“Invective: Insulting, abusive, or highly critical language.” Oxford Dictionary
“He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he is learning, for that is what he will know.” Annie Dillard
Is it possible to gain the Presidency of the United States through the use of invectives alone? Can the Leader of the Free World be selected based entirely on the volume and meanness of insults? Does adolescent name calling really elevate one in the public’s eye and deserve respect and confidence? Alas, we shall soon see!
Since declaring his candidacy for President June of last year, Donald Trump has hurled uninspired insults in every direction. Journalists are now keeping a running tab of the number of people, places and things which have fallen victim to his spontaneous child-like abuse. As of this writing, the number falls just shy of 300, is growing daily, and includes not only his opponents, both Democrat and Republican, but also entire races of people, entire religions, nations, journalists, business leaders, women, news organizations, a vast array of conservative, liberal and libertarian intellectuals, national and state leaders, the Pope, federal judges, preachers of the Gospel, singer/songwriters, comedians and even the disabled among us. Mr. Trump has spent the entire campaign recklessly throwing invectives at anything that dared to voice an opinion or threaten his egomaniacal dominance of the daily news. He has left no room for serious discourse of substantial issues by insisting on insulting everything that has shown any evidence of life. In short, the list of Trump insults is longer than a Faulkner trilogy and Tolstoy’s War and Peace combined! If you have not yet been insulted, stay tuned!
In his quest for the Presidency, “The Donald” attacks Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly for asking serious questions, Muslims for being Muslim, African-Americans for being impoverished, John McCain for getting captured in war, Hillary Clinton for needing to use the bathroom, Mike Bloomberg, a real billionaire, for being short, immigrants for not being Americans (I find that one particularly ludicrous), and he even compared fellow Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson to a child molester!
Mr. Trump no doubt views his run for the Presidency as a mere stepping stone to a hyper ego inspired fantasy of emperorship of the world; the Roman Caesars have nothing on this guy. The man knows no shame.
As you may have guessed by now, I am no fan of Donald Trump, but I’m not overly enamored with “Crooked” Hillary Clinton, either. I do, however, think she is sane. I do not mean to imply that Mr. Trump suffers from insanity, rather that he seems to enjoy every minute of it!
The effective insult is something of an art, and usually, but not exclusively, requires a certain amount of flamboyant confidence to be effective. The juvenile insults of Donald Trump were abandoned by most of us by at least the fifth grade of our elementary education. The most common invectives he uses are: crooked, ugly, fat, dumb, short, stupid, and other such Pee-Wee Herman type phrases. I submit that Mr. Trump is a vulgar, second-rate insulter with a first-rate ego.
It would be a mistake to equate rude, crass behavior with insulting behavior. In my estimation, the two are not the same. Someone who is vulgar, shallow, and rude, for whatever reason, is usually simply embarrassing. Indeed, I have little patience for those who believe that the effective insult is merely the use of obnoxious and obscene language. Such behavior typically has the effect of back firing on the perpetrator by revealing him to be of low intelligence, cheap, and possessing a limited vocabulary.
However, the barbed phrase, the piece of quick acid-tongued wit, or some carefully considered invective which humiliates a worthy opponent can be a joy to behold and often adds real value to public discourse.
Anyone who has been a casual observer of politics over the years realizes that one of the primary tools of political combat is the cleverly conceived insult and retort. Even during constructive debates on issues of monumental importance, effective politicians will often take time out to be shrewdly abusive to his or her opponent.
This is not a twenty-first century phenomenon. Politicians of every stripe have been spewing vitriol at each other through the centuries, and as Mr. Trump awkwardly demonstrates, the trend shows no signs of abating.
I must plead guilty to committing the offence myself on occasion. I have had many invectives hurled in my direction over the years, and have returned them in kind with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. In politics, it does not pay to have a thin skin. Politicians who are too sensitive usually do not survive. One of the most difficult decisions any public figure has to make is when to be insulting and when to exhibit a degree of humility.
Early on in my political career, the grand old Populist orator, State Senator Theodore Smith of Alcorn County, launched a vicious attack on me and the interest he claimed I represented. I was, at the time, the young, overly ambitious Executive Director of the state sponsor of the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway. Senator Smith stood firmly in opposition to many of the policy decisions I made and urged Alcorn County to withdraw its support of the agency, and therefore, the waterway itself. Senator Smith’s reputation as a fire-brand orator and old school Populist was legendary. To come under attack by such a giant was a daunting predicament for a young aspiring politician like myself. Senator Smith’s attacks came in a flurry, both in press conferences and his favorite forum – the political stump speech. He lambasted me personally and the policies I endorsed, calling me a “snot-nosed do-gooder”, a “political hack”, “nothing more than a ‘Flunkey for the Establishment”, and a “loyal henchman for Senator Stennis and Eastland.” In one particularly brutal speech he charged that I was “fat on arrogance and drunk on ambition.”
As I reflect back on that experience with the wisdom of hindsight, I was no doubt shaken and perplexed as to how, where, and when to respond. I carefully weighed my options and finally decided to send the Senator a letter, which I shared with the press, carefully refuting each of his policy concerns. I ignored the personal attacks altogether, choosing instead to launch a few salvos of my own. Describing the entire controversy as nothing more than a “gentle breeze stirred up by an over-the-hill windbag,” I offered to meet him on any stage, anytime, to publicly debate his concerns. I concluded the letter by complimenting the Senator on having “a clear mind which was not cluttered up with facts.”
Looking back on this episode, I realize now that I was at a severe disadvantage in responding to Senator Smith’s personal attacks. I could not respond because the personal attacks were indeed true! Nonetheless the Senator retreated, silently rejected my offer to debate; and the controversy died a natural death.
Senator Theodore Smith and I soon became great friends and he remained among my staunchest political allies for the balance of his life. I grew to sincerely love and admire the man.
Soon after my election as State Auditor, I announced a rather ambitious legislative agenda, which I titled “Initiatives for the Nineties.” The agenda consumed much of the attention of the law makers for that session and represented a severe departure on many fronts from how the state had been governed in the past. The agenda sought dramatic change from a legislature that had grown accustomed to the “business as usual” approach to legislation. As the debates grew more heated, the insults began to fly in all directions. One Gulf Coast Senator called me a “bloated bully” and vowed to “castrate” both me personally and my legislative proposals. I responded with a quick retort, “If his castration efforts are successful, I will still have the advantage over him; I will still have a brain.”
While not all of my agenda passed, a good portion of it did. Perhaps the greatest achievement was authorizations and funding for my office to conduct the first ever, and sadly only, state-wide comprehensive performance audit of state government. I consider this my greatest achievement. The results of that audit led to recommendations that, if implemented, would produce savings of over 650 million dollars. It is, to date, the most serious effort to eliminate what all politicians tirelessly refer to as “waste, fraud, and abuse”!
The following year, I was pleased that the Senator had failed in his “castration” pledge because I would surely need what he sought to deprive me of in order to tackle the next “sacred cow” on my agenda – the State’s antiquated budget system.
I embarked on a whirlwind speaking tour of the State to advance my agenda. It was commonplace for me to speak five or maybe six times a week before any audience where I could wrangle an invitation. I labeled the budget process as “insane” and heaped my most passionate criticism on the “Neanderthal power brokers” in the legislature that protected a system that was “ill-conceived, idiotic, and crazy.” I further vowed to campaign against any member of the legislature that refused to entertain the reforms I was seeking. Once in responding to a question from a reporter asking how my proposals were being received, I responded by stating “Some are open-minded but most are empty-headed.” These kinds of invectives won me popular support from the people and the wrathful enmity of several powerful legislators. Yet no one took the bait and challenged me publicly.
Instead, they decided to use the very system I was seeking to reform as their weapon against me: the budget process. Rumors had circulated around the Capitol for weeks that several old guard legislators had formed an alliance with a few newly minted, ultra-conservative Republican members, and the plan was to dramatically slash the State Auditor’s budget leaving me scrambling to perform my constitutional duties and hopefully shutting down my reform agenda, and shutting up my mouth!
Word reached me through my staff that the group seeking to gut my budget and silence me was meeting with House Speaker Tim Ford to seek his blessings for their plan.
There are no secrets in the Mississippi Legislature; at least not for long. Soon, the story of what transpired in the Speaker’s office was making the rounds. The Speaker listened patiently to the group and never questioned the specifics of their plan. As the meeting grew to its conclusions, Speaker Ford calmly said, “Boys, y’all do whatever you think is right, but if you go through with this, Patterson will cut your nuts out, put them in his pocket, and it will be two weeks before you realize you are bleeding or that they are missing. Y’all do what you think is right.”
My budget remained intact, and I received the same “insane” incremental increase as all the rest of state government. My efforts to reform the budget system failed miserably. Over the course of the next 20 years, several of my proposals have been adopted, but for the most part, the system remains “insane” today!
Years later, I asked my friend Speaker Ford to verify the story of that meeting. He flashed that famous winning smile of his, laughed, ordered another drink, and abruptly changed the subject. I knew then that it was true!
Generally speaking, I think the Brits are far more adept at defamation and quick wit than any other politicians on the planet; and none were better than Sir Winston Churchill.
When a Labour Member of Parliament shouted at Churchill, “Must you fall asleep when I am speaking?”, Churchill replied, “No, it’s purely voluntary.”
Once, he referred to one of his own party’s young members of Parliament as “that rising young stench.”
Churchill’s invectives were cutting, sometimes venomous, and always hilarious.
On Prime Minister Clement Attlee: “He is a sheep in sheep’s clothing.”
On one of his colleagues: “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”
On Joseph Chamberlain: “Mr. Chamberlain loves the working man – he loves to see him work.”
And finally, perhaps my two favorite quips; When Labour Member of Parliament Bessie Braddock accosted him with the remark, “Winston you are drunk, horribly drunk.” He retorted, “and Madam, you are ugly, terribly ugly, but in the morning I shall be sober.” And during an altercation with Lady Astor when she snapped at him, “If I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee,” Churchill silenced her with the response, “If I were your husband, I’d drink it.”
Perhaps Churchill’s most enduring quality, however, was that very often, after having attacked his opponent, he would turn the insults on himself. Once, when he was asked if he was thrilled to realize that his speeches always brought a capacity audience, he responded, “It is quite flattering, but whenever I feel this way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech, I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.” Can anyone imagine Donald Trump ever being so humble and self-deprecating?
As insulters go, Winston Churchill was undoubtedly the very best. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is simply unimpressive and second-rate. He possesses all the attributes of a demagogue, and his appeal is based mainly on irrelevancies, a fantastic ignorance of governmental problems, a better-than-most platform manner, pedestrian insults, and a capacity to stir the rustic fears of man’s dark nature.
Trump’s appeal reminds me of another demagogue – in fact, Mississippi’s own notoriously despicable racist Governor and Senator Theodore G. Bilbo, of whom fellow Mississippi Senator Pat Harrison said, ” When Bilbo dies the epitaph on his gravestone should read: ‘ Here lies Bilbo, deep in the dirt he loved so well.’ ”
Although Donald Trump was born with a “silver foot in his mouth” and Bilbo rose from obscurity as a Pearl River dirt farmer, their appeal is much the same. What is Trump’s appeal? What is Bilbo’s appeal?
William Alexander Percy characterizes Bilbo’s appeal in a paragraph of great insight:
“A pert little monster, glib and shameless, with that sort of cunning common to criminals which passes for intelligence. The people loved him. They loved him not because they were deceived by him, but because they understood him thoroughly; they said of him proudly, ‘He’s a slick little bastard.’ He was one of them, and he had risen from obscurity to the fame of glittering infamy – it was if they themselves had crashed the headlines.”
Donald Trump’s appeal is much the same, but his rhetoric is far less harsh and his tedious invectives are tame when compared to the venomous Bilbo – who once said of an opponent who later rapped him over the head with a pistol butt, that he “was a cross between a hyena and a mongrel, begotten in a nigger graveyard at midnight, suckled by a sow, and educated by a fool.”
By the standards set by Bilbo, Trump is indeed a second class insulter, but perhaps equally dishonorable. Make no mistake, yesterday’s Bilboism and today’s Trumpism are much the same. Like those who worshiped at the alter of Bilbo, those who pray for a Trump victory love every bone in his head. Trump the entertainer has nothing worthwhile to say, but it takes a longtime to realize how empty is his rehortic – the debates prove that when he gets lost in thought it is only because it is unfamiliar territory!
Donald Trump’s invectives pale in comparison to the most raw, damning attack I have ever heard. In Tennessee’s 1948 campaign, Memphis and Tennessee boss E.H. Crump wrote in an advertisement in the Memphis Press-Scimitar:
“I have said it before, and I repeat it now, that in the art galleries of Paris there are twenty-seven pictures of Judas Iscariot – None look alike but all resemble Gordon Browning; that neither his head, heart, nor hand can be trusted; that he would milk his neighbor’s cow through a crack in the fence; that, of the two hundred and six bones in his body, there isn’t one that is genuine; that his heart has beaten over two billion times without a single sincere beat.”
Thus, did Boss Crump characterize Gordon Browning a candidate for Governor of Tennessee. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that “Boss” Crump was not for Mr. Browning! Donald Trump would be envious of this kind of attack, but it would not fit on his Twitter account. One has to admit that “Boss” Crump spews invectives with far more flare than any of the guys stationed in Trump Tower. Crump’s attack is crude but extremely clever and amusing. Crump vs. Trump – it’s no contest.
In the modern political era, absolutely no politician can rival former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards in the wit department. Over his sixty-year political career, he provided a steady stream of superb, sometimes tawdry, always clever quips. Donald Trump only wishes he had one-quarter of the charisma and invective abilities of Governor Edwards.
Edwards’ brother Marion once warned the 86 year-old former Governor that sex with his new wife, who is 50 years younger, could be dangerous. The Governor famously replied, “Well, Marion, if she dies, she dies.”
During his 1983 campaign against the incumbent Governor David Treen, Edwards quipped, “Dave Treen is so slow it takes him an hour and a half to watch 60 minutes.”
Once, a wealthy contributor of whom Edwin was not especially fond presented him with a gold-painted briefcase. The Governor quipped, “Like you, it’s counterfeit.”
After his marriage to a much younger Republican lady, the old Democrat Edwards quipped, “I finally found a good use for Republicans. I sleep with them.”
In 1991, Edwards ran against former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke and quipped, “The only place where David Duke and I are alike is we are both wizards under the sheets.” In that same election, the slogan of the Edwards’ campaign became “Vote for the Crook, It’s Important!”
That slogan is exactly how I feel about this year’s Presidential Election. I am voting for “Crooked” Hillary. I think it is very important.
Donald Trump is a second-rate insulter and a third-rate candidate. He suffers from a somewhat neurotic and hysterical temperament. He has a small but not very considerable gift as a demagogue. He dithers and blathers about himself, and paints an ignoble and false picture of how to “Make America Great Again.” In his mind, we are all rogues and fools. Most of his speeches are rambling, cheap redundancies, but he gets away with it because he is an entertainer. Trump, however, pales in comparison to the witty political entertainers of yesteryear. His insults are cheap, thoughtless barbs that sound like they were crafted by a professional wrestler; not an individual fit to trade blows in international politics. He is the Randy “Macho Man” Savage of the Republican party, right down to the red face and absurd mane. Mr. Trump has repeatedly proven his inability to conceal his immaturity when under pressure. It should be obvious to all that he has neither the character, morals, temperament nor stability to be the Leader of the Free World.
It’s been an entertaining ride, Mr. Trump. But now it is time for you to take your boasts, swindles, lies, and dirty jokes and return to your gold-plated fantasy world where you are free to do and say anything you please. The world will be just fine without your services.
If there is any message in this rambling column, it is not that politics is a rough business – being dumbed down to WWF levels by Donald Trump. We all know that. It is, as I have so painfully learned, that in today’s culture most politicians adhere to the aphorism of Gore Vidal: “It is not enough to succeed; others must fail.”
Perhaps Hillary Clinton will not succeed, but surely to God Donald Trump will fail. I just pray it’s in a wrestling ring on some obscure network, and not in the oval office as the leader of the Free World.
For more of Steve Pattersons commentary on America and its political world, see: