On April 6, 2017, Senator Ron Johnson (R) Wisconsin, in referring to the multi-billion dollar Mexican border wall that President Trump has proposed, told a CNN news anchor “I always thought ‘the wall’ was a metaphor.” In the subsequent weeks, three hundred new low cost proposals for building the wall were submitted, mostly by writers.
One writer’s proposal was that the wall actually be composed of thousands of signs with various messages: “No one at Walmart speaks a lick of Spanish.” And, “People in Nebraska mow their own lawns.” Also, “We remember the Alamo.”
Another proposal was The Wall, a tender and heartfelt novel, modeled on White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, about the travails of bright young Mexican immigrant who comes to America, marries an American and then struggles with managing the combination of her two cultures, while facing persecution from both sides.
More importantly, the floodgates opened with this intra-party revelation of the secret to understanding President Trump. Trump, as a literary lion, has been something we have missed seeing all along. He is really a test of our irony, one we are only now beginning to answer. Not only has this been a boon to writers, it has been a godsend to literary critics.
One critic specializing in cultural references suggests that “I got higher ratings than 9/11” really might mean, “I humbly suggest that you pay less attention to me.” Or, “Putin has been at least as successful as bin Laden, in manipulating disasters that command our attention.”
Another classical critic has decided that “Obamacare is in a death spiral” is an irony, at the least, and may mean, “My mind is essentially the definition of a death spiral.” And, “All twenty million new health care recipients must die someday.”
A critic grounded in psychology has pointed out that “Looking forward to hearing Ivanka speak at the W20!” really might mean, “I want the world leaders to see how hot my daughter is.” And, “I am sublimely unaware of how creepy that sounds.”
“Make America great again,” according to critic emeritus, Harold Bloom, may really mean, “The Emersonian kernel of permanent freshness in our American intellectual spirit is to never be bound by convention, precedent, or what even we thought five minutes ago.” And, Calvin Trillin has opined that it may mean, “My intellectual integrity has the shelf life of a ripe fish.”
But essentially, Senator Johnson’s discovery has become a Republican employment program for word-parsers, poets, critics, professors of rhetoric, and other figure of speech mavens. News services, foreign governments, political figures, and even US government agencies are scrambling to hire anyone who has ever read a Shakespeare sonnet, asking the interview question, “Are they about a woman or a young man?” Enrollment in college English courses has reversed its downward trend, curiously at the expense of the American Studies Departments.
President Trump said, “I’m looking at two-state and at one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two but honestly if Bibi and if the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.” So, Israeli intelligence hired six hundred Talmudic scholars, to carefully parse and discuss that text. They are expected to have it deconstructed sometime in the next three hundred years. They are mostly struggling over “if Israel and the Palestinians are happy.”
The government of China, of course, has long dealt in official metaphor, as in phrases such as “the cultural revolution,” and “the people,” which are not even words, but are abstract symbols, and as subject to changing meaning as they are to changing spelling in English, such as when Peking became Beijing, but the Duck did not. So, when candidate Trump said, “China is taking our jobs, big time,” the Chinese government immediately understood that “taking” meant “holding back,” “jobs” meant “profitable deals,” and “our” meant “all Trump family enterprises.” “Big time” in China, means, “That’s why I am whining.”
Several literary deconstructionist English professors from Yale were hired by the State Department and Department of Defense when President Trump said that he really enjoyed sending fifty-nine or seventy-nine missiles into Iraq or Syria. These learned disciples of Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller set out to deconstruct this statement as an opposition, and to explore the tensions and contradictions between the hierarchical ordering assumed in the text and other aspects of the text’s meaning, especially those that were indirect or implicit or that relied on figurative or performative uses of language. Through this analysis, they determined that it really meant, “Everyone should all be very, very scared. Big time.”
(Gerald Weaver is the author of the novel, The First First Gentleman, August 2016, London Wall Publishing. His well-received first novel, Gospel Prism, was published in May 2015.)