Friday, July 24, 2020

Trump and Fatigue

Over the last twenty years or so, I have occasionally drawn attention to "the phenomenon of fatigue", according to which one can see an author making characteristic changes to a source at the beginning of a passage, only to lapse into the wording of the source later on. I have argued that one can see this in Matthew's use of Mark, Luke's use of Mark, Luke's use of Matthew, the Protevangelium of James's use of Matthew and Luke, and Hypostasis of the Archons's use of Genesis (the latter forthcoming). [*Links at the bottom of this post.]

When I am teaching, I of course like to use contemporary analogies for the phenomenon, and one of my favourites comes from the adaptation of one of Enid Blyton's Noddy books for television. But yesterday, I noticed a good example of the phenomenon in Trump's remarks on the coronavirus in his Press Briefing.

Trump likes to call coronavirus "the China virus". It is a typical (and profoundly problematic) trope of his, and although in the earlier briefings, he was beginning to drop the use of the term, it has come back in a major way in the renewed briefings this week.

In yesterday's briefing, Trump was clearly reading from a script that had been prepared for him, but he also appeared to be editing it on the hoof, substituting "China virus" every time that "coronavirus" appeared. Until, later in the speech, he lapses into the wording of the script, and he accidentally says "coronavirus". I quote here from the relevant sections of the speech, in order (full transcript here):
Thank you very much.  Thank you, everybody. Thank you. 
We’ve had a tremendous week uniting the country in our fight against the China virus.  I have reminded people of the importance of masks when you can’t socially distance, in particular.  A strong message has been sent out to young people to stop going to crowded bars and other crowded places . . . . 
. . . .And I said, “There’s nothing more important in our country than keeping our people safe, whether that’s from the China virus or the radical-left mob that you see in Portland” — where I want to thank Homeland Security and others in law enforcement for doing a fantastic job over the last few days . . . . 
. . . . Our goal is to protect our teachers and students from the China virus while ensuring that families with high-risk factors can continue to participate from home.  Very important . . . .  
. . . . Fortunately, the data shows that children are lower risk from the China virus, very substantially.  When children do contact the virus, they often have only very mild symptoms or none at all, and medical complications are exceedingly rare.  Those that do face complications often have underlying medical conditions.  Ninety-nine percent of all China virus hospitalizations are adults.  And 99.96 percent of all fatalities are adults.  That means that children are a tiny percentage — less than 1 percent, and even a small percentage of 1 percent. 
In a typical year, the flu results in more deaths of those under 18 in the United States than have been lost thus far to the coronavirus.  Many different names.  Many, many different names . . . . 
. . . . We’re asking Congress to provide $105 billion to schools as part of the next coronavirus relief bill.  This funding will support mitigation measures, such as smaller class sizes, more teachers and teacher aides, repurposing spaces to practice social distancing, and crucially, mask-wearing. 
Trump uses his idiosyncratic, problematic term "China virus" five times in the speech, and I think that each time he is editing "coronavirus" on the hoof, substituting the Trump term for the normal, accepted term. But then he lapses. He uses the correct, universally accepted term "coronavirus", and immediately realizes what he has done, and qualifies with "Many different names. Many, many different names", a standard Trump qualification for when he has veered away from his intended language. From here, he then uses "coronavirus" one more time, in the name of the "coronavirus relief bill", and "China virus" does not recur.

* Links:

Mark Goodacre, "Fatigue in the Synoptics", New Testament Studies 44 (1998): 45-58
NT Pod 39: "Fatigue in the Synoptics


GalileoUnchained said...

This is a tangential comment but seemed allowable since you're talking about word choice. I'd always heard "on the hoof" used to contrast with "slaughtered and butchered." The distinction being that 1000 pounds of meat on the hoof should cost less than 1000 pounds of meat already butchered.

(Maybe you were contrasting Trump on the hoof rather than how you'd like to see him, slaughtered and butchered?)

I initially thought that your "on the hoof" was just a poorer fitting phrase than "on the fly," but the dictionary tells me that your choice was "INFORMAL•BRITISH," meaning the same thing.


Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks! I hadn't realized that this was a British idiom.

TonyTheProf said...

I’ve done a brief check on Trump’s use of the phrase “you can call it many names”. The suggestion is that he uses this as a qualification for when he has veered away from his intended language. I’m not sure that holds up to scrutiny, as it is more used as a qualification for his inability to remember the correct term for Covid-19.

If I was to make a suggestion, it would be that he suffers from some kind of aphasia with regard to the inability to remember the term. Indeed, his language at best is rambling, simplistic, and very unsophisticated.

This is one of the earliest, dating to March. There is no mention of the word Covid-19, or for that matter Coronavirus. The closest is the term “virus”. This piece of bluster suggests he has forgotten what the virus is called, either its more formal name or even Coronavirus.

“You call it germ, you can call it a flu. You can call it a virus. You can call it many different names. I’m not sure anybody knows what it is.”

Again the use of “many different names” suggests he has forgotten what the term he should be using is:

"this pandemic, by this disease. This whatever they want to call it. You call it a germ, you can call it a flu, you can call it a virus. You know, you can call it many different names. I'm not sure anybody even knows what it is"

And another remark, more recently, again suggests he is speaking off the cuff, and just cannot remember what to call the virus:

“We’ve learned about social distancing. We’ve learned about the hands. We’ve learned about staying away, at least during the time that this is even a little bit around — this disease or — or whatever you want to call it — many different names. You can call it many different names — but the virus, while it’s around.”

A June remark is similar, although in this case “many names” can also be used to justify the introduction and legitimisation of a racist insult.

“I can name – Kung flu. I can name 19 different versions of names. Many call it a virus, which it is. Many call it a flu. What difference. I think we have 19 or 20 versions of the name”

In none of these cases is he using “many names” as a qualification for when he has veered away from his intended language. Instead it is used as a qualification for his inability to remember what to call or, or perhaps he has difficulty pronouncing “Coronavirus”.

There is one other quite different example where he does use it much more as a qualification for when he has veered away from his intended language, especially in the last paragraph, after he has been pulled up by Piers Morgan.

MORGAN: The skeptic in me would say: ‘What is the incentive for America to do a great deal with the United Kingdom?’

TRUMP: We would make a great deal with the United Kingdom because they have product that we like. I mean they have a lot of great product. They make phenomenal things, you know, and you have different names — you can say “England”, you can say “UK”, you can say “United Kingdom” so many different — you know you have, you have so many different names — Great Britain. I always say: ‘Which one do you prefer? Great Britain? You understand what I’m saying?’

MORGAN: You know Great Britain and the United Kingdom aren’t exactly the same thing?

TRUMP: Right, yeah. You know I know, but a lot of people don’t know that. But you have lots of different names. The fact is you make great product, you make great things. Even your farm product is so fantastic.

Mark Goodacre said...

Many thanks, Tony. Great analysis!