Home Columns The Way I See It: Imitators

The Way I See It: Imitators

I came to Dartmouth College in the late summer of 1973, having just turned 17, feeling like a newborn. After a hesitant start, I discovered I liked the study of philosophy. I found a home in the field broadly known as analytic philosophy, the Anglo-American branch of contemporary philosophy that was typically contrasted with the more theoretical (and, to me, obtuse) approach of so-called Continental philosophers (think Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre). So I conversed with the work of “ordinary language” philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle, J.L. Austin, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and logical analysts such as Hilary Putnam and Willard Van Orman Quine.

In the ensuing years, I came to realize that what I was good at was not doing philosophy. I was good at imitation. I could sound like the philosophers I was reading. I picked up on their vocabulary and their linguistic style, just like I was good at imitating accents. My mother used to laugh at how I sounded just like a person speaking Swiss German, from a distance, when I was actually making nonsense sounds with the intonation of a Swiss. We had Swiss relatives and often visited Switzerland during my childhood. In my college years, I did learn to speak some German, not just gibberish, and I also learned to speak with the intonation of an analytic philosopher. 

The British philosopher J.L. Austin’s most celebrated book is called “How to Do Things with Words.” I was mastering the discipline. The book was based on a series of lectures Austin gave in 1955. His novel insight was that language is often used to perform social acts — making promises, for example — not just to make assertions about the world. Sentences could, of course, tell things, but they could also do things. This now sounds commonplace, but his lectures profoundly changed the way academics approached the subject of language. 

What I was doing with words, when I pretended to do philosophy, was to perform an act, not in the Austinian sense, but more like an actor performing on stage — not reading from a script, to be sure, but imitating nonetheless. I sufficiently impressed my professors and myself, but when I spoke in this manner outside of the classroom I lost, or was unable to make, friends.

This is how Republican politicians behave today. They do not know what it means to lead. They imitate what it means to be a leader. Remember Trump on display at a NATO summit in May 2017? He elbowed his way to the front of a crowd of world leaders for a photo op. He put his hand on the arm of the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Dusko Markovic, and shoved him aside, stood in front of him, grabbed and tugged on his own suit lapels, tipped his chin up, and looked down through squinted eyes as a lord might survey his serfs. See it here: washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2017/05/25/at-nato-gathering-trump-brushes-past-montenegros-prime-minister/. Trump looked like . . . Mussolini! Study this image of Mussolini from the History channel website: history.com/news/mussolini-italy-fascism. The caption on the photo says “Mussolini, who coined the term fascism, crushed opposition with violence and projected an image of himself as a powerful, indispensable leader.”

I don’t wish to diminish the substantive harms caused by Trump and his followers — the exacerbation of inequality through tax cuts for the wealthiest sliver of our citizens, the godawful appointments to the Supreme Court and federal judiciary, the decimation of the regulatory state, the destruction of democracy, hydroxychloroquine. But there is something especially gut-churning about this monster of a man imitating what he thinks it means to be a leader, like Mussolini, who “projected an image of himself as a powerful, indispensable leader.” Layer upon layer of projected images.

George W. Bush shared something of this quality too. When he winked at friends or followers during one speech or another, I felt like he was winking at me. “You see me, Bernie; you and I both know I’m just projecting an image, imitating what it means to be a leader, but I’m really deep over my head.” Trump, though, doesn’t wink. He doesn’t understand irony. He just lies his way through life, visible and audible to all to witness.

If you can stomach spending several hours in the company of unspeakably awful people, Michael Cohen included, I recommend reading Michael Cohen’s memoir, “Disloyal,” of his years as Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer, kissing Trump’s ass. No other account tells the Trump story from a true insider’s perspective, filled with such loathing and, indeed, self-loathing. Imitators all.