It was July 11, and a notice popped up on the screen: “Trump commutes Roger Stone’s sentence.” I immediately went to my wife’s study and — completely nonplussed — I couldn’t find any adjectives to express my exasperation at Trump’s lawlessness. There was just nothing left in my barrel of adjectives that I hadn’t already used, nothing left at the bottom, nothing lower, nothing worse. I stammered.
Going into his presidency, the decency line of Trump adjectives was already low: his braggadocio was annoying; his comb-over, ridiculous; his narcissism, cringeworthy; his behavior, dissolute; his tax filings, shady; his money grubbing, repulsive; his self-flattery, boorish; his over-the-top architecture, vulgar; his huckersterism, opportunistic; his sexism, crude; his raw doggin’ sex, venereal; his skin, orange, and his military record, yellow.
Architects told me he stiffed them: sleazy.
And that was the good news. The adjectival level was still, by the standards of Trump coverage in New York tabloids, shruggable: New Yorkers had already seen and heard all about Trump before.
But in Washington, it was a new game, and in a reset under the kliegs of a higher-stakes arena, tarnishing adjectives popped up immediately after his inauguration when he sacrificed his pitiable press secretary, Sean Spicer, to a regime of lies, beginning with the infamous pitch about the “biggest inauguration ever.” The NY Times and other papers, in what would normally be a honeymoon period, at first scrupled about whether they could actually use the word “lies,” but the fastidiousness was misplaced. The newspapers — and the country — had to face the realization, clear to anyone with a TV, that the president of the United States was, well, dishonest. The adjective mendacious, which really hadn’t been heard much since Tennessee Williams, came out of retirement (within a year Kim Jong-un resurrected dotard, throwing in mentally deranged, and later, Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, added “fucking moron” to the filling barrel of descriptives).
Ever more damaging words soon climbed onto the list, graduating in intensity. Each new scandal cost Trump another deprecating adjective in his descent into the adjectival dregs, each adjective a more biting one that obsolesced the previous. An entire phylum of adjectives generally dealing with unscrupulousness had to be dusted off, since in the previous eight years of the Obama administration, they had gone into retirement.
People started noticing that Trump was lazy. He came to work late, didn’t read his briefing memos, and didn’t even listen much to memos when they were read to him. But he wasn’t just mentally lazy. Even on the golf course, he was carted around all the time and got no exercise. Girth had followed. Lazy while golfing, he even took the golf ball out of the rough when it landed there. He didn’t deduct points. As a cheater, he was shameless. In 2016, at the G7 Summit in Taormina, Italy, he even demanded a cart to whisk him around while other leaders walked the short distances.
Lazy, however, turned out to be one of his least bad adjectives. Days before the G7, at the NATO summit in Brussels, Trump elbowed the prime minister of Montenegro aside so he could take center stage in the group photo op. Clownish, rude.
Momentum on adjectives speeded up. He fished for a Nobel after flirting with the Supreme Leader of North Korea, with whom he had fallen “in love.” Insufferable.
Meanwhile, all those trips to Mar-a-Lago where he was charging the government for renting rooms for security? He was scamming the public, grifting. He was
- all of the above
He knew more than the generals and the economists. He was arrogant, unteachable.
He demanded federal funding for a U.S Mexico border wall and shut down the government for the longest period ever over the stalemate he caused, and lost. Obtuse.
You can chart the trajectories of presidencies on a graph according to many metrics. But the telling metric for Trump proved to be a graph of adjectives, all heading south.
Linguistics gives a clue about how to read Trump’s presidency. In 1952, Norwegian theologian Thorleif Boman wrote a much translated book, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, in which he noted that most words in Hebrew are rooted in verbs, connoting a sense of action and becoming, while Greek language and thought were more static. Examined in Boman’s terms, Trump’s presidency is verb free. He is not a verb president. He’s an adjective president. His presidency and legacy is not based on action but on character, and it’s on the sum total of all the adjectives that most people will be voting in November since the characteristics of his character define him, not any achievements.
Each new outrage inevitably triggered more adjectives that, collectively, slid the graph further south. Clueless, he withdrew from the Paris Agreement about climate control in 2016, and a year later, depraved, he withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal. Jealous and vindictive, he reversed anything and everything Obama. He never acted, but only reacted, and always against something, especially someone else’s smarts.
Meanwhile, political favor seekers and sycophants flocked to his hotel in Washington. Trump was making money off the presidency. He was corrupt.
He recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and didn’t finger the Saudi prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The most powerful man on earth was pandering and weak. Groveling, actually.
He discredited his own intelligence agencies, in a move best called, ironically, stupid.
He declared himself a “stable genius,” effectively pointing out the contrary, that this contrarian president was unstable and dumb.
He pushed for cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps, despite campaign promises, and recently moved to get rid of Obamacare, again, even during COVID.
- all of the above
He withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership, imposed tariffs on Canada, Mexico and the European Union, and started a trade war with China, all moves that damaged the U.S. economy and put farmers on welfare. Incompetent.
He tried to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA); he supported White Suprematists and anti-Semites after Charlottesville; he denied citizens from Muslim-majority countries entry into the U.S.; he called out the troops against Black Lives Matter demonstrations. He was racist.
He separated children from parents seeking asylum at the border, and incarcerated them. Despicable.
One the lighter side, he asked Woody Johnson, U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, to get him the British Open for his Turnberry golf course in Scotland. Craven.
He allowed himself to be photographed in profile against the backdrop of Mt. Rushmore, suggesting he be its fifth president. Revolting.
There were patterns to the adjectives. Some, when they weren’t merely offensive, veered toward evil: cruel, perverse, greedy, abusive, cold-hearted, immoral, demonic. But the evil had a tendency to metastasize into an adjacent file: dangerous. Mary Trump, the president’s niece, pointed out the adjective in the subtitle of her book, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.”
Yes, dangerous to our public health and our economy: he completely failed to mount defenses against COVID, even with two oceans of separation and two months of warning, and never realized that he couldn’t save the economy unless he defeated or contained COVID. Moronic. Tillerson was right.
Yes, dangerous to our democracy: he blackmailed Ukraine to get damaging information on his likely 2020 opponent, Joe Biden. The move was contemptible (not to mention impeachable).
Turns out he asked China for the same help. Conniving, scheming.
He acceded to all of Putin’s geopolitical wet dreams: Complicitous. He facilitated and condoned every Russian power grab: Traitorous. He allowed Putin’s bounty on the head of American soldiers in Afghanistan to pass unpunished: Sickening.
He declared that, as president, he could do whatever he wanted. Despotic.
He recently insinuated that the election might be postponed, and he greased mechanisms in the US Post Office to suppress votes by appointing a donor as Postmaster General:
The other day another bulletin popped up again on the screen. The news: he was redirecting COVID statistics away from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the White House via a private company controlled by cohorts so that the White House could cook the books. Just when you thought he had already pulled the last straw, he pulled yet another last straw: Nefarious. Detestable. Disgusting. Nuts.
If you were a baseball statistician doping out Trump’s numbers, you’d have to conclude he was batting zero. Perhaps he just doesn’t like to bat. He prefers golf. Lazy would be the adjective that would explain his non-performance, because it’s also the root pathology of other adjectives about his incompetence, and the reason that Trump has no record to run on. He has not done anything, not even the easiest, most obvious, immediately beneficial work-stimulus, economy-fueling program: infrastructure. Trump could only take things apart, drive the country to failure, make America break: ruinous, destructive. And since doing nothing has seriously aggravated the ravages of COVID, and with it, deepened the failure of the economy, the record he’s running on — his platform — is failure: that is, “success” as defined by a self-serving contrarian. In just six months his inaction over COVID and the consequent record-breaking contraction of the economy has defined his presidency, making clear that taking no action against the pandemic, being lazy and clueless, characterized a presidency that is, in the end, malignant.
Without a record of achievement, that leaves only a record of adjectives. But what many of the adjectives reveal is that though this man is vacant from nearly every point of view, he is also cunning, expert at taking a powder at the right time, running away from his own debacles with his money and hide intact. Because he is desperate to win in 2020 (and not go to jail), all those characteristics profile an escape artist who will do anything to save himself, even if it means bringing down the democracy. All those adjectives and more that gathered along the graph — nefarious, vile, rogue, conniving, traitorous, toxic, treacherous, despotic, unscrupulous, diabolical, monstrous, malevolent — collectively define his uniquely dangerous skill set. They are the adjectives of a president who would, and could, successfully steal the election.
As John Lewis urged, “Vote like you’ve never voted before.”
Joseph Giovannini is a critic, architect, and teacher based in New York. Trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, Architect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC, and SCI-Arc. For his other articles on LACMA click [here].