The riddle of Donald Trump: how a man of few words reached the pinnacle of power

From bigly to tweetspeak the US presidents vocabulary is ripe for satire

The Readers Digest used to run a feature called It Pays to Increase Your Word Power. The new wisdom post-Trump and Brexit is that it doesnt. How Donald Trump has come so far with so few words how he even managed to keep up conversationally with all those beauty queens is a question I dont expect ever to be solved. Which isnt to say we havent been confronted with similar conundrums before. The President of the United States has so singular a combination of defects for the office of a constitutional magistrate, wrote the Atlantic magazine of Andrew Johnson in 1866, that he could have obtained the opportunity to misrule the nation only by a visitation of Providence. It is too early to say whether Trump will misrule the nation, and any such speculation is not the object of this article. Andrew Johnson, by all accounts, did have words and, on occasion, even eloquence. This doesnt detract from the ugliness of his views, but it partially explains how he came by his opportunity. In the absence of anything resembling eloquence, what explains the ascendancy of Donald Trump?

If the answer turns out to be Twitter, then wed better beware what that medium might inflict on us next.

Trumps hobbled vocabulary is now the incontestable stuff of comedy. Not just how few his words but how narrow their range, from boastful to irked and back again. For satirists and impressionists a president who addresses the American people in abbreviated tweetspeak is a gift. Employ the adjectives horrible, weak and great, the noun cheat and the adverb bigly and you have him down to a T. Will there, Hugh Laurie wondered in a now famous tweet of his own, be a separate news conference for the verbs?

Well, nature dispenses her bounty variously: not every man is gifted with the power of words, and many that are have used that power to reduce the world to rubble. Words do not necessarily make us moral. And there have been presidents before who have stumbled over syntax and looked foolish when the words they have been forced to speak have been their own. But Trump is uniquely stunted. A child listening to two of his speeches could reproduce a third without the use of a dictionary. He reproduces them himself with the same facility, employing speechwriters reluctantly, seemingly convinced no one can speak better for him than he can himself I know words, he declared at one campaign rally, I have the best words and he is never happier than when back in electioneering mode, rolling out the same best words he rolled out last time. Many men are intoxicated by what comes out of their mouths; what is extraordinary about Trump is how little it takes to get him drunk. More worrying is how little it takes to get his followers drunk.

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Shouting Lock her up is not oratory a pro-Trump rally in Virginia last November. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

To take note of Trumps arrested language development, while the world wonders how safe it will be so long as he is president, is not to fiddle while Rome burns. If his is to be to stop short at fears of tyranny an authoritarian presidency, his wordlessness is the means by which it has already and will in future be achieved. Admirers have spoken unironically of his oratory, his ability to relate to people of a particular class and alienated temper. It cannot, though, be called oratory to shout Lock her up!, Trumps anti-Clinton rally cry, no matter that thousands shout Lock her up! in return. It is, rather, a symbiosis of inarticulacy the rage, though there is no doubting its reality, fuelled by the repetitive simplicity of the words, like a drum beating in a jungle. For it to be a compliment that Trump roused his followers to ire and kept them there, we have to believe that ire is all there is to feel, and its arousal all a president is good for.

If the promise in Trumps inaugural speech to Make America Great Again sounded dangerously introverted, that is because it was. The American isolationism the world heard and feared was but a mirror image of Trumps own entrapment in a place where there arent the words for thoughts to form or thoughts that know they have to go in search of expression and escape. Defenders of that inaugural address supposed its detractors wanted Trump to be as high-toned as Obama or as grandiloquent as Kennedy, but thats not the complaint at all no one, after all, was expecting poetry. What we witnessed was a breathtaking impoverishment of spirit; a man, impervious to the majesty of the occasion, lacking the power that language confers, not only to progress a thought but to have one. We heard the iteration of inchoate frustration; a president rubbing at the itch of the nations grievances and his own, unable to imagine that there was any higher function for words to perform, even on such a day as this.

Whatever Making America Great Again might entail, Trump has not once been able to show that greatness means anything to him but wealth and power, or that he has the words for other qualities. That he is an uncultured man he is happy for the world to know. He reads no books and those he has allowed to be written in his name are shoddy even by the standards of self-help literature for would-be millionaires with nothing to do on an aeroplane. But it isnt necessary to love art and music yourself to know that greatness has more meaning to be wrung from it than putting oneself first.

Language has its own power to lead the mind out of smallness. There is a fibrous, organic subtlety in words. They grow connotations. They educate the user of them to want and employ more. They are not the merely outward signs of what we have already made our minds up about; they are the means by which our minds learn to know themselves and discover what else they might come to know. This is what makes the circularity of Trumps speech patterns so telling: the walls he wants to build to keep out unwanted migrants are identical to those that wall him in linguistically. Nothing strange to him is allowed entry. No person who thinks differently, no testing locution, no unexpected idea, no breath of wind to refresh the staleness of resentments grown old and petulant with repeated utterance.

In this way, bigotry and theories of conspiracy become enthroned in the minds of men. And if people cheer Trumps every paranoid asseveration of prejudice and paranoia because they recognise the paranoid prejudices with which they keep company day and night, then we are in a sorry state.

None of this is to deny the reality of the wrongs they feel, the sense of insult and neglect that turned them from the mellifluousness of Obama and the undoubted cleverness of Hillary Clinton. People have a right to fight their corner, however ugly that fight gets. There are times when your sense of exclusion is such that the smarter the politician, the greater your resistance to him or her. And if that means an ignorant leader who speaks your language and to hell with what the educated think then bring him on! But history has lessons to teach. Sell your vote to a demagogue who promises to make your todays brighter, and you might just have sold all that tomorrow might have brought you.

Great dictators exploit the turmoil of the times. Great leaders seek to deliver their people from that turmoil, sometimes in the economic sense of deliverance, sometimes in the spiritual, moral and even intellectual. I love the poorly educated, Trump declared last year at a rally in Nevada. That could have meant that he loved them despite their disadvantage. But it was impossible to avoid the opposite conclusion, that he loved them because of it, that it was the condition of being poorly educated itself he loved. Of the many forms of divisiveness that have characterised Trumps administration so far, this is the most dangerous setting ignorance against knowledge and falsity against truth, making a virtue of inarticulacy, demonising the educated, making the people distrust enlightenment itself, though enlightenment is as much their birthright as anyone elses. Far from giving to the American people, every sign so far suggests he will dispossess them of whats theirs, until they, too, are left with only weak and bigly to call their own.

Yes, the means were at hand for him to do this. Cometh the tweet, cometh the man fashioned in its image. A president running to his mobile phone in the middle of the night to relate his latest imagined injury is sublimely absurd. My new novel Pussy is a comic parable for the post-Trump and Brexit age. Ive told it as a fairytale, because those who command the political stage at the moment are not entirely grown up. And those spell-bound by their vacancy are not entirely grown up, either. Which doesnt mean that the consequence of their alliance wont be serious. If catastrophe born of farcical obtuseness awaits how else to depict it but as a fairy story?

Pussy by Howard Jacobson will be published by Jonathan Cape on 13 April. To order a copy for 9.99 (RRP 12.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

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