Spell-Check Nation

Why do people continue to align themselves with the fantasy of a decorous state?

“Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.” —George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004

Should the president fool you once, shame on the president. Should he fool you twice, shame on you for thinking foolishness is incongruous with his nature. Those who believe in a peaceful transfer of power have been fooled by the president once, twice, and again many times over, which is why it is so shocking that they have yet to doubt their faith.

It bears repeating that Donald Trump’s ascendance is not peaceful. It is blunt force, like being hit repeatedly with the butt of a knife. As of this month, the Southern Poverty Law Center has catalogued 1,064 hate crimes since Trump’s election. In Florida, a man pushed a dumpster into the front of a convenience store and set its contents on fire; he believed the store owners to be Muslim, and later told police he wanted to “run the Arabs out of our country.” At the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, a person or persons (the assailant is still unknown) posted photos of Trump with the caption “New brooms sweep clean.” Three days later, James Harris Jackson—who had travelled to New York from Baltimore with the declared intent of killing black men—stabbed Timothy Caughman with a 26-inch sword. When prosecutors announced his charges (murder as a hate crime, murder as an act of terrorism), Jackson smirked.

On second thought, Trump’s ascendance is like an incision. Better yet, forgo the simile altogether: People are being incised. Despite such rampant violence—much of which goes unreported or underreported, and may or may not be included in this tally—those who believe themselves safe, which is to say white liberals, implored us, and implore us still, to will unto this country the return of decency. During the final presidential debate, when Trump refused to say whether or not he would accept the election results should they be in Hillary Clinton’s favor, Clinton, branding herself as a savior, called Trump’s refusal “horrifying” and accused him of “talking down our democracy.” When she lost the election, she talked the democracy up. “We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead,” Clinton beseeched. “The point,” echoed Obama, “is that we all go forward with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens, because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy.”

If we heed Obama’s call to maintain faith in democracy, and in its convergent claims to vibrancy, inclusion, and functionality, we must do so blindly, for Trump’s administration has failed to abide by any egalitarian principle of decency. “Throughout the campaign,” wrote Masha Gessen, “anyone who watched Trump could see that he used a different aesthetic vocabulary than any candidate in living memory: his bullying was shameless, his hatred was naked, his disregard for decency and decorum was gratuitous.” But should this immodesty signal, as it does to Gessen, Trump’s refusal to accept the “honor and responsibility” of appearing presidential, and should this refusal in turn be assumed to reveal his “spectacular vacuousness” or lack of “any politics or philosophy,” let the record show that Trump, though shameless, is not free of content. His disciples brandish swords, smoke out those they perceive to be their enemies, and are joined in all this by the collective charge, issued by Trump himself, to raise a white nation.

1. Smith, David. “White House’s ‘under-reported’ terror list includes many well-known attacks.” The Guardian. February 7, 2017.
2. Ring, Trudy. “17 Times Donald Trump Failed at Spelling, Grammar, and Punctuation.” The Advocate. March 23, 2017.
3. Wing, Nick. “How Can We Take The Trump Administration Seriously When It Can’t Even Spell?” The Huffington Post. March 10, 2017.

Nevertheless , among certain white liberals, and among certain white liberal media outlets, Trump’s slights, both personal and administrative, have become chief points of critique. When he refused to shake hands with Angela Merkel during their first meeting, for instance, the Guardian called the rebuff “anti-diplomatic”—neglecting to address, of course, what it would mean to take seriously Merkel’s opposite intent, lauded as respectable, to work “hand in hand” with the Trump administration. In a tweet, Trump, speaking of himself, misspelled honor (“honer”) and, in a document lamenting threats to said honor, White House Officials misspelled attacker (“attaker”) 47 times. His Education Department misspelled Du Bois (“Debois”) and, in an attempted apology, misspelled apology (“our deepest apologizes”). These mistakes, among others, have been anthologized by the Washington Post, the New York Daily News, Vice, and so on, and have circulated as points of entertainment (“Glaring typos… made it even easier for critics to laugh off the argument the administration was attempting to make”1), exasperation (“Is it too much to ask that the leader of the free world be a little less sloppy?2”), and shame (“Stop humiliating yourselves and stop embarrassing us all3”).

Appearing presidential—safeguarding citizens from feelings of sloppiness, humiliation, and embarrassment, but also disarray, inferiority, and guilt—is one of the primary tenets of inheriting political power. But if the power at stake—often evoked by that terrible phrase “leadership of the free world”—is enacted, in part, by eloquence, we’d be well served to investigate such fluency, for it is, by necessity, a form of persuasion: a style that demands manipulation, coercion, and, when it comes to governance, direct obfuscation of violent intent.

Calls for the president to remain presidential—to stay put, as it were, within the bounds of decency and diplomacy—are always tinged with nostalgia: for Obama; even for Bush; for leaders who renounced ties to business, who in politics claimed a career, a lineage; for men who shook hands, appeared gracious, who were acquainted with spell-check and used it to great effect. But to believe that the dysfunction of the Trump administration reveals a violence altogether new requires a wilful and insistent abandonment of reality. State functionality—the ability to run systems smoothly, but also to convince the public that the agents of such systems carry benevolent intent—has always concealed regimes of harm, and always to disastrous ends.

Obama, whose command of speech is held up as the golden standard, and who once told a crowd that “our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country,” oversaw the deportation of 3.1 million immigrants, 1 million more than were deported in the 105 years between 1892 and 1997. This discrepancy is not unusual, nor is it covert: for those of us whose parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, sons, daughters, and friends have been forced to leave or live in fear of imminent removal, the doublespeak of political candidates—who make claims to our resilience while emboldening the networks of policing that test it—is palpable.

But for those who have convinced themselves that state logic is cohesive, and that any discrepancy between appearance and action is a glitch rather than a symptom, reckoning with such discrepancies—painted as mistakes, gaffes, a hand unshaken or an apology curtailed—requires a recalibration of national shame, first, and state efficiency, second. When the White House posted and then subsequently removed the wrong versions of two executive orders, USA Today reported that transparency advocates were “concerned.” John Wonderlich, executive director of the nonpartisan open government advocacy group the Sunlight Foundation, urged White House officials to tighten up bureaucratic procedures: “These last minute edits,” he wrote, “suggest the Trump White House needs to revisit their vetting, sign-off, and publication processes for executive orders.” When the orders in question, however, are those that directly target individuals and communities whose basic livelihood is understood to constitute an offense, calls to bolster efficacy intensify racist, Islamophobic, and xenophobic mandates already underway. The morning after Trump ordered the launch of 59 missiles targeted at a Syrian airbase—the 7,899th U.S. military strike in Syria—CNN host Fareed Zakaria told viewers that he “think[s] Donald Trump became president of the United States last night.” Similarly, in a column for the New York Times declaring his approval of the strikes, Antony J. Blinken wrote, “Mr. Trump may not want to be ‘president of the world’ but… the world looks to America to act. Mr. Trump did, and for that he should be commended.” In the face of a regime that so clearly elucidates the ways in which presidential claims to legitimacy have always been bound up in violence, why do people continue to insist that the president take charge?

4. Wing, “How Can We Take the Trump Administration Seriously…?”
If decorum bolsters legitimacy, and legitimacy in turn begets efficiency, it makes sense that concerned citizens, or those who feel represented by liberal media outlets like the Huffington Post, would, when presented with these data sets (words misspelled, facts unchecked), rally behind the incantation “ACCURACY MATTERS.4” Setting aside the cruel idiocy of co-opting the language of Black Lives Matter to advocate for the efficiency of a state that ensures that the conditions of black life worsen, it makes sense that these good white people would prefer their government to run smoothly. But it is one thing to demand that the state maintain the public programs that make its presence bearable (affordable housing, affordable health care, free representation, public education, etc.), and another entirely to insist that it operate efficiently for efficiency’s sake.

When Trump issued the immigration ban, many attempted to refute his logic by pointing out its foundational contradiction: namely, that although hundreds of U.S. citizens have been killed by citizens of Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Egypt, and Lebanon (countries to which Trump has business ties), none have been killed by citizens of any of the seven countries listed on the ban. But although this statistic is deployed to identify an injustice in the mechanics of state security (which is itself unjustifiable), central to its argument is an understanding that such bans could and should be seen as legitimate, if only the state managed to wield them accurately. This is the bind of “high-functioning” security systems. For those branches of the state that promise safety—namely: the police, prosecutors, ICE, DHS, FBI, the military, etc.—inefficiency, or the inability to name potential threats with precision, is what enables “blanket” (read: racist) claims as to who should be considered dangerous. But the promise of eventual efficiency—gaining the intelligence to identify and expel true agents of harm—is said to justify the false arrests, mass arrests, roundups, and deportations.

There are those who say that Trump’s rejection of decency is intentional—that he is trying to speak for citizens who feel unrepresented by egalitarian politics, and therefore believe themselves forgotten. Within the same camp (the camp being white liberals) are those who think his errors are a kink in the system; when confronted with violence, they point out that the blow, though fatal, missed its intended target by half an inch. Then again, there are those who know the kinks to be symptomatic, but nevertheless are convinced that they can afford to be duped. The government is said to act in their name, and because they feel addressed by their president—who speaks with generosity, a warm embrace—they often confuse the love they feel for themselves, and for their family, with the attachment they feel to a false sense of safety provided by a well-mannered state.

Finally, and significantly, there are those of us who recognize this love for the nation to be an illusion. We have no illusions. Propriety, so it goes, makes the community; it brings the white folk together. But too often they mistake their binds for bandage. A wound wrapped twice is still a wound. Shame on the fools who believe themselves safe. The incision is deep, and being made deeper still.