Appearing on Fox News last week, actor Scott Baio explained a very important fact about President Trump’s rhetorical style. In responding to attacks on the president’s tone and and general fitness for office, Baio had this to say:
— Fox News (@FoxNews) January 7, 2018
“I’m going to help the media right now, okay, I’m going to try to help them…It’s not going to go anywhere, but I’m going to try to help them because they’ve called the president, the president has dementia, he’s an idiot, he’s not mature…I’m from Brooklyn, President Trump is from Queens. This is what we do. We mess with people. That’s it.”
Baio is talking about a way of expressing oneself that is very common in the outer boroughs of New York City, which include the Bronx and Staten Island in addition to Brooklyn and Queens. It is often self-aggrandizing and hyperbolic. There are a lot of playful insults—busting stones, if you will. Trump spent almost all of his childhood in Queens, and still sounds like it. Even his accent and facial posture give this away.
People from the Outer Boroughs Exaggerate Everything
According to accent experts, who help actors prepare for parts, there are a few basic elements of the Queens accent. One of the most important is that the corners of the mouth pinch out and do work that in most accents is done by the jaw. If this rings a bell, it should. It explains the chin-out, lips-puckered expression Trump is so well known for.
But more important than his accent or diction is the grandiose content of his speech, something the outer borough is known for. Hyperbolic analogy is extremely common, along the lines of, “This freakin’ guy, I’m waiting three days for a cup of coffee.” Obviously this is not meant to be taken literally, it’s a way to, as Baio puts it, mess with people, and express displeasure.
Likewise, praise is loaded with huge statements. It’s not good pizza, it’s the best pizza anywhere, ever. Almost all of Trump’s utterances and tweets express either extreme pleasure or displeasure. Time and again, his failure to speak in the measured tone of most politicians and the media’s inability (real or feigned) to understand what he really means has led to absurd stories in the news that make rational discussion about his presidency nearly impossible.
Case in Point: The Nuclear Button
Such an example came up last week when Trump tweeted that his nuclear button is bigger than North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un’s. In an ensuing press conference, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said it was “just a fact” that Trump’s nuclear button was bigger. When someone pointed out that there is no nuclear button, Sanders said the president was well aware of that.
Any fair-minded person, especially one who’s spent any time east of the East River, understands that by “nuclear button,” a term first used tauntingly by Un, Trump meant the American nuclear arsenal, not a literal button on his desk. Basically he was saying, “You got a button? Yeah, well, I got a button for you right here, punk.”
But that didn’t stop CNN’s White House correspondent Jim Acosta from later that day repeatedly showing a clip of Sanders saying that people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts, then alleging Sanders broke that rule by saying there is a nuclear button. That’s just flat-out ridiculous. Worse, it gives the impression that the president and his staff are intentionally lying to the American people in a way that simply is not the case.
More than Two Years Should Be Enough to Get This
In the defense of the media, Trump clearly uses bridge and tunnel rhetorical tools in a way few if any other politicians do. Like lawyers, most politicians are incredibly cautious and precise with their language most of the time. But it’s been more than two years since Trump jumped into politics. They should have some fluency by now. As Anthony Scaramucci, who was briefly Trump’s communications director and now back out on TV as a surrogate, puts it, it’s “colorful language.” The Mooch is from the honorary outer borough of Long Island, right smack dab next to Queens.
The media’s continued inability to understand how Trump speaks, even when he has written about using “truthful hyperbole,” is a real problem. As Baio points out, he absolutely uses it to mess with them, and foreign leaders like Un.
If, instead of focusing on the absurdity of whether Trump thinks there’s an actual large red nuclear button on his own desk, we look at the effects of his tweets directed at North Korea, the vastly more important story emerges. Shortly after the tweets, North and South Korea agreed to high-level talks. We can and should argue about whether this development is a foreign policy win or loss for the United States. There are arguments for both sides, but the fact is, his over-the-top language and brinkmanship worked. It caused action in what had been a slow-moving stalemate.
Let’s Move On, for Pete’s Sake
For better or worse, this is the leadership that the American people voted for when they elected Trump. Unlike much of the media, those voters understand when Trump is joking or being hyperbolic. They get it, and they like it. The colorful language of Queens and Kings counties works differently than the staid and plain words used in Manhattan and Washington DC, but they still work.
To avoid silly disputes about buttons, literal or metaphoric, in the future, the news media need to take Baio’s advice and learn to hear what Trump is really saying. Instead, thus far, they pile up examples of obvious hyperbole like grains of sand, hoping to build a mountain of evidence to destroy the president. More often than not, Trump simply brushes the sand off his shoulders and goes on his merry way.
Is Trump going to change how he talks? Fuggetaboutit. That being the case, the news needs to learn to speak Queens and stop treating the president and his speech the way they treat typical politicians. It’s really not that hard.