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11.15.2016

Taunting vs. insults

Many mainstream pundits clutched their pearls and/or whined and/or moralized when Trump seemingly insulted his way to the nomination. A correspondent has pointed out that what Trump was doing was actually more in the realm of taunting than insults.

What is the difference? I've thought about it. A newish book by Leland Ryken on literary forms in the Bible has an article on taunting that has given me insight. A taunt is really more of a public thing, actually more like a public proclamation. An insult can be public but by nature is a more intimate or private type of event. More gossipy, more reluctant a thing to be broadcast wide and far.

Yet a taunt is intended to be widely and loudly public. Because it's a battlefield move. And Trump on those debate stages was on a battlefield. More than the other establishment candidates who considered themselves to be in something more akin to an academic environment ('debate') or something similar. Somebody described Trump in those especially early debates as seeming like a Soviet wrestler taking on all the others and throwing them around.

What Trump's taunting of his opponents (rather than mere insulting of his opponents) did was to not only voice the contempt many Americans have for establishment politicians but to bring it widely out into the open. A battlefield taunt. Which also sets him apart in the act as one who is not afraid to cross a line, single himself out, and to take the backlash that is inevitable from it. There is also no hedging, as a matter of course, in a battlefield taunt. You're either going to back it up or you're going to go down in ignominy. Or clear cut defeat.

Now, the first move of the schoolboy - and just shallow - pundits and other #NeverTrumpers is to say something like: "Yeah, well, but Trump is too stupid to know anything like that distinction or to use language in such a way to be effective in a way his opponents didn't know about." OK, this is how people think who have never done anything in life. In the real world (of which I admit I'm barely a part of, though I at least understand it) where people build, create, invent, discover, fix things, grow things etc., it is a tacit assumption that a person is capable/intelligent/self-aware if they have done something that has been successful. Especially if they repeat it.

Where Trump learned and developed his rhetorical style who knows? Guys like Trump are often drawn towards things that give them practical knowledge and knowledge they can use. So if Trump has never studied the speeches in the Iliad or in Thucydides maybe he picked up some little book on classical rhetoric and learned some basic forms and figures of speech. Why question the intelligence or education of the guy in the cowboy hat sitting at the poker table who just took all your money? Only whiny, wet schoolboys do that.

Scott Adams has pointed out an extraordinary facet of Trump's rhetorical style (what the left now will probably try to mimic) which is speaking visually. Instead of talking about immigration in terms of numbers and crime statistics and so on he talked in terms of a "big, beautiful wall." Adams gave other striking examples which I can't recall now (and can't link because it was an interview on some news network). OK, I just thought of one myself: instead of talking about arcane laws to regulate lobbying and influence peddling in Washington he said he was going to "drain the swamp."

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