His obsession with sound bites, in particular, was almost comically evident during Tuesday evening’s presidential debate: He kept attempting to goad Joe Biden into uttering phrases as if they were magic words that would make or break him with whole swaths of voters, and when the Democrat didn’t robotically repeat “Green New Deal” or refer to expansive public works programs as “socialism,” Trump would shriek that Biden had “lost the left!” — as if the left was just waiting for those specific incantations to determine its vote. (As an ostensible member of the left myself, I’m not expecting Biden to join the Democratic Socialists of America, but I’m still planning on voting for him.)
So when Biden said Tuesday that “the Green New Deal is not my plan” and “no, I don’t support the Green New Deal,” Trump pounced: “Oh, you don’t? Oh, well, that’s a big statement. You just lost the radical left.” But “Green New Deal” is not a magic phrase that proves a belief in climate science. It is a plan for addressing climate change through discrete policies. And Biden has embraced enough of its pieces to make it obvious that his climate policy would be better than Trump’s, even if he’s not on board with the whole thing.
The president tried the same tactic when Biden insisted that his health-care plan would still allow private insurance for most Americans. “Joe, you agreed with Bernie Sanders, who’s far left, on the manifesto, we call it. And that gives you socialized medicine,” Trump said. When Biden said there is no manifesto, the president replied, triumphant, “He just lost the left!”
Trump may have expected this to work because so much of his career has involved successfully deploying magic words, either by branding a catchphrase (“You’re fired!”) or appealing to his supporters with racist dog whistles. It’s why he keeps using the phrase “law and order,” often in all-caps, often on Twitter. He doesn’t have a particularly sophisticated understanding of its ramifications, but he knows that Richard Nixon deployed it to move public sentiment against protesters in 1968 and that it culturally and historically conveys an alignment with law enforcement — and often against communities of color.
So on Tuesday, it was yet another incantation with which Trump thought he’d trapped Biden: “He doesn’t want to say ‘law and order’ because he can’t, because he’ll lose his radical left supporters, and once he does that, it’s over with.” He followed that up with a tweet early Wednesday morning: “The American people want LAW & ORDER — Joe Biden won’t even say those words!” (Biden did say at the debate that he favored “law and order with justice, where people get treated fairly.”)
Of course, when Trump says “law and order,” he does not mean it at face value. He does not respect the law, and he believes that order works against him. He means it only in the way Nixon used it. And he knows exactly what it means in the context of the presidential debate and the current political environment.
That type of dog whistle offers him some plausible deniability that he’s trying to signal something insidious. What’s wrong with respecting the law? Or creating order? Who would object?
But Trump constantly demonstrates that he doesn’t mean these words literally. No president in modern history has violated as many norms of the executive office, and potentially as many laws, on as many fronts. Just this past week, bombshell revelations about Trump’s taxes indicate that he could face charges when he leaves office if it emerges that he either inflated his assets for loan purposes or inflated his losses for tax purposes. Trump doesn’t respect the law — he thinks he’s above it.
As for order: Trump not only tolerates chaos, he manufactures it. A few years ago, Netflix developed software called Chaos Monkey to intentionally provoke failures in its system so engineers could determine vulnerabilities. Trump is a chaos monkey for our democratic system, and he’s exposed countless areas where it’s not fully equipped to deal with corruption of the executive branch, executive overreach or a president who openly pines to be an authoritarian. But unlike with Netflix’s version, we can’t just terminate the program — at least not until Jan. 20.
Trump’s tendency to invoke what he perceives as magic words is most dangerous when it’s crossed with his serial lying. He has repeatedly said he will protect the health care of people with preexisting medical conditions, insisting that he was standing up for them, even as his administration is in court trying to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which offers just such protections. He issues executive orders with no substance or force of law, as if that’s as good as actually doing whatever the order says he’s going to do.
This obsession with magic phrases is also why Trump has been so reluctantto explicitly condemn white supremacy using exactly those words, going so far as to tell the far-right Proud Boys to “stand by and stand back,” which they enthusiastically interpreted as an endorsement. (Trump later denied this was an meant to encourage the group, claiming he knew nothing about them. On Thursday night, before he announced his positive covid-19 test, he told Sean Hannity on Fox News: “I condemn the KKK. I condemn all white supremacists. I condemn the Proud Boys. I don’t know much about the Proud Boys, almost nothing. But I condemn that.”)
The Department of Homeland Security has identified white-supremacist groups as the country’s single largest domestic terrorism threat, and if the president took law and order literally, speaking against that threat would not be difficult. But he largely hasn’t, because condemning white supremacy — saying it overtly, out loud, on television — would also be a magic phrase, one that turns off the racist elements of his base.
Too much of his rise in politics involved magic phrases that signal racism — before “law and order,” there was “birth certificate,” telegraphing the racist lie that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. So Trump can’t undo the effects of those incantations with another that should come easily to anyone: “I condemn white supremacist groups.”
Now even Trump’s dog whistling is failing him, in part because he’s so willfully ignorant of what the country looks like sociologically and demographically. He keeps ranting about the destruction of “the suburbs” because he remembers the 1960s and ’70s branding of suburbs as places where affluent White people moved to escape poor urban minorities. He seems certain that when he uses the magic words “the suburbs,” his rhetoric will scare rich White people — even though American suburbs are not homogenous, and Biden is correct that Trump would only end up in one if he took a wrong turn. Trump has never lived in suburban America, and he cannot imagine, with any fullness or complexity, something he hasn’t personally experienced.
Politics, ultimately, is more than what a candidate says on television, and governing even more so. Magic words won’t automatically make Trump’s goals into realities. They are no substitute for the hard work of coalition building, policy planning and implementation. And all of the magic words in the devil’s dictionary will not convince voters suffering through the president’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, who’ve lost loved ones and lost work, that it isn’t happening. Magic words will not heal the economy or bring back the dead. Trump’s belief that they can is theater of a different sort — a monologue delivered predictably and monotonously, by a washed-up actor who’s lost his audience.