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Column: Herr Drumpf’s Approach to Copy Editing



For the Los Angeles Times
Friday, May 11, 2018

Friedrich Trump, the sickly barber who fled military service in Germany to run restaurant-brothels during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, might have used them.

Friedrich’s father, Christian Johannes Trump, who stayed in Bavaria, almost definitely did.

And Friedrich’s grandson — currently of Washington, D.C. — uses them too, subject to presidential whim. When you’re a star, they let you do it.

I’m talking about initial capital letters for nouns. In German, all nouns — proper and common — are capitalized. In English, only proper nouns get that honor. But President Trump, who’s known for turbulent diction and orthography, makes especially erratic choices when it comes to capitalization.

Last week, he treated Twitter to a rocky road of up-and-down letters. “There was no Collusion (it is a Hoax) and there is no Obstruction of Justice (that is a setup & trap). What there is is Negotiations going on with North Korea over Nuclear War, Negotiations going on with China over Trade Deficits, Negotiations on NAFTA, and much more. Witch Hunt!”

North Korea and China, OK. Nations are proper nouns. And Trump, in this tweet anyway, leaves other parts of speech — verbs, adjectives, prepositions — lowercase. But he’s a loose cannon on common nouns. “Hoax” and not “setup”? “Hunt” and not “trap”?

The goal seems to be to punch the capitalized favorites hard. This brings to mind Trump’s distinctive speech patterns, and moves him into the oral tradition, where Trump, who is said to dislike reading, may be more comfortable.

Recall his echolalic repetition of “no collusion” in speech — one of his most insistent stock phrases. He puts his whole tongue and palate into rolling out those L’s, often emphasizing the words further by affixing “absolutely” and outwardly slashing his palms. With all the mental muscle Trump brings to that particular doggerel of denial, it is maybe no surprise that “collusion” gets the capstone.

But maybe Trump opts to put the word “collusion” “up,” as copy editors say, for other reasons.

In New York State, for example, where Trump might have seen a legal document or two, criminal charges are not infrequently styled Trump’s way: “Sale of Concentrated Cannabis,” or “Patronizing a Person for Prostitution.” That could explain why both “Collusion” and “Obstruction of Justice” look familiar to him. This practice persists, it should be said, in spite of New York State’s commitment “to reflect the modern practice to avoid excessive capitalization” as stated in its official style manual.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III comes from a more lowercase tradition of making his case. “Defendants knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other (and with persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury) to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016,” Mueller wrote in his indictment of 16 Russian entities in February.

(Please ignore the content of this eye-popping charge above. I reproduce it in its entirety solely to illustrate the typographical differences.)

But if Trump is capitalizing criminal charges — and thus calling more attention to them — how to explain the caps on “Trade Deficits,” “Nuclear Weapons” and “Negotiations”?

This week, journalist-turned-media critic Heidi N. Moore suggested on Twitter that Trump may be getting Germanic, reverting to the capitalized nouns of his forebears. She called this the “Herr Drumpf” tradition. And then, also on Twitter, came the proposition that Trump is replicating the pious style of our nation’s founders: “They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Both hypotheses have merit. Thomas Jefferson, who said he had “nothing but contempt for anyone who can spell a word only one way,” might have liked Trump’s verbal iconoclasm. (Or not.) The Trumps in Bavaria were unconcerned with consistency even with regard to their own name, spelling it variously, Drumb, Tromb, Tromp, Trum, Trumpff and Dromb. It doesn’t appear they ever lowercased it though.

Which brings me to my very own hypothesis. I think the president’s wacko caps may be a default to self-branding bravado, as in Trump International Hotel & Tower Panama, which was overseen by Ivanka Trump, not a mere daughter but the Executive Vice President of Development & Acquisition at the Trump Organization.

What Trump has — more than money, more even than his temporary office in the White House — is his family name. That name is what he has spent his whole life cultivating, spinning the tall tale that his name can turn water into wine, schmatte into couture, common nouns into nouns so much stratospherically better than common that they are autocrat nouns. Oligarch nouns.

Of course he over-leverages his words, over-capitalizes them. Exaggerating the value of common things is a way of life with him. You could almost call it a Hoax.

Virginia Heffernan, a Hanover native, is a journalist, critic and author, most recently, of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. She is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.