedented? Landing men on the moon. Penicillin. Dildos that vibrate. Change can be intense, and yeah, unprecedented events can be intensely bad, but equal action is necessary to correct those. It’s like how the unprecedented rate of climate change demands the same level of response? Hello? C’mon, even Jim Jordan knows unprecedented stuff is sometimes for the best — when he’s spinning bullshit for the man in the Oval Office.
Now that’s a precedent you can count on.