“Words! Words! Words!/ I’m so sick of words!
… Never do I ever want to hear another word./ There isn't one I haven't heard.”
– Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady”
It’s pretty clear that the estimable Ms. Doolittle never met Donald Trump.
If she had, she might have told him to hush up, to put a sock in it, to give the world a break. She might even have snipped his Twitter feed long enough to give the rest of us a chance to figure out what he is saying, what he means, and what he truly intends.
In the world according to The Donald, words may mean everything or nothing at all. They may reveal intention or they may camouflage it.
NAFTA is a case in point. Trump has said repeatedly he is not happy with the Canada-Mexico-U.S. agreement as it stands, but how much of his unhappiness is genuine and how much is a negotiating tactic has never been clear.
On the weekend, he sounded as though he was intent on putting off any new NAFTA agreement until after the U.S. midterm elections in November. At least, that’s how reporters covering him on his golfing vacation in New Jersey interpreted his words.
Canadian negotiators, who had been operating on the premise that Trump was insisting on a fast track, prepared to shift gears to a prolonged process.
But wait. On Sunday morning, in an interview on Fox News, the president was asked this question: “You can’t do NAFTA before the midterms?”
To which he responded, “I want to wait until after the election,” adding, “You’re going to have an election, it’s going to be very interesting. I have a feeling he’s going to be fine. And the reason is because if they’re not fine, I’m going to tax their cars coming into America, and that’s the big one.”
What a tangle of words! Was he talking about this past Sunday’s presidential election in Mexico? Or about the November midterms? Who knows?
Trump’s leadership style might be described as “direction by indirection.” It’s a form of chaos in which words are used to wound as well as to baffle.
One of Trump’s consistent targets has been the press – “the fake news media,” he calls it and, worse, “the enemy of people.” He interprets the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press as meaning guaranteed freedom to attack the press.
Attacks on the media are easy and delight his political base. As George Will, the veteran political columnist once observed, “A politician’s words reveal less about what he thinks about his subject than what he thinks about his audience.”
But there are times when political leaders should rise above pandering to their base. Last Thursday was one such occasion. That was the day when a gunman entered the newsroom of the Capital Gazette, a suburban daily in Annapolis, Maryland, and sprayed the place with bullets, killing five employees.
Compare the reactions of Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump:
Trudeau: “Journalists tell the stories of our communities, protect democracy, and often put their lives on the line just to do their jobs. Today’s attack in Annapolis is devastating. Our hearts go out to all the victims and their families”
Trump (after walking past reporters and not responding to a question about Annapolis) tweeted: “My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. Thank you to all of the First Responders who are currently on the scene.”
Given the increasing numbers of journalists who are being murdered worldwide these days, Trump might have spared a few words for the dangers their craft entails, as Trudeau did.
But it was not to be. His blanket indictment of all non-Fox media persists.
On balance, I think I prefer the sniper approach of President Lyndon Johnson. This is how he once squelched an inquisitive reporter: “Are you asking the leader of the free world a chickenshit question like that?”