“I have sold all my Trumpery: not a counterfeit Stone, not a Ribbon, Glass, Pomander, Brouch to keep my Pack from fasting,” Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale IV.4.598
I came across a new word the other day: trumpery. I knew it was one for our family word game. We play a fun game called “cognates,” where we find a word and see how we can connect it to other words. It’s a nerdy game, but kind of fun. Granted, it’s more long-drive-in-the-car fun than Saturday-night-feature fun, but it works for us and sneaks a love for words into my son’s life without him knowing it. I don’t do research, but am always looking for new words.
As soon as I saw the word “trumpery” I wondered whether it was connected to other words, like “trumpet,” “triumph,” and Screwtape’s demonic colleague, Slimtrumpet. And, how can we forget, there is the word “trump”–perhaps the verbal root of “trumpery.” Once an everyday word, “trump” has now become a top google search term.
One of the fascinating things about this American election–fascinating as in when we slow down in traffic to look at the bloody accident and all the flashing lights–is how Donald Trump has branded himself. In campaign speeches, I don’t think he has ever made the link between his name and the noun and verb forms of “Trump.” It’s pretty cool, actually, when you think about a man named Trump who has invested in casinos where card games fill the floor, even if the casinos haven’t all been winners.
Though the campaign team hasn’t made the link, Trump has been running this election with the brand of “Winner” as key to his image. Trump prides himself in being better than most other people in most things that count for someone who will be the manager of the world’s largest economy, the general of the globe’s deadliest military, and the curator of the social life, education, innovation, technology and culture of one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever produced. Having confidence in the New York tycoon’s ability to do this task, and sensitive to a country disenchanted by ineffective politics and a Pennsylvania Avenue that seems radically disconnected from Main Street, Republicans chose The Donald as their Trump Card.
See what I did there?
It’s pretty clever, even if it hasn’t been said out loud all that often. I suspect that Mr. Trump knew the connection. After all, he is highly educated at an Ivy League school and considers himself a supreme wordsmith.
As a verbal elite, Donald Trump no doubt played “Cognates” and other word-nerd games with his dad when their airplane’s 8-track stopped working.
The Trump pun is fairly obvious, and the Donald expects to triumph in the upcoming election and then trumpet his win throughout the world. But there is an essential problem with Trump’s branding: What happens if the Winner begins to lose? What happens if you pull out your Trump Card at the wrong time or in the wrong game? Mr. Trump has cast himself to his conservative base and to dissatisfied Americans as a winner, and has mocked many who disagree with him as losers. He is a winner at business (often enough in high-risk ventures), he can win political support (evident by his performance in the primaries and attendance at rallies), and he lands on the upside in his relationship with women (if we are to believe his “locker room talk”–though, to be fair, most of us don’t view women as things to be conquered in the way he does).
He thinks of himself as a perennial winner, but what if Trump isn’t triumphing? What if he can’t trump others? Despite his ability to enthrall a crowd, leverage the markets, and take advantage of women, he is slumping in the polls. 3 weeks is a long time in politics, but all the polls have Trump at a poor showing, near the floor of 40% Republican support. It is still winnable, but he isn’t winning.
So, what happens when the shimmer of the Trump Card/Winner brand starts to wear off? Apparently, we turn to conspiracy.
Trump claimed in April and August the election was rigged, though he has committed to accepting the outcome of the election. Now he has turned to a new series of allegations, including the fact that his opponent is using drugs to get ready for debates–debates he really won, despite the polls–and that the media is conspiring to have Hillary Clinton elected, including FoxNews, the only leading news network clearly open to his campaign. Despite his clear intelligence, Trump never connects the fact that he calls one of Fox’s star commentators a “bimbo” to his own downfall.
It never occurs to Trump to look to himself when things are going badly. Instead, Trump connects left-leaning media with election corruption. I have no doubt the media have a liberal bias, but there is more going on. In this election, polls show that if you are in the media you are suffering. And despite all of the past Rupublican concerns about media and its bias, no other Presidential candidate confused that severely flawed social engine with actual election rigging. I mean, he’s saying stuff that makes experienced conservative leaders blush–people who have worked in systems of power for years.
Now Trump has taken it to an entirely new level. Most recently in West Palm Beach, Trump has claimed to self-sacrificially “take all of the slings and arrows” on behalf of the people and on behalf of the movement so “we can have our country back.” He assures Americans he is suffering all this for the people, not for himself. And although he claims that “many political experts warned me that this campaign would be a journey to hell,” they are wrong. Instead, in true messianic form, he promises us that, “it will be a journey to heaven.” It is quite a promised land speech, though, to be fair, Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t have to defend himself against nine unwanted sexual assault allegations in a single week. Oh, and King died for his people, like the Christ he followed.
This peculiar approach and the new campaign direction put me in mind of another interesting word connection to “Trump.” Remember the new word I found the other day? I think that “trumpery” might help us understand this circus of an election and this candidate’s unprecedented approach.
I was reading C.S. Lewis’ recently published unfinished autobiography from late 1930 or early 1931 (edited by Andrew Lazo*). He used the phrase “trump card,” but he also wrote this phrase: “It made all my recent excursions into magic and eroticism seem like trumpery” (“Early Prose Joy,” 22). Though I haven’t seen the word before, the meaning of “trumpery” in context means “illusory” or “false.” A quick trip over to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)–a centuries old database of words, which I’m sure Donald Trump consults regularly–confirms the definition. Taken from the 14th-century French tromperie, which itself came from the French verb tromper, “to deceive,” its origin is ultimately unknown. In English, though, it has a few meanings:
- Deceit, fraud, imposture, trickery
- “Something of less value than it seems,” rubbish
- Idle or superstitious
- Showy but unsubstantial
- In horticulture, referring to weeds or refuse that hinder the growth of valuable plants
- Applied to a person as trash (giving us the word “strumpet”)
- As an adjective, to refer to something of little or no value; trifling, paltry, insignificant; worthless, rubbishy, trashy
First, I love the English language, especially that we can have a word cluster that means both winner and loser.
Second, almost every part of this OED entry gives us another possibility for looking at the “Trump brand.” While Trump may triumph, these other words seem remarkably precise: deceit, trickery, rubbish, superstitious, showy-but insubstantial, and weed-hindered. I think we have to be careful about our words, though. Despite every discussion Donald Trump had with Howard Stern, I wouldn’t go as far as calling the candidate a strumpet. After all, we wouldn’t want to descend into locker room talk.
*for this recently published draft, see C.S. Lewis, ‘”Early Prose Joy”: C.S. Lewis’s Early Draft of an Autobiographical Manuscript”‘ in VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center (2013). It is edited by Andrew Lazo, with intros in both #30 and #31 of VII.