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Donald Trump and the least frequent use of comparatives ever.

May 19, 2017

Trump must have skipped that primary school class we all went to where we create three columns, write an adjective in the left hand column and the comparative and superlative forms of that adjective in the other two columns.  Or, at least, he skipped the part about the middle column.

Everything Trump claims has to be the greatest ever.  His (failed) hotels, steaks, whisky, airlines and his presidency.   And now his victimisation has to be to be the greatest ever… “no politician in history” has been “treated worse or more unfairly”.  History, of course, is not Trump’s strong suit, as his suggestion that Andrew Jackson could have prevented the Civil War and his suspicion that Frederick Douglass might still be alive indicate.  Those of us who have read a bit of history and understand the meaning of comparisons have all mentioned politicians who have suffered various forms of extended imprisonments, tortures, and grisly deaths.  We recall the third century Emperor Valerian who was captured, used as a footstool for a while before being killed, stuffed, and shown off as a curio.  Or we recall the story that in 1672, the Dutch minister Johan de Witt was not only torn to pieces by a mob but actually eaten by them.  You suspect that if Valerian or Johan de Witt had instead been told that they could avoid hideous and protracted death if they’d submit to being made fun of by Alec Baldwin, they might have accepted such a plea bargain.

Trump does not read history because he does not read and he does not read, because the exercise of reading entails that degree of humility that is required to actually learn something.  To read a book is to quietly absorb and reflect on the thoughts of others.  Trump has had every opportunity in the course of his seventy years on this planet to become less ignorant than he is, but his contempt for others prevents his pristine stupidity ever being seriously threatened.

When Trump describes himself (and he never really describes anything else), he leads from adjective to superlative in a single bound.  He is first of all “great” (sometimes “tremendous”, although Trump suffers from an imaginatively crippling paucity of adjectives) and is then “the greatest”.  He is a particular thing, and then the superlative version of that thing.  He is, himself, alone (as Shakespeare’s Richard III declares).  The comparative form of adjectives is vaulted over, because comparatives force you to consider the fact that you stand in relation to other things in the universe – some of which may be bigger and more important than you are.

Sane adults have a relational and comparative sense of themselves.  Take cycling.  Compared to someone who has never ridden a bike and who is terrified of pedals, I’m really good at cycling.  Compared to Bradley Wiggins I really am not.  Arrange the entire population of the world in a long line in order of cycling proficiency and I’m to be found somewhere in the middle.  I can ride a bike without claiming to be the greatest cyclist ever.

Trump can never see himself in the middle of anything, because he refuses to seem himself in any comparative relation to anything else.  It’s part of the reason why he’s incapable of patriotism or religious belief.  Everything about his has to be the biggest or the greatest of the worst  or the least or the mostest of the mostest because he himself is the norm of all value.  He fires the Director of the FBI, ultimately, because Comey was unable to make an oath of personal loyalty that transcends all other loyalties.  Comey retained a belief in a concept of “truth” that might mean something other than “that which enhances the power and prestige of Donald Trump and his immediate family at the present time”.

Trump’s supporters do seem to have at least a transient or tactical sense  of the value of comparatives.  Whenever, before the November election I found myself debating with Trump supporters, and I pointed out to them the ample evidence to suggest that their preferred candidate was a disgusting, delusional, race-baiting sex criminal, the most common response I received was “Hillary is worse”.  These three words were preferred to any sort of defence of Trump.   The comparative assertion – that Hillary is “worse” than a disgusting, delusional, race-baiting sex criminal soon became a superlative assertion.  Hillary is the most evil human being who has ever lived since the dawn of time, and you can tell just by looking at her.  When I asked for evidence other than “just looking at her”, my self evident moral turpitude became so overwhelming  that the discussion tended to be abruptly terminated.  The comparative was a mere transient device for leaping to the superlative as quickly as possible.

Perhaps Trump’s critics (i.e. most people) feed this culture of superlatives themselves.  It’s easy to suggest that Trump is the least impressive human being ever to be elected to the highest office of within a polity based on the representative principle.

But I for one am still willing to entertain comparisons.



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