Donald Trump’s minority outreach has failed miserably. Perhaps, the most visible, or audible, sign of dissonance in Trump’s message is his constant use of the definite article “the” before the communities he’s speaking about—as in “the Blacks” “ the African-Americans,” “the Latinos, the Hispanics.” It is grating and alienating. What is so off-putting about one of the most common words used daily?
Definite articles are used with adjectives to refer to a whole group of people, but they are also used to identify a particular person, object, or item. Trump is using them correctly when he says “the Latinos,” and “the African-Americans,” but using “the” ascribes singular dimensions and monolithic proportions to diverse communities. It homogenizes people and obscures their diverse concerns and needs.
In this, Trump doesn’t need a grammar lesson, although a thesaurus wouldn’t hurt. His use of the definite article is not a syntactical flaw. His idiosyncratic word choice is ideologically revealing, a peak into the grammar—or the systematic or structural design—of his ideas. His reliance on the definite article hints at a dated understanding of identities and politics that is locked in the mid-20th century.
Trump is 70 years old. He was born in 1946, which means his formative years were shaped by the modernist certainties of mid-20th century America. During this time identities, gender, nations, and borders were thought to be singular and whole. They were one, concise, definite, integral thing, with no deviation or alternatives. They were total and complete. Therefore, the use of the definite article seemed fitting.
Societal synonyms showed this certainty. “Man” stood in for all members of society, men and women. “Mankind” stood-in for all of humanity. The metonymic qualities of white men essentialized their experiences into a national singularity and universalized western particularties. In other words, what was good for white men was good for the nation and what was good for America was good for the world.
In politics, the essentialization of identity in the universalized term “man,” led to gross generalizations and oversimplified policy solutions. In 1933, Rexford Tugwell, a member of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust” wrote, “Men are, by impulse, predominantly cooperative. They have their competitive impulses, to be sure; but these are normally subordinate. [Competition] deluded men with the false notion that the sum of petty struggles was aggregate cooperation.”
In 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote The Affluent Society in an attempt to identify the solution to inequality in the U.S. The U.S. was in a unique situation. In the past, previous economic systems could not produce enough for everybody, yet a select few amassed all there was. In the mid-20th century U.S., the capitalist economy produced more; there was so much, more than enough, yet some people still did not have enough. “Western man has escaped for the moment the poverty which was for so long his all-embracing fate. The unearthly light of a handful of nuclear explosions would signal his return to utter deprivation if, indeed, he survived at all,” Galbraith explained.
In 1964, Milton Friedman wrote in Capitalism and Freedom, “To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them….The free man will ask neither what his country can do for him nor what he can do for his country.”
These examples privileged men’s experiences and interests. In particular, white men were the subject of world affairs and they would craft the solutions to the world’s problems. As politicians continued to normalize white men as national stand-ins, it was positive for them. It made them the nation’s default identity. This was aided by the fact that others’ rights, presence, and identities were circumscribed: African-Americans by Jim Crow, women by sexist laws and social practices, and other minority groups by racism. Although women could vote, they were not supposed to hold public office or engage in public leadership (perhaps this is why Trump felt it necessary to call Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman”). It was also believed that minority males could not surpass the wisdom or initiative of white men, so they were not expected to contribute either.
In history, a similar process was underway as well. In 1952 historian Louis Hartz, wrote The Liberal Tradition in America. Hartz wrote about a singular “American mind” or the liberal mind. In the world of ideas in the U.S. there was really just one and it was a liberal one that avoided Marxist revolution and monarchical restoration. The exceptional aspect of the nation was this singularity; all Americans shared this liberal, logical, legalistic, Lockean belief. This oneness of belief made Americans one in mind. “Surely, then, it is a remarkable force: this fixed, dogmatic liberalism of a liberal way of life. It is the secret root from which have sprung many of the most puzzling of American cultural phenomena,” Hartz wrote.
In 1953, historian Russell Kirk, wrote The Conservative Mind. The title alone suggested a single traceable lineage that went back to a singular truth. Kirk’s history reinvigorated a moribund conservatism in the U.S., giving it a reputable historical lineage. The conservative mind valued tradition and heritage. This mind valued permanence and authority because of tradition—things should be done in the present because they were done that way in the past. The “radical,” as he called liberals, were morally unmoored chasing after grand social schemas that were really ideologically bankrupt specters. “The radical, when all is said, is a neoterist, in love with change; the conservative, a man…is described as statesman, as critic, as metaphysician, as man of letters. Men of imagination, rather than party leaders…” he expounded.
When the historians and public intellectuals of the liberal mind or conservative mind explored the origins, they always traced it to a singular origin: Edmund Burke in the case of conservatives, John Locke in the case of liberals. The ability to find the original source from which all knowledge sprung only proved their correctness. They were certain they were right because they had found the only one and true answer in the past. Gross generalizations and the reduction of social complexity into metonymic singularity led to conceptual oversimplification.
For minorities, this mid-20th century practice essentialized their identities into a misshapen singularity. It had disastrous effects, even when used by liberals. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” was supposed to identify the problems in achieving racial and socioeconomic equality. When trying to explain the wealth inequality between black and white families in the U.S., Moynihan arrived at one cause: the black family. He wrote, “the fundamental problem, in which this is most clearly the case, is that of family structure. The evidence — not final, but powerfully persuasive — is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.” He added “the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is to out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.” The report featured a chapter titled “The Tangle of Pathology”
Chicano playwright Luis Valdez parodied Moynihan’s and other liberal’s language in his 1967 play “Los Vendidos.” One character, a Mexican-American politician who was supposed to speak at one of California Governor Ronald Reagan’s events gave a snippet of his speech to the audience. The Mexican-American politician intoned:
Mr. Congressman, Mr. Chairman, members of the board, honored guests, ladies and gentleman. I come before you as a Mexican-American to tell you about the problems of the Mexican. The problems of the Mexican stem from one thing and one thing only: He’s stupid. He’s uneducated. He needs to stay in school. He needs to be ambitious, forward-looking, harder-working. He needs to think American, American, American, American, American! God Bless America! God Bless America! God Bless America!
This insistence on singular identities led to an insistence of singular problems and singular solutions. (This is why Trump can refer to “the blacks” and the inner-cities, while failing to comprehend that not every African-American lives in the inner-cities.) “The African-American family” made it seem like there was only one family and needed only one solution. “The Mexican” made it seem like it was just one individual problem. The definite article in combination with the singular subject made it seem like it was one person; it hid the bodies upon bodies that revealed it was not just a singular sickness but an epidemic. The definite article and the singular subject turned structural failure into personal failure. It hid systemic collapse under the guise of pathology.
Trump is 70 years old. His ideas were forged in this crucible, in a time when white men’s identities were privileged over others. It was a time where white men could be individuals—the most important and most promising—while communities of color were singular objects or singular problems. At best, the reduction of communities into singular people to provide singular solutions was paternalistic and condescending; at its worse it was outright racist and destructive.
So it is with Trump’s continued reliance and use of the definite article in his minority outreach. “The blacks” are living in hell in the inner cities, he exclaims. What do you have to lose, he questions. The Mexicans are criminals and rapists, he screams. The women love me, he brags. None are individuals, none are people. They are problems to be dealt with. They are objects without feelings. They are identifiers without identities.
Donald Trump photo via Wiki Commons