In "The shape of things to come" (5/13/2016) and "Trump the Thing Explainer" (3/16/2016), I wondered why Donald Trump's spartan linguistic style is so different in character from his taste in interior design, which seems to be firmly placed in the tradition of elaborate artificiality that flows from 18th-century Roccoco and 19th-century Beaux Arts to the fantastic excesses of America's last Gilded Age:
|Donald Trump's New York apartment||James Garfield's tomb|
|The Vanderbilts' Marble House in Newport RI|
The style of formal rhetoric in the Gilded Age was not as syntactically elaborate as 18th-century writing was, but the selection and arrangement of words within individual clauses was far removed from the norms of plain language. Can you imagine this passage from James Garfield's 1881 Inaugural Address being delivered by Donald Trump?
It has been said that unsettled questions have no pity for the repose of nations. It should be said with the utmost emphasis that this question of the suffrage will never give repose or safety to the States or to the nation until each, within its own jurisdiction, makes and keeps the ballot free and pure by the strong sanctions of the law.
But the danger which arises from ignorance in the voter can not be denied. It covers a field far wider than that of negro suffrage and the present condition of the race. It is a danger that lurks and hides in the sources and fountains of power in every state. We have no standard by which to measure the disaster that may be brought upon us by ignorance and vice in the citizens when joined to corruption and fraud in the suffrage.
The voters of the Union, who make and unmake constitutions, and upon whose will hang the destinies of our governments, can transmit their supreme authority to no successors save the coming generation of voters, who are the sole heirs of sovereign power. If that generation comes to its inheritance blinded by ignorance and corrupted by vice, the fall of the Republic will be certain and remediless.
The census has already sounded the alarm in the appalling figures which mark how dangerously high the tide of illiteracy has risen among our voters and their children.
To the South this question is of supreme importance. But the responsibility for the existence of slavery did not rest upon the South alone. The nation itself is responsible for the extension of the suffrage, and is under special obligations to aid in removing the illiteracy which it has added to the voting population. For the North and South alike there is but one remedy. All the constitutional power of the nation and of the States and all the volunteer forces of the people should be surrendered to meet this danger by the savory influence of universal education.
It is the high privilege and sacred duty of those now living to educate their successors and fit them, by intelligence and virtue, for the inheritance which awaits them.
In this beneficent work sections and races should be forgotten and partisanship should be unknown. Let our people find a new meaning in the divine oracle which declares that "a little child shall lead them," for our own little children will soon control the destinies of the Republic.
My countrymen, we do not now differ in our judgment concerning the controversies of past generations, and fifty years hence our children will not be divided in their opinions concerning our controversies. They will surely bless their fathers and their fathers' God that the Union was preserved, that slavery was overthrown, and that both races were made equal before the law. We may hasten or we may retard, but we can not prevent, the final reconciliation. Is it not possible for us now to make a truce with time by anticipating and accepting its inevitable verdict?
Grover Cleveland's 1885 Inaugural Address was full of similar passages:
To-day the executive branch of the Government is transferred to new keeping. But this is still the Government of all the people, and it should be none the less an object of their affectionate solicitude. At this hour the animosities of political strife, the bitterness of partisan defeat, and the exultation of partisan triumph should be supplanted by an ungrudging acquiescence in the popular will and a sober, conscientious concern for the general weal. Moreover, if from this hour we cheerfully and honestly abandon all sectional prejudice and distrust, and determine, with manly confidence in one another, to work out harmoniously the achievements of our national destiny, we shall deserve to realize all the benefits which our happy form of government can bestow.
Ordinary conversation in the 1880s didn't include phrases like "the repose of nations", "the sources and fountains of power", "the strong sanctions of the law", "the savory influence of universal education", or "is transferred to a new keeping". Nor did ordinary people normally use words like "utmost", "remediless", "bestow", "hence", and so on. But ordinary people's dining rooms also didn't look like the Vanderbilts'.
The content of the passages quoted above is also not at all Trumpian, but I'm focusing on the contrast in style. And for Donald Trump to talk or write this way would be somewhere between shocking and hilarious. It's true that we don't expect Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Hilary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders to say things like "It is the high privilege and sacred duty of those now living to educate their successors and fit them, by intelligence and virtue, for the inheritance which awaits them." But we also don't expect them to decorate their apartments like this:
So why is Donald Trump's taste in interior decoration so much more old-fashioned and 19th-century-formal than most of his peers', while his taste in political rhetoric is so much plainer and less formal than theirs?
I have some ideas about this, but for now I'll leave it for discussion in the comments.