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Steinberg: Words people say have meaning even if they aren’t true

President-elect Donald Trump | AP Photo

Follow @neilsteinbergPeople just say stuff.

Such as “How are you?” when they couldn’t care less how you are. And “I’m fine” when they’re not. It’s expected, the grease that society slides forward on. Hardly worth noting.

When it comes to politics, however, this just-say-stuff habit is more worrisome. Then the grease can send our nation skidding off of a cliff of toxic nonsense and paranoid fantasy. Politicians make promises that they can’t possibly deliver. They air claims that can’t possibly be true, that directly conflict what they just said a day or two ago. And their followers, well, follow, saying things they neither mean nor think about.

Such as? Abortion. “Abortion is murder,” the anti-abortion crowd claims. You hear it all the time. First, that’s incorrect. Since murder is a legal term, and abortion is legal and thus it is by definition not murder. What they mean is “Abortion should be murder.” Except they don’t mean that either, as you can demonstrate by replying, “Oh really? If it’s murder, then for how long should the murderers go to jail?” And the answer is “umm.” We can translate that grunt as “OK ‘abortion is murder,’ is just something we say because it sounds powerful and more compact than, ‘I want to force my religion on you while dragging gender roles back to the 1950s.'” Admittedly quite a mouthful.

Donald Trump is a master of saying stuff. A mighty river of words flows out of his waggling lips, vague promises and idle threats and broad accusations. They sound dynamic, and his fans lap it up. Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. Bar Muslims from entering the country. Deport 11 million illegal residents. The election is rigged. The media are corrupt.

How much of it does he really mean? For starters, you know he’s not going to fulfill most of his promises because they’re impossible (the wall, rigged elections) or illegal (bar Muslims) or both. Plus Trump has made a boatload of promises in the past he didn’t fulfill, the fortune he claimed have gave to charity but really didn’t.


Follow @neilsteinbergThat Trump’s followers don’t really believe this stuff is fairly plain. To me, at least, based on the number of readers who write in wondering why I don’t meticulously dissect Hillary Clinton’s flaws. I’m tempted to write back: “You’re asking me? A member of the corrupt media? The guys you hiss at and revile at every rally? You’re asking a tool in the pocket of Killary, a cog in the international conspiracy, why he isn’t shining a spotlight on her deficiencies? Isn’t that kinda naive?

The truth is, they don’t mean it. It’s just something to howl. It changes as the wind changes. Did you notice how FBI Director James Comey’s baffling letter Friday not only tossed a wrench into the election but caused a battlefield conversion to Trump? He went instantaneously from fuming FBI critic to panting FBI fan.

“The FBI would never have reopened this case at this time unless it were a most egregious criminal offense,” he intoned Friday, exuding trust. About two weeks earlier he was lumping the FBI into the vast international conspiracy against him, promising once elected to investigate it along with the Justice Department.

“What do you do when you hand it over to the FBI and the Justice Department and that’s the end of it?” he said at a rally in Florida. “We have to investigate the investigation. It was crime at the highest levels.”

Words may be empty, but they were never meaningless. Because words lead to action, sometimes, often. Even untrue words, even hateful, seditious words. We do not yet know what damage Trump’s words will end up doing to this country, even if they do not get him elected, which they very well might. The innocent Hispanic, Muslim and other minority citizens who will be made to suffer by his credulous fans, the unhinged who will find inspiration from his calls to violence. We do not yet know. But we will find out.

Tweets by @neilsteinberg