The English language is rich and beautiful and has a word for almost everything. That hole in the bottom of a hedge made by a small animal? We call that a smeuse. The sound made when we walk in wet shoes? That’s skorking. But even a language with over a quarter of a million words has its limits. For example, we do not have a word for what is occurring in the Trump White House.
Most journalists are saying it is chaos. This means “complete disorder and confusion”, and is derived from the Greek for “a gaping void”. The problem with using this word is that while it does capture the confusion, it belies the fact that there appears to be some sort of system behind it.
Take the firing of The Mooch today. Anthony Scaramucci was hand-picked by the president to “shake things up”. And this he did with impish zeal. The hapless press secretary Sean Spicer resigned immediately. Scaramucci badgered journalists, mocked colleagues, promised to “kill all the leakers”, and danced around the president like a hip-hop hype man.
This riot of posturing vulgarity was so effective it quickly sent White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus out the door right behind Spicer. The current Secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly, someone who the president was reportedly already lining up for the job a week earlier, instantly replaced Priebus. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kelly, being a former Marine general, decided the decks needed swabbing and had the Mooch escorted from the grounds on his first day.
Confusing? Absolutely. But not necessarily disordered. This is how Donald Trump manages people. There are many similar accounts from his time as the reality puppeteer on The Apprentice, and from his work inside the Trump business empire. The president is a man who likes to set one staff member against another, to create internal conflicts—a Darwinian approach to see who lasts longest. As Trump tweeted himself today, “No WH chaos!”, and for once I have to agree with him—this is not the right word.
What about “bedlam”? This is another fine term, meaning a scene of uproar and confusion. It is derived from the name of an old insane asylum in London, England. And it seems to fit. When you sit back and watch the president rant about Hillary Clinton at a Boy Scout jamboree, or go on an extended jag to a gathering of police officers about letting suspects bang their heads on the police car door, one can’t help but think there may be some mental health issues here. As my mother pointed out to me recently, if my father rambled on like the President of the United States, she would be very worried about the state of his faculties.
But these are not sudden bouts of madness. Trump is being Trump. Anyone who has paid any attention to him over the last decade knew where this was headed. Granted, the man is 71 years old. He is allowed a few absent-minded misunderstandings—misplacing his reading glasses, for example. But forgetting that private meeting with Putin at the G20? Or failing to remember the Republicans control both houses of Congress and it is therefore impossible to blame the Democrats for his legislative failures? This is not dementia, it’s a combination of simple ignorance and willful deceit.
The word “amok” could work. In the original Malay, it means “the act of going berserk in a homicidal frenzy”, and it described the oddly persistent cultural phenomena of people randomly snapping and racing through the streets swinging a machete at strangers. This is where the English phrase “running amok” originates.
But the Trump White House is not homicidal, and regardless of the left-wing caricatures of presidential advisor Steve Bannon, there is really none of that wide-eyed frothing-at-the-mouth frenzy you need for “amok” to truly apply. What’s more, the word implies a sudden outburst of violence and confusion, whereas what we are witnessing has been going on consistently for months.
The simple truth is we do not have an appropriate word to describe the unprecedented display of confusion, mayhem, incompetence, venality and ignorance that is the Trump presidency. Having never witnessed anything like this before, we are struggling to describe it; we literally lack the terminology. But, if at some point in the distant future a similar president is elected, we will at least know how to describe it. We will say he is Trumpian, and everyone will knowingly shudder in understanding.
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