Sarcasm I now see to be, in general, the language of the Devil; for which reason I have long since as good as renounced it.
— Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus
It all arises from a big misunderstanding as to the importance of the emphasis placed on words. Trumpian understanding differs from commonly accepted wisdom and that challenges us all to come to a better understanding of how sarcasm works. Our tutor in that exercise, as in so many things, has been the master of language and, coincidentally, the president of the United States-the trump.
Those of us who are slavishly wed to dictionary definitions are at a disadvantage when we are confronted by the trumpian use of language and discover that it is more sophisticated than the run of the mill usage to which we are accustomed. The most recent example is our failure to understand sarcasm as used by the trump. To the uninitiated, a group to which many of us belong, we thought that the endless procession of untruths flowing from the presidential mouth were misstatements of fact or simply lies. We now have been informed by their author that some of those seemingly false statements were not in fact misstatements of fact or lies, but examples of presidential sarcasm. Since many of us were accustomed to sarcasm being distinguished from factual statements by the inflection with which the words were delivered, the trump’s recent explanations have broadened our understanding of the genre.
Before addressing these trumpian tutorials, we should note that the trump is not the first president to use sarcasm when making public pronouncements. Two come to mind, and whether or not the presidents were being sarcastic or making a point, depended entirely on the inflection used by the presidential speaker when making the utterance.
During a press conference in 1973, when responding to a reporter, Mr. Nixon said: “[P]eople have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” There are two ways in which the last sentence could be uttered. One is the one Nixon intended in which the statement is made decisively and emphatically. Had Nixon intended it as sarcasm he would have added a lyrical quality to the pronouncement thus making it obvious that in saying he was not a crook he was being sarcastic.
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The next example of a presidential statement that offered the possibility of being factual or sarcastic came from Bill Clinton. The statement was “I didn’t have sex with that woman.” By emphasizing the word “didn’t” when making the statement, President Clinton was making an unequivocal statement of denial. Had he instead emphasized the word “that” and dragged out the word, his comment would have come across as not only denigrating the woman but introducing sarcasm into his response.
When speaking publicly the trump invariably peppers his speech with bald faced lies and those do not qualify as sarcasm. They are simply lies. He knows, however, that the occasional misstatement that on its face causes him to appear stupider than he actually is, can be described as sarcasm thus infusing it with wisdom and meaning and causing those who fail to realize the satirical nature of the comment, to be greater fools than he. He does not, however, rely on the tone of voice in being sarcastic. He relies on the wisdom of the listener to distinguish between sarcasm and stupidity or prevarication. The corona virus gave him two excellent opportunities to indulge his particular style of sarcasm-one oral and the other written.
The first was during his daily self-adulation briefing conducted on April 23d. In that briefing he extolled the virtue of injecting toxic substances into the blood stream or swallowing them in order to cure the infection inflicted by the corona virus. Those suggestions were, of course, recognized by all listeners as being utter nonsense and caused commentators the world over to comment on what appeared to be yet another example of presidential prevarication or stupidity. What the critics missed, and what the trump had to later explain, was that the suggestion was made sarcastically. The trump knew that the mere utterance of such a stupid idea would immediately be recognized by the sophisticated listener as being sarcastic He did not realize that many listeners rely on inflection used by a speaker when imparting sarcastic comment and thought he was making a serious, and not surprisingly, stupid suggestion.
The trump has now removed inflection as a guiding principle in identifying sarcasm and that brings us to the second example. That occurred when he lashed out at members of the news media whom he holds in contempt since they are constantly pointing out the difference between trumpian fact and everyone else’s fiction. This sarcasm was imparted by tweet. There was no tonal quality to permit the listener to understand the sarcastic nature of the comment. In the tweet he said that reporters who had covered Russian interference in the 2016 election should return their “noble” prizes and that the “Noble Committee” should rescind the awards. Of course there is no such thing as a Noble Prize and the trump was being sarcastic in making such a reference, denigrating both the recipients of the award and the Nobel Committee that had nothing to do with the topic at hand. Since the sarcasm was delivered in the form of a tweet, there was no way that the sarcastic nature of the comment could be imparted by the inflection in the trump voice.
Perhaps Jared Kushner, a man of many talents, will let his father in law know that sarcasm works better when spoken than when tweeted. That could be his greatest service to his father-in-law. It would also be a great service to those of us who are apt to confuse presidential prevarication with presidential sarcasm and thus react inappropriately to presidential pronouncements.