On November 8, 2017

Improper nouns

In late 2017, we all still have days where we wake up and the realization hits us afresh that the only thing separating millions of innocents from nuclear devastation is the dementia-addled, TV-addicted brain of a 71-year-old narcissist.

We may find some cold comfort in the awareness that, relative to prior U.S. presidents, Donald Trump is an open book. If he decides to blow up North Korea (or Vermont, for that matter), we’ll almost certainly hear about it beforehand, as long as we follow him on Twitter. Ever since he took office, I’ve been thinking a lot about the workings of Donald’s mind, and occasionally I’ve considered that the best way to measure its pulsations of anger and pride—its hopeless attempts to grapple with the complexities of government policy and its subsequent retreats into fantasy—may be to monitor the eccentric patterns of capitalization on Trump’s Twitter.

You probably know how capitalization generally works: for instance, the first word of a sentence begins with an uppercase letter. So do proper nouns. It’s not that hard. But for Trump it’s a more complicated matter.

My interest is not in the frequent instances of ALL CAPS on Trump’s Twitter, which reflect a simple desire to shout over the internet. For instance, on November 1, he exclaimed that the ISIS supporter who attacked Lower Manhattan on Halloween “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” It’s bold and emphatic; he means business—we get it. But what to make of his October 7 tweet: “Late Night host are dealing with the Democrats for their very ‘unfunny’ & repetitive material, always anti-Trump! Should we get Equal Time?”

I won’t get on his case for the typo (“host” instead of “hosts”) or for the random quotation marks on “unfunny,” and let’s even set aside both his bizarre premise (that late-night comedians are colluding with Democratic politicians to cook up anti-Trump material) and his even more bizarre conclusion (that perhaps Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert should be legally mandated to give over equal portions of their comedy programs to pro-Trump messages). The point is: what is going on with “Night” and “Equal Time”? Why are those words capitalized?

I’ve lately been jotting down the common nouns on Twitter that Trump has strangely taken to treating as proper nouns (or proper names): “Middle Class,” “Massive Tax Cuts,” “Military,” “Fake Dossier,” “World,” “Media,” “First Responders,” “National Anthem,” “Tax Increases,” “Stock Market,” “Health Insurance,” “Insurance Companies,” “Flag,” “Country,” and “Ballistic Missile” are a few that have come up recently.

Proper nouns, as you probably know, are nouns that designate unique entities, unlike common nouns, which designate any or all of a class of entities: e.g., “Brett” and “Killington” are proper nouns, while “person” and “town” are common nouns. Like most English speakers, Trump likely understands this, and it may be fair to assume that some of his unnecessary capitalizations derive from errors of knowledge, not of grammar: he probably believes that the name of our national anthem actually is “The National Anthem,” not “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He may believe that there exists an official division of our emergency services called the First Responders, who, during the Lower Manhattan attack, showed up just before the NYPD and the NYFD.

But consider that Trump’s most commonly used improper proper name is “Fake News.” The capital letters reflect Trump’s recognition that the concept of “fake news” has metamorphosed into an unofficially trademarked catchphrase of the MAGA movement: when he refers to CNN or MSNBC as “Fake News,” the capitalization acknowledges that he has not actually evaluated their reporting for truth—“Fake News” refers, as a title, to a particular collection of news sources whose stories may or may not, at any given time, be fake. By capitalizing “media,” Trump goes a step further, implying that all media, from TV to newspapers to websites, have formed a single sinister cabal to conspire against him: the term no longer refers to a wide range of entities but to one secret liberal-controlled corporation masquerading under multiple guises.

Furthermore, in the spirit of popular nicknames, like Mean Joe Green or Shoeless Joe Jackson, that capitalized typically lowercase adjectives, Trump has sought to insert his favorite descriptors of his bêtes noires as permanent features into their proper names: hence, “Crooked Hillary,” “Sloppy Michael Moore,” “Liddle Bob Corker,” and “Failing New York Times.” Shoeless Joe Jackson was Shoeless Joe Jackson even when he wore shoes; similarly, Crooked Hillary need not be proven crooked in the same way that “crooked Hillary” would.

Sometimes, Trump’s tweets read like those legal documents where common nouns like “tenant” and “lessor” are capitalized in order to indicate that, here, these terms hold more specific definitions than usual—that they mean only what the lawyer has designated their meaning within the document. In the same way, Trump’s “Flag” refers to a particular conservative definition (something like “sacred American object of mandatory public veneration”) rather than the dictionary definition (“rectangular piece of fabric”). Trump controls the message: the Middle Class, the Military, and Massive Tax Cuts are Good, while Tax Increases and the Fake Dossier are Bad.

An easy way to think about this issue, perhaps, is to compare two sentences: “Trump University closed in 2010,” and “Donald Trump’s university closed in 2010.” The first works, because Trump University did exist until 2010, but the second doesn’t, because Trump University was not a university. Trump has always been more comfortable in the world of proper nouns, of brand names and official slogans. A name or title needn’t accurately describe that which it designates. If you’re miserable at Disneyland, it’s still The Happiest Place on Earth, and if you flunk your first-period algebra test after eating two bowls of cereal, Wheaties is still the Breakfast of Champions. The more Trump needs to obfuscate his failures, the more capital letters we’ll see. He knows things are going downhill. But even as our country falls apart, we’ll still know, per Trump’s Twitter, that he’s constantly succeeding in his quest to Make America Great Again.

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