Let’s start with the words “in the age of Trump.” The phrase currently has more than 17 million Google hits, compared to (and this should cheer POTUS) only 6.6 million for “in the age of Obama.” It’s not just that Trump is the new name in town. It’s that most of us—reds, blues, and media of all stripes—need language to come to terms with what seems like a before-and-after split in reality. “…in the age of Trump” will continue to expand because so much—“climate policy,” “truth,” “business ethics,” “empathy and education,” “fashion,” “Cuba,” “apocalyptic thinking,” “journalism,” to grab a few nouns from Google—will be affected one way or the other by this president.
It’s a given that politicians distort language. But—as writers from Masha Gessen to Roger Cohen suggest—by stripping words of meaning, Trump attempts to claim power over reality itself and take the necessary steps toward authoritarian rule.
The following is a glossary of terms that will no doubt grow in tandem with the president’s fits and fixations, and the world’s response to them. First is Trumpspeak, the language that he and his wordsmiths have introduced or popularized, much of it since the inauguration. Next are the words of resistance, used to grasp and combat Trumpism, some working out better than others. Contributing to this second set of terms are voters, activists, progressive media, and, this time around, mainstream media, which the Trumpists have been trying to discredit as “fake news” and “the opposition party.”
Alternative Facts: Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway coined an instant classic on Meet the Press two days after the inauguration. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, she said, wasn’t telling falsehoods when he told at least four of them during his first press briefing, as Chuck Todd insisted he had. “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck,” said Conway. Spicer, she explained, was simply giving “alternative facts.”
The mockery was instant. Alternative facts, alternative universe. Alt facts, alt-right. Mating “alternative” with “facts” was so brazen that many minds jumped back to their high-school Orwell. In Newspeak, one writer reminded us, “words with negative meanings were removed such that ‘bad’ became ‘ungood.’”