Michiko Kakutani

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In “Donald Trump’s Chilling Language, and the Fearsome Power of Words,” Michiko Kakutani’s smart Vanity Fair “Hive” piece about the dishonest, nihilistic and potentially lethal lingo of the new President, she characterizes her subject as “part Don Rickles, part George Wallace.” I’ll disagree in that Rickles is a genius employer of English, an Einstein of insult comedy. Trump’s nastiness may have been effective to this point, but comparing him to Rickles is like saying someone who slices off their tongue with a rusty can is just like Harpo Mark. I’ll stick with my Lampanelli-Mussolini comparison.

Kakutani homes in ably on Trump and his team’s mission to render words beyond a baseball cap slogan meaningless, to create chaos so that anything is possible, including unspeakable things. But even if the Administration can continue to convince a sizable minority of the country that language means little, reality will intervene. As Eliot Cohen, a former Dubya State Department official tells her, the radical imprecision of Trump’s utterances “is going to greatly magnify the danger of miscalculation by all kinds of people.”

An excerpt:

The speech itself was divisive and pointedly aimed at Trump’s base, pitting the people against the establishment, the heartland against Washington. It painted a darkly dystopian picture of a United States in decline (“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now”) and beset by violence that he promised to fix—a picture that stands in sharp contrast to the reality of a country in which crime is low by historical levels and the economy has been steadily growing, adding jobs for 75 straight months, the longest streak on record. Trump’s candidacy was predicated on breaking rules, and his Inaugural Address was no exception. There was no poetry in the speech—no soaring words, no invocation of the liberty and freedoms granted by the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, or the special qualities that have made America, as Ronald Reagan said, quoting John Winthrop, a shining “city upon a hill.”

Instead, Trump used the occasion of the Inaugural—traditionally an opportunity to bring the country together, to lift and inspire, to remind the country of its shared ideals and rededicate it to a common mission—to deliver a lumbering variation on his doom-and-gloom speech from last July’s Republican National Convention. It recalled the polarizing, red-meat stump speeches that he served up to rallies last year; the nihilistic passages in his books in which he describes the world as “a horrible place” where “lions kill for food, but people kill for sport”; and the apocalyptic worldview of Bannon, who has made a series of films depicting Western civilization under threat from foreigners and from rot within.•

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Barack Obama is a poet, but Marilynne Robinson is a better one.

No offense to 44–I don’t think the Housekeeping author would be nearly as good a President. It’s just that sometimes a poet can see what a politico might overlook, especially one like Obama who rose on positivity even if he governed mostly as a pragmatist. Before winter had arrived in 2015–before it had arrived in America–Obama and Robinson talked literature and faith and nation for the New York Review of Books, and the novelist knew something ugly was taking hold in a very serious way, that a wall was being built. Like most of us, the President still resisted such a notion. He held on to hope.

I was reminded of this discussion by Michiko Kakutani’s smart New York Times conversation with the outgoing President about the significant role reading has played in his life.

An excerpt from the 2015 NYRB dialogue:

Marilynne Robinson:

Fear was very much—is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.

You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?

President Obama:

Yes.

Marilynne Robinson:

Because [of] the idea of the “sinister other.” And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.

President Obama:

Well, now there’s been that strain in our democracy and in American politics for a long time. And it pops up every so often. I think the argument right now would be that because people are feeling the stresses of globalization and rapid change, and we went through one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, and the political system seems gridlocked, that people may be particularly receptive to that brand of politics.

Marilynne Robinson:

But having looked at one another with optimism and tried to facilitate education and all these other things—which we’ve done more than most countries have done, given all our faults—that’s what made it a viable democracy. And I think that we have created this incredibly inappropriate sort of in-group mentality when we really are from every end of the earth, just dealing with each other in good faith. And that’s just a terrible darkening of the national outlook, I think.

President Obama:

We’ve talked about this, though. I’m always trying to push a little more optimism. Sometimes you get—I think you get discouraged by it, and I tell you, well, we go through these moments.

Marilynne Robinson:

But when you say that to me, I say to you, you’re a better person than I am.•

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