Doing Good with Donald Trump
The New York Times has described recent aspects of Trump’s campaign as disastrous.
Donald Trump, in reply, has railed against the New York Times, claiming that “They don’t write good”, alienating the last few grammarians thinking of voting for him.
Of course, the tragedy of our times is that the people who are doing well are not doing good, and the people who are doing good are not doing well.
In his own words…
“You look at The New York Times, I mean, the fail — I call it ‘The Failing New York Times’ because it won’t be in business for another, probably more than a few years unless somebody goes in and buys it and wants to lose a lot of money,” Trump said. “But The New York Times is so unfair. I mean they write three, four articles about me a day. No matter how good I do on something, they’ll never write good.”
Trump probably wasn’t deliberately referencing the most famous joke in Zoolander when he demonstrated his ignorance of/contempt for the distinction between adjectives and adverbs.
Not knowing the difference between doing good and doing well is more than a grammatical error – it is a severe ethical and imaginative failing as well. It’s possible to re-organise the English language to reduce or amplify the number of parts of speech. Horne Tooke, in the eighteenth century, thought that only nouns and verbs were essential categories, and every other part of speech was merely a contraction of what might be a periphrastic application of nouns and verbs. But Horne Tooke, eloquent writer that he was, still knew the difference between describing a thing and describing an action.
In the context of this recent subgrammatical outburst, of course, it’s not the adverb but the adjective that Trump doesn’t acknowledge. I’d say that “Trump means well” but that would be a confusing statement to say the very least. The truth is, that Trump doesn’t know and doesn’t care about the difference between adjectives and adverbs because Trump, like all egomaniacs, is a very dull person, and Trump’s universe is monochrome and boring. “Great” is his favorite word because it doesn’t describe anything – it doesn’t illustrate any particular quality – it merely amplifies. “Great” is a SpinalTappish cranking things up to eleven.
Furthermore, of course, Trump cannot imagine any difference between Donald Trump doing well and Donald Trump doing good. Trump is Great – Great is Trump. Trump regards his own personal fortune (which he deliberately inflates) as identical with a statement of moral worth. Doing well is doing good. Trump’s conceptual vocabulary, tiny enough to be claustrophobic, can see no difference between adjectives and adverbs because he cannot separate means from ends, because he treats “success” as an end in itself and cannot conceive of the notion that a successful strategy might have a deplorable outcome (or indeed could have been a deplorable project from the outset). Success and Failure are, for Trump, norms of value that resist any qualitative interrogation. How you do and What you do are one and the same.
This sort of moral and grammatical impoverishment makes me want to turn to Tom Lehrer. (Lots of things make me want to turn to Tom Lehrer.) You’ll recall this heartwarming ballad – “The Old Dope Peddler”:
When the shades of night are falling,
Comes a fellow ev’ryone knows,
It’s the old dope peddler,
Spreading joy wherever he goes.
Ev’ry evening you will find him,
Around our neighborhood.
It’s the old dope peddler
Doing well by doing good.