As of this precedent, all subsequent U.S. administrations will grasp just how immeasurably far they will be able to go in the future. During the 45th presidency, its administration perceived new, brutally expanded limits, both nationally and internationally. Many political autocrats around the world observed America with fascination and learned. Using the US model as an example, they can now gauge how far they will be able to overextend the democratic structures in their own countries without losing widespread approval.
Verbal transgressions, superlative expressions and monumental language marked the beginning of the 45th U.S. presidency. With its sustained toxic language and consequences, the four-year language-derailment-continuum is coming to an end.
Mass appeal comes at a high price
The pathways of language, from simplification to prejudice and from fear-mongering to hostile rhetoric, have narrowed. Free speech and unrestrained language have converged. Political language fell into poverty once 140 characters started to be considered a political position.
During these four entire years, too few Republicans had the courage and will to restrain the president. The economic rationale and considerations of power were too clearly in their favor. Some Republicans have even burdened themselves with historic guilt during the 45th presidency by actively allowing political damage to first emerge, then metastasize and then finally become the norm.
Lack of experience with deceit
In light of the language-fueled attack on the icon of democracy in Washington, a severe shortcoming has become apparent. This is the historic deficiency of never having to deal with the language of dictatorship on US soil, as Europe had to do some 80 years ago.
For it was only a few decades ago, that the German language fell into the monstrous stranglehold of Nazi dictatorship. The most horrible of all human catastrophes was preceded by the deformation of German into a hate-distorted, racist language.
The crude Nazi-diction shattered the language on two levels: First, on the level of the roaring and fanatical, hysterical and inflammatory speeches of Hitler and Goebbels. Second, on the level of what I have dubbed “gentle verbal radicalism”, a latent deformation of language lying dormant in thousands of re-coded words of everyday life. The latter is a perfidious, silent penetration and slow poisoning of everyday language: When words like “patriots” are being re-coded, when freedom of speech is undermined by implicitly denying it to a part of society, such as naming critical media “fake news”.
Dignity of the other
Freedom of speech, like freedom of thought, is infinite. Nonetheless, free speech and the rights of the other can never be made completely congruent; they can only be gently brought closer to one another. This rapprochement has not sufficiently materialized to date. Social media corporations are developing at two speeds: Rapid technological progress contrasting with a creeping-slow development of ethical guidelines. The outgoing U.S. president was able to take advantage of this gap by interpreting freedom of speech in the sense of unrestrained language. He was able to build up a loyal group of tens of millions of political followers as was last possible at this speed only in Nazi Germany and Nazi Austria of the 1930s and 1940s.
The decay of political language
Political language is consigned to the brink of ruin when instead of differentiated discourse, populist simplification begins to prevail. When the language of top-level policymakers drifts from the undifferentiated to the simple and further to the banal.
The complexity of the world was further diminished by means of reductive language, employing declarative phrases and politically emotive buzzwords. A path along which populist language with its rhetoric of resentment became too frequently and too effortlessly ethnicized.
Words as preparatory function for actions
Aggravating language developments, however, do not simply progress indefinitely. At their very peak, they prepare a new dimension: One in which the deed surpasses the word. Ultimately, the transition from word to act remains a qualitative leap. It cannot be derived from a single cause. It is a process of mutually reinforcing speech acts and the cumulative effects of language practices. It arises from semantic overcharges as well as from instructions for action.
The transition from verbal radicalism to violent acts does not unfold by necessity. But when latent hatred is awakened by language, it becomes manifest and thus unleashed. Verbal transgressions have preparatory effects for developments in which acts transcend words.
Lies and the marketplace of political language
Politics and lies have entered into a mésalliance that has lasted for millennia. The societal collateral damage of political lies, prejudice and hate speech is enormous. Deliberate transgressions within the semantic space possess a very real verbal explosive power. They disrupt and undermine the existing order of discourse like an irritating, distorting communication code.
Moreover, the language of politics is neither tied to honesty nor truth. It does not succeed on the marketplace of language by means of veracity, but by the fact that a societal majority believes it to be true. Statements that are believed to be true suffice to win elections. Regrettable as it may be, rhetoric has always triumphed over veracity and truth, at least in the short term.
Social media in the light of testimony
Up until just a few days ago, many social media platforms allowed at least a partial deception of the masses through persistent lies and contaminated language. Deleting and suspending the outgoing president’s social media accounts is a step in the right direction. It contributes to social peace in the short term. In the medium term, it fosters the convergence of what, at present, are irreconcilable opposing positions.
In the long term, however, digitally marginalizing such information seems to be highly problematic. Those thousands of tweets should be preserved and kept accessible within Twitter as they need to be analyzed at a later point in time: Politically and sociologically, psychologically and linguistically. Testimonies are irreplaceable and indispensable, for historic eras can only be perceived in their entirety after they have concluded.