“Words, words, words,” declared Hamlet to Polonius.
Painters have a brush and easel. A stonemason deploys a trowel. And politicians wield words.
Words are a politician’s tool. They live by them and die by them. For without words, there are no ideas. No motivation. No proposals. No calls to action. No persuasion.
All are essential in politics.
Of course, an agenda is the main force behind words. Elect this person so they implement a set of policies or adopt legislation. But even if it’s just all talk and no action, the words remain.
This is why politicians aim to use words so carefully. Certainly they sweat over the right turn of phrase in a speech or press release. Astute politicians read a room or an audience. Some even time their delivery like a comedian delivering a punch line to score howls of laughter or applause.
We know politicians by name and deed. But we mostly remember them for words.
“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
“I’m not a crook.”
Politicians know they’ll step in it if they use words unartfully. Off-the-cuff remarks about race, someone with disabilities or the Holocaust are sure to land a politician in a world of hurt. And, when it comes time to mea culpa, politicians use words.
Words matter in politics. And this is what makes the 2016 campaign so different. The words of Donald Trump are more inflammatory and radioactive than what voters and media have grown accustomed.
This is part of Trump’s appeal. It’s also what turns off scores of people and ignites press coverage.
“Did you hear what Trump said?” is now a regular refrain.
This is why people freak out at the rhetoric of Trump. It’s now a struggle to differentiate between what is a joke and what he really believes. What’s sarcasm and what’s a charge. What’s fact and fiction.
Trump’s uttered a lot of controversial things during this campaign. But next to his proposed Muslim ban (which now isn’t a proposed ban, until Trump apparently extended it to persons of other faiths), nothing scored more attention than his comments about the Second Amendment and Hillary Clinton.
There is white-hot language. There is incendiary rhetoric. And then.
Trump and his defenders argued opponents and the press took the gun remark out of context.
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Tom Friedman of The New York Times asserts Trump knew exactly what he was doing when he discussed the Second Amendment as a potential backdoor to short-circuit a possible Clinton presidency.
“And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin got assassinated,” proclaimed in the lede of Friedman’s essay this week in response to Trump. “But there are always people down the line who don’t hear the caveats. They just hear the big message: The man is illegitimate, the man is a threat to the nation, the man is the equivalent of a Nazi war criminal. Well, you know what we do with people like that, don’t you? We kill them.”
The health care debate of 2009-2010 was the last time such combustible rhetoric blanketed the American political lexicon.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., snarled “You lie!” at President Obama during his presentation on health reform during a 2009 Joint Session of Congress. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, yelled that the bill was a “baby killer” as the House moved through the final version of the legislation.
ObamaCare opponents flooded the Capitol switchboard, leaving threatening messages with congressional aides and on voicemail.
Then-Rep. Bart Stupak. D-Mich., crafted the pivotal “Stupak Amendment,” which proved crucial to passing the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as ObamaCare. The amendment would erect an additional firewall into the health-care package to bar the use of federal dollars for abortion services.
“I hope you die,” said one caller to Stupak’s office.
Meantime, outside the Capitol, demonstrators hectored members of the Congressional Black Caucus like Reps. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Andre Carson, D-Ind., with the “N” word. Lewis, a civil rights hero, said he hadn’t heard language like that “since the march to Selma.”
A profanity-laced message left for then-Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, expressed disappointment that she failed to break her back when hit by a car while jogging.
Someone spat on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., as he walked to the Cannon House Office Building across the street from the Capitol. An ordained United Methodist minister, an incensed Cleaver confronted the spitter. U.S. Capitol Police briefly detained the man in question until Cleaver asked the cops to release the subject.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was speaker at the time and responsible for ushering ObamaCare to passage. She said she witnessed this sort of provocative talk “myself in the late ‘70s in San Francisco.” When asked about the tone, Pelosi said, “It created an environment in which violence took place.”
Pelosi said the tinderbox culminated in the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first, openly gay elected official in the U.S.
“Words have power. They weigh a ton,” Pelosi said. She noted that some words whip certain people into a frenzy “depending on their, shall we say, emotional state.”
There was no physical violence on Capitol Hill toward lawmakers once the House and Senate approved the final version of the ACA. But concern and fear permeated the Capitol. Members of the House Democratic Caucus convened a meeting with top U.S. Capitol Police officials to express safety concerns. Things were so tense that then-Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terry Gainer issued a memo to the Senate community, urging lawmakers and staffers to “remain vigilant.”
This is the responsibility which accompanies the words.
“Lock her up!” was the chant about Clinton at the Republican convention in Cleveland.
In one skillful pivot, Trump responded from the convention lectern to his partisans.
“Let’s defeat her in November,” Trump swiveled.
Some political observers would assert that’s the responsible way for a politician to slyly rotate the rhetoric. Use words to defect -- yet brilliantly refocus the debate at the core task at hand.
But in most cases, it’s Trump firing verbal Sidewinder missiles.
So this is about words. Words made Trump. Words may undo Trump.
For months, there was speculation that Trump would tone things down and appear more “presidential” once he entered the general election. Trump’s now signaled he is who he is and says what he says.
Words are the tool of a politician. Just like someone in an artisan trade, each uses their tools in their own way to hone their craft.
And so does Trump.