What Would Mencken Have Said?

By Saul M. Montes-Bradley II (with a lot of help from H.L. Mencken)

What would H.L. Mencken have said about Donald Trump? And what about Hillaryta? Perhaps, taking a cue from his criticism of Harding in 1922, we might come to an approximation. All we have to do is substitute Trump’s name for Harding’s, add a few phrases from Trump’s recent Foreign Policy regurgitation for Harding’s inaugural address, and drop in a conclusion for greater effect. Here is the result:
On the question of the logical content of Donald J. Trump’s foreign policy harangue of last Wednesday, I do not presume to have views. The matter has been debated at great length by the editorial writers of the republic, all of them experts in logic; moreover, I confess to being prejudiced. When a man arises publicly to argue that the United States failed foreign policy begun “with the dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience”, I can only snicker in a superior way and wonder why he isn’t holding down the chair of history in some American university.
Trumpese. Running on a promise to “make America great again,” Donald J. Trump is poised to win the Republican primary having obtained less than 40% of the votes, which he claims —against all reason—gives him the greatest margin of victory in the popular vote up to this time!
When he says that the United States, in “ending the theft of American jobs will give us the resources we need to rebuild our military”, the snicker arises to the virulence of a chuckle, and I turn to the first volume of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. And when, gaining momentum, he gravely informs the boobery that “the popular will is supreme”, or that “Mexico has smarter leaders than ours”, then I abandon myself to a mirth that transcends, perhaps, the seemly.
But when it comes to the style of a great man’s discourse, I can speak with a great deal less prejudice, and maybe with somewhat more competence, for I have earned most of my livelihood for twenty years past by translating the bad English of a multitude of authors into measurably better English. Thus qualified professionally, I rise to pay my small tribute to Mr. Trump. Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English I have even encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.
But I grow lyrical. More scientifically, what is the matter with it? Why does it seem so flabby, so banal, so confused and childish, so stupidly at war with sense? If you had first read the address and then heard it intoned, as I did (at least in part), then you will perhaps arrive at an answer. That answer is very simple. When Mr. Trump —or whoever his scribe du jour may be—prepares a speech he does not think of it in terms of an educated reader locked up in jail, but in terms of a great horde of stone heads gathered around a stand. That is to say, the thing is always a stump speech; it is conceived as a stump speech and written as a stump speech. More, it is a stump speech addressed to the sort of audience that the speaker has been used to all of his life, to wit, an audience of small-minded yokels, of low political serfs, or morons scarcely able to understand a word of more than two syllables, and wholly unable to pursue a logical idea for more than two centimeters.
Such imbeciles do not want ideas—that is, new ideas, ideas that are unfamiliar, ideas that challenge their attention. What they want is simply a gaudy series of platitudes, of sonorous nonsense driven home with gestures. As I say, they can’t understand many words of more than two syllables, but that is not saying that they do not esteem such words. On the contrary, they like them and demand them. The roll of incomprehensible polysyllables enchants them. They like phrases which thunder like salvos of artillery. Let that thunder roar and they take all the rest on trust. If a sentence begins furiously and then peters out into fatuity, they are still satisfied. If a phrase has a punch in it, they do not ask that it also have a meaning. If a word slips off the tongue like a ship going down the ways, they are content and applaud it and wait for the next.
Trump carries his stump manner into everything he does. He is, perhaps, too old to learn a better way. He is, more likely, too discreet to experiment. The stump speech, put into cold type, maketh the judicious to grieve. But roared from an actual stump, with arms flying and eyes flashing and the old flag overhead, it is certainly and brilliantly effective. Read the transcript, and it will gag you. But hear it recited through a sound magnifier, with grand gestures to ram home its periods, and you will begin to understand it.
Let us turn to a specific example. I exhume a sentence from the latter half of the eminent orator’s discourse: “Finally, I will work with our allies to reinvigorate Western values and institutions. Instead of trying to spread “universal values” that not everyone shares, we should understand that strengthening and promoting Western civilization and its accomplishments will do more to inspire positive reforms around the world than military interventions.” I assume that you have read it. I also assume that you set it down as idiotic—a series of words without sense. You are quite right; it is. But now imagine it intoned as it was designed to be intoned. Imagine the slow tempo of a public speech. Imagine the stately unrolling of the first clause, the delicate pause upon the words universal values—and then the loud discharge of the phrase we should understand that strengthening and promoting Western civilization and its accomplishments will do more to inspire positive reforms around the world than military interventions, each with its attendant glare and roll of the eyes, each with a sublime heave, each with its gesture of a blacksmith bringing down his sledge upon an egg—imagine all this, and then ask yourself where you have got. You have got, in brief, to a point where you don’t know what it is all about. You hear and applaud the phrases, but their connection has already escaped you. And so, when in violation of all sequence and logic, the final phrase, “will do more to inspire positive reforms around the world than military interventions”, assaults you, you do not notice its disharmony—all you notice is that, if this or that, already forgotten, is done, it will do more than “military interventions”. Whereupon, glad of the assurance and thrilled by the vast gestures that drive it home, you give a cheer, and the banality of suggesting that military interventions have ever been an inspiration to reform goes unchallenged.
That is, if you are the sort of man who goes to political meetings, which is to say, if you are the sort of man that Mr. Trump is used to talking to, which is to say, if you are a jackass.
The whole foreign policy address reeked with just such nonsense. The thing started off with an oxymoron in the very first paragraph—the notion that the 1970’s jingoism of “America First” is anything new and revolutionary. It bristled with words misused or mispronounced: Tan-zahy-nia for Tan-zah-nia—what could be worse? Yet the foreign policy expert said it. “At the same time, your friends need to know that you will stick by the agreements that you have with them”—what irritating confusion! —I do hope he did not mean the Iran agreement! Should we never comply with agreements with or adversaries? — really? “Ending the theft of American jobs will give us the resources we need ” what on earth does it mean?— will it help us find uranium? —what intelligible idea do you get out of that? “Our manufacturing trade deficit with the world is now approaching $1 trillion a year. We’re rebuilding other countries while weakening our own”—has he ever heard the words “capital flows” in any sentence? — does he even know what it means? —I seriously doubt it. “I am the only person running for the Presidency who understands this problem”—ach, du heiliger!
But is such bosh out of place in stump speech? Obviously not. It is precisely and thoroughly in place of stump speech. A tight fabric of ideas would weary and exasperate the audience; what it wants is a simple loud burble of words, a procession of phrases that roar, a series of whoops. This is what it got in the Foreign Policy of the not quite so Hon. Donald John Trump. And this is what it will get for four long years—unless God sends a miracle and the corruptible puts on incorruption…Almost I long for the sweeter song, the rubber stamps of more familiar design, the gentler and more seemly bosh of sleeky Willie, as I prepare for the next uproariously idiotic event: a deafening, nerve-wracking battle to the death between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Harlequin and Sganarelle, Gobbo and Dr. Cook — the unspeakable, with fearful snorts, gradually swallowing the inconceivable: A presidential race between The Donald and Hillaryta; Lord Voldemort and Prof. Umbridge; Aaron the Moor and Grendel’s mother locked in their clownish version of Mortal Combat while the cops try to get to them before they get the keys to the slammer. May Providence take pity on us.