The word “placebo” is not only from Latin, it is Latin, an unaltered Latin word meaning “I will please,” the first person singular future indicative of placere, “to please.”
It wasn’t originally used to describe a sugar pill pretending to be medicine, of course, but a part of Vespers, Book of the Dead, taken from the line, Psalm 114:9 in the Latin Vulgate Bible: “Placebo Domino in regione vivorum,” or “I will please the Lord in the land for living.”
By 1200, it was used to describe flatterers — Chaucer names a character in The Merchant’s Tale “Placebo.” By 1811, it was a term for pills with no medical value but offering psychological benefit.
OK, OK, Donald Trump. Do you think the media wants to natter on obsessively about him? Others perhaps do. But not me. Gazing into Trump’s world is like directing a flashlight down the hole in an outhouse while the Northern Lights flash and flicker in the heavens right outside.
But focusing elsewhere, no matter how fascinating, also feels like describing a pretty flower when the school next door is burning. Worse, your entire country aflame. I was going to write today on last week’s Alabama debacle. You know the particulars if you’re paying attention. With Hurricane Dorian turning up the East Coast, Trump said Alabama was in peril when it wasn’t, the risk already past.
A small error. Worth correcting only because people in Alabama could be alarmed by the president suggesting a deadly storm is bearing down on them. A normal human being would dismiss it with a shrug.
But Donald Trump is not a normal human being. An extreme narcissist, any whisper of a suggestion that he might be wrong is an affront to his fragile and desperately maintained self-image that insists he is never, ever wrong.
And so the farce began. First with his grabbing a Sharpie and altering the government weather map — a federal crime, if you’re keeping score — an attempt at deception so feckless and crude that the sentient world, which has been mocking Trump for four weary years, not counting the decades of ridicule that went before his presidential run, erupted in a foghorn of enthusiastic derision.
To which Trump ... kept pushing back, culminating in NOAA on Friday issuing a notorious retraction of its own forecasts. Trump was like a man picking at a scab until he’s a bloody mess, head to toe.
But Saturday, the Alabama windstorm instantly became ancient history as Trump tweeted that he had been planning to secretly huddle with the Taliban at Camp David, but the terrorists killed a dozen people, including a U.S. soldier, to limber up before their encounter, so Trump called off the meeting. He was proud of this, apparently, though, coming from Trump, one can safely assume it is a lie. Given how many thousands of American soldiers have died in Afghanistan at the hands of the Taliban, it seems an uncharacteristic refinement that Trump would cancel talks over one more death.
Enough. Either you already get it, or you never will. I can’t get worked up over Trump being exactly what he’s always been. The bewildered outrage is his millions of minions, abandoning every ethical, political and religion conviction they ever supposedly once held to bask in the glow of his toxic personality.
Like much of The Canterbury Tales, The Merchant’s Tale is about deception and payback, in this case the joys and woes of marriage, and whether old men should take young brides. Placebo explains how to be a flattering follower. Slap a red baseball cap on his head, and he’d fit right in at any Trump rally.
”I woot wel that my lord kan moore than I,” he begins, or in modern English: “I know well that my lord knows more than I/What he says, I consider it unshakably true/I say the same, or else something similar.”
Placebo shows sophistication, in that he is aware he is parroting his master. The MAGA-hatted mob unwittingly regurgitates the morning’s Fox News bullet points because they sincerely believe it is the truth.
As for the rest of us, the deception is all too clear: fresh examples merely take a yellow highlighter to the painfully obvious. Regarding consequences, well, none of us, blind pilgrims groping in a fog, have the faintest idea where this is heading.