To break the rules, you have to know the rules

Yvonne Mason, a former teacher, recently posted a picture of a letter she got from the president, with her corrections. This president prides himself on breaking senseless rules, including many grammar rules. It raises an interesting question: when is breaking rules an act of defiance that creates change, and when is it just laziness?

Let’s start with the president’s tweets. We’ve all seen how the president misspells words, uses twisted grammar, and capitalizes words randomly on Twitter. Here’s a recent example:

That’s pretty confused. And yes, it really says “there parents.”

Is this mere carelessness and ignorance? Maybe not. According to the Boston Globe, Trump’s social media staff have learned to emulate his idiosyncratic capitalization, spelling, and usage to make sure that tweets sound like the president.

Presidential speechwriters have always sought to channel their bosses’ style and cadence, but Trump’s team is blazing new ground with its approach to his favorite means of instant communication. Some staff members even relish the scoldings Trump gets from elites shocked by the Trumpian language they strive to imitate, believing that debates over presidential typos fortify the belief within his base that he has the common touch.

His staff has become so adept at replicating Trump’s tone that people who follow his feed closely say it is getting harder to discern which tweets were actually crafted by Trump sitting in his bathrobe and watching “Fox & Friends” and which were concocted by his communications team.

So it’s at least possible that the tweet says “there parents” on purpose.

What about the random capitalization (“Catch and Release, Lottery and Chain”)? According to religion professor Alan Levinowitz in the Washington Post, Trump chooses to capitalize words strategically:

Rule-bound English speakers only capitalize titles, proper nouns, and a few other exceptional words. But for Trump, Farmers, Barriers and Borders are standard fare. In fact, when it comes to abusing letter case, the China tweets look positively restrained compared to this classic from April: “Despite the Democrat inspired laws on Sanctuary Cities and the Border being so bad and one sided, I have instructed the Secretary of Homeland Security not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country. It is a disgrace. We are the only Country in the World so naive! WALL” . . .

Initial capitals make words and ideas seem Really Important. They are to meaning-making what flag pins are to patriotism and gold-plating is to value — cheap signals of depth and quality that are somehow taken seriously by enormous numbers of people. . . . This capitalization technique is common in get-rich-quick and quack medicine books desperate to sell readers on the Truth of their claims. “Those who are healing through Metaphysical Science — not comprehending the Principle of the cure — may misunderstand it,” writes the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, in her best-selling “Science and Health,” first published in 1875 and still in print. The capital letters lend theological force to her argument that we can pray away sickness, turning her words from script into Scripture, and their author from a mere mortal into a charismatic Prophet. Nowadays the most common example of this approach is the divinization of Nature, a helpful move if you are trying to sell “natural” cancer cures.

Trump, needless to say, is the master of such cheap charisma, from his gold-plated hotel signs to his now-defunct signature collection clothing line (“the pinnacle of style and prestige”). His methods are so palpably desperate, so comically obvious that sometimes it’s hard to believe they work — but then again, he’s sitting in the Oval Office, and Mary Baker Eddy sold 10 million books, so maybe it’s worth taking them seriously, even something as silly as capital letters. . . .

To unironically capitalize one’s words as Trump does is to stamp them with sacred importance, to assume the divine power of converting speech into truth and reality.

Overuse of capitalization is what got Yvonne Mason so exercised about the letter from Trump’s White House, which inappropriately capitalizes words like federal, nation, and states.

What does it mean when you break the rules?

Rosa Parks was supposed to sit in the back of the bus. She broke the rules. We celebrate her action as the start of a powerful civil rights movement.

AirBnB circumvented local hotel tax rules. We called it “disruptive innovation.”

Colin Kaepernick kneeled for the national anthem. You’re not supposed to do that, but he was making a point.

Now Trump and his staff want to break the rules of grammar. They’ve also broken countless other rules and conventions, including repeatedly and transparently lying and contradicting themselves in public settings, using an unsecured mobile phone for official business, and telling the Department of Justice what to investigate.

You’re no doubt upset that I can lump Rosa Parks, AirBnB, Colin Kaepernick, and Trump into one big bucket. But I think it’s a legitimate question: what does it mean to break a rule?

If you break a rule out of ignorance, it just means you’re uneducated. If you break it out on purpose, it may have other meanings.

Let’s say I got to New York City and jaywalk across Fifth Avenue because I come from a rural community and I’ve never heard of jaywalking. Does this make me some sort of rebel?

Of course not. It just makes me ignorant (and possibly a damp stain on the pavement).

To make a statement by breaking rules, you must know those rules and have a beef with them. Rosa Park and Colin Kaepernick knew the rules they were breaking. AirBnB did, too. They were trying to create change.

Trump’s a poor speller, he’s overenthusiastic user of caps, and he appears to be ignorant of a lot of the rules about how the government works. Certainly, some of this is ignorance, like my jaywalking example. But there are people in the White House who know the rules he is breaking. At this point, I think Trump wants what he wants, and doesn’t feel the rules apply to him, whether those are rules about influencing the Justice Department or about what words to capitalize. What started with ignorance is now a statement of what the president ought to be able to do, which includes lying, giving his mobile phone number out to world leaders, twisting Jeff Sessions’ arm, and using the wrong “there.”

If you want to break a rule to make a statement, you should do so with an end in mind

Rosa Parks wanted to challenge discrimination laws. No one was confused about the meaning of what she did.

AirBnB wanted to break rules about hotels and rentals. It ended up negotiating with municipalities about it. The end objective was to change the status quo in short-term rentals. It has mostly succeeded in this.

Colin Kaepernick wanted to bring attention to law enforcement attitudes towards black people. We’re still talking about it.

Trump wants to rip up longstanding rules about how the government works, tapping into the power of the subset of the public that supports him. We’re still talking about that, too.

Rule-breakers suffer consequences

Rosa Parks was arrested. She did what she did because she “was tired of giving in.” Her movement won in the long term, but she suffered in the moment.

AirBnB fought in court. Its business suffered because of the rules it had to fight.

Colin Kaepernick still doesn’t have an NFL job.

If you break the rules, you’re going to suffer the consequences. You might win eventually, but you might lose in the moment.

In the case of Trump, I don’t think he’s trying to change the rules of spelling and grammar. I don’t even think he’s trying to change the rules that the government uses to manage corruption, police conflicts of interest, prevent the government from using federal prosecutions to intimidate people, or reimagine how the White House interacts with the press.

He’s trying to use the powers of the presidency to get things done the way he wants, and the principle he is trying to rewrite is that rules apply to a president at all. In our government, different parties, branches of government, and agencies share power. Trump’s not big on sharing. He sees all of these rules as annoying obstacles.

Rule-breakers end up in trouble, but in the long run, they can change the way the world works.

It will be up to the electorate, the Democratic Party, Republicans in Congress, bureaucrats, and Robert Mueller to determine if Trump is going to change the way the world works.

You can get as upset as you want about the rules he is breaking (and I see a lot of that, like the criticism of his use of the term “animals” to describe gang members). But you may be missing the point. The point is not that the president breaks rules — that’s obvious. The point is why those rules are there, whether we want to defend them, and what it means to break them.

Some rules are worth breaking to create change. Some rules are worth preserving, as they hold together important institutions. When faced with a rule-breaker, ask yourself, are you ready to defend the rules, or ready to tear them down?

Then act accordingly.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.