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Proofreading the President

Lucas Adams

One of the more tedious sports on the Internet is the hunt for typos. “Typo” is short for “typographical error” because typos are a hazard of printed matter: the author (or, on exceedingly rare occasion, the typesetter) has introduced an incorrect symbol into the text and produced a mistake that now, unfortunately, will live in perpetuity. The Internet is a confusing medium for this question precisely because it is typed matter that does not require a printing press to publish—errata can be quietly fixed or not fixed at all; there is no Chicago Manual of Style for Facebook.

In truth, then, proofreading the Web is a fool’s errand. Alas, there is no shortage of fools on Twitter: the cheap and meaningless thrill of catching someone in an error complements the dominant modes of the social media behemoth, which are self-regard and derision.

President Trump, no stranger to self-regard and derision, took to Twitter on September 26 to lambaste Representative Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Poaching the apostrophe from Li’l Abner and affixing it onto “Liddle,” one of his characteristically garish attempts at cruel whimsy, Trump wrote:

Liddle’ Adam Schiff, who has worked unsuccessfully for 3 years to hurt the Republican Party and President, has just said that the Whistleblower, even though he or she only had second hand information, ‘is credible.’ How can that be with zero info and a known bias. Democrat Scam!

Trump has good reason to loathe and fear Schiff: the past two weeks have found the former in perhaps the most vulnerable spot of his term, as impeachment looms—following from a CIA whistleblower’s allegations that Trump tried to strong-arm Ukrainian interference in the 2020 elections—and as Schiff leads the hearings likely to determine the fate of his presidency. Gratingly, Trump opted to litigate this crisis over Twitter, amplifying dozens of Fox News stories and berating Schiff and the Democrats. His notes are odd and dimwitted, snide and graceless, and unsurprising.

Late September’s evasive palaver was quoted by a number of news sites as a small part of their reporting on the rapidly unfolding impeachment proceedings, but Trump was most irked by a segment on CNN, for on Friday morning, escalating his fusillade against Schiff, he tweeted:

To show you how dishonest the LameStream Media is, I used the word Liddle’, not Liddle, in discribing Corrupt Congressman Liddle’ Adam Schiff. Low ratings @CNN purposely took the hyphen out and said I spelled the word little wrong. A small but never ending situation with CNN!

There are, needless to say, a number of problems with this passage. As a professional nitpicker—a proofreader and typesetter for these pages—I count eleven technical and style errors and one minor but irritated query (being “never ending” would seem, to my mind, to make a situation necessarily large; “small but persistent,” perhaps?). In any case, the cavillers of Twitter, reinforced by Merriam-Webster’s social media department, quickly jumped into the fray to enumerate the most obvious three: “Liddle’” is not a word, the curly mark that denotes elision is called an apostrophe, and “discribing” is spelled with an “e.” Over at The Atlantic, John McWhorter noted that the dangling apostrophe elided nothing and argued that “Trump displays a complete ignorance of very basic punctuation, which ought to be resoundingly familiar to anyone who reads even a modest amount.” On Saturday Night Live, Colin Jost made a Grammar Nazi joke. 

It would be pedantic to point out that the grammar in Trump’s tweet was one of the few places where he hadn’t made a mistake. But then again, it seems similarly beside the point to make too much of his aphasic misuse of “hyphen,” a mistake at least one of his critics inadvertently replicated. In fact, as a specimen of tweet, the individual errors were wholly unremarkable. “Discribing” is a simple typo; “hyphen” is an artifact of a brain addled by fatigue or age; and “liddle’” isn’t even a mistake, it’s a coinage, one he has used to describe both former Senator Bob Corker and Senator Marco Rubio, in Corker’s case with apostrophe intact.

The apostrophe is a silly appendage, granted, but the Internet is littered with misplaced and misapplied punctuation, to say nothing of the state of online syntax. The language we read every day now is a rush of half-thoughts and gripes, short jokes and long unedited screeds, and the president, more than McWhorter would like to admit, is fluent in this language. What is remarkable about the tweets is how unmistakably they are the work of Donald J. Trump.

Other people might have deleted them in embarrassment or conceded to the authority of a dictionary or style guide. Instead, Trump stubbornly insists on his own authority, brandishing, of all things, his own written record: the sloganeering diction, the capricious capitalization, the erratic punctuation—this is, for lack of a better word, a style. In correcting CNN, he wrote, “I used the word Liddle’”—he is not appealing to truth, he is appealing to himself. All that matters is that, as sovereign, he wrote it.

If anything, the flurry of responses to Trump’s ham-fisted tweet had the pathetic aspect of a bullied child trying to get even by waving his report card in his tormentor’s face. I share the impulse: his ludicrous Page Six-style nicknaming conventions are spiteful and stupid, and there is some bitter satisfaction in being spiteful and smart right back at him. But mocking the president’s twisting circumlocutions is cold consolation—ask anyone who bought a “Bushisms” calendar the January before the United States invaded Iraq.

Where George W. Bush’s folksy nicknames and malapropisms were in tension with the calculated way his administration marched the country into war, Trump’s demented grievances and exhortations are in accord with the current White House’s insistence on loudly and violently disparaging immigrants and people of color. “Mexico is an ‘abuser’ of the United States,” he tweeted on June 2; then he announced ICE raids on June 17, on Twitter; and then on July 14 they carried them out.

A week ago, Trump tweeted an inane yet hypnotizing commercial for his brand, featuring a series of rotoscoped scenes of himself, wandering around, putting a hat on a soldier, dancing jerkily, and hugging a flag. His voiceover narration culminates with: “The more that a broken system tells you that you’re wrong, the more certain you should be that you must keep pushing ahead, you must keep pushing forward.”

Two days later, in response to a New York Times report that he had advocated for adding a moat to his baroque plans for the border wall, or at the very least, for shooting immigrants in the legs, he tweeted:

Now the press is trying to sell the fact that I wanted a Moot stuffed with alligators and snakes, with an electrified fence and sharp spikes on top, at our Southern Border. I may be tough on Border Security, but not that tough. The press has gone Crazy. Fake News!

Yes, that should be “moat.” Who cares? The president has been credibly accused of proposing a crime against humanity.

When Trump apostrophizes his leftist critics, he is speaking to a group of neurotic hecklers obsessed with rules and decorum, with telling him that he’s wrong. And then he pushes ahead. Sure, he deleted his “Moot” tweet, but when he reposted the denial, the only thing he corrected was the spelling. The idea of ordering the Border Patrol to shoot people was not, it seems, a typo. It is fruitless to tell a bully that, actually, it is only because he is holding your hand and smacking you with it that you could be said to be hitting yourself. When he says, “stop hitting yourself,” you should hit him back.