“Gag orders” are so constantly in the news that they threaten to become the 2023 word of the year. Define gag order.
What is going on with Donald Trump and gag orders? The best explanation I have found for what has happened is a strange expression from rhetorical and cultural critic, Kenneth Burke: “Today I am all gaspo, gulpo, gaggo.” In the 1950’s Burke, according to Debra Hawhee, in Moving Bodies, began to pursue intensely a critical mode drawing “upon the ambiguities of the cloacal, where there are united, in a ‘demonic trinity,’ the three principles of the erotic, urinary, and excremental.” Burke focused on the image of symbolic purgation in literature and politics.
Not a Beauty Clinic
Such images are at times not pretty, but this is not a “Beauty Clinic,” the term Burke used to describe efforts to neaten up ideas and made them “presentable.”
Burke’s rhetorical description of Trump’s strategy exactly defines Trump’s attempts to try his case in the media, neaten up his indictments and make them “presentable,” and blame all the indictments on the radical liberal left. An even odder layer to this entire “gag” experience is the Republican effort to suppress popular sovereignty on issues like abortion but plead for popular sovereignty when it comes to Trump.
In spite of all Trump’s bravado, his attempts to turn the system of American justice into a reality television show, and his constant vicious attacks on anyone daring to oppose him, it is long overdue to call Trump on his “shit show.” He leaves everyone in a foul gaspo-gulpo-gaggo state of mind.
Trump supporters don’t want Trump judged by a jury or a federal judge. They want to try his cases in public and allow public opinion to be the final decision maker. In other words, they are appealing for what is often known as “direct democracy,” or more precisely defined as “popular sovereignty. No wonder Trump and associates are pushing to have his trial carried live on national television. What better way to run for president and there’s no charge to Trump.
The various judges and prosecutors of Trump in New York, Georgia, Washington D. C., and Florida go back and forth with Trump’s legal representatives. Trump, at the moment, isn’t subject to a gag order in his criminal case being prosecuted by Special Counsel Jack Smith. An appeals court paused the gag order to consider its constitutionality.
The Lines Are Drawn
Headlines try to keep up. CNN: “Hearing on Trump gag order in federal 200 election subversion case.” CNBC: “Trump gag order challenge sharply questioned by appeals court.” MSN: “Trump legal team and prosecutors face off in court over gag order.” That is the question: To gag or not to gag?
Here’s how the lines are drawn in the case. Trump claims the gag order stifles his free speech. Prosecutors insist that Trump, without the gag order, has been given carte blanche to malign Smith and his family, threaten witnesses and attempt to try his case in the media. No other defendant has ever been allowed such leeway.
Trump, for his part, keeps violating legal protocol by attacking judges and prosecutors. His most recent unstable attack was aimed at the clerk of Judge Engoron.
“Schumer’s girlfriend, Alison R. Greenfield, is running this case against me,” Trump wrote in a post on Truth Social, which he owns a controlling stake. “How disgraceful! This case should be dismissed immediately!!” Attached to the Truth was a link to Greenfield’s Instagram account, as well as a screenshot of a tweet with a picture of Greenfield and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Even More “Gaspo-Gaggo-Gulpo”
There are even more egregious acts of “gaspo-gaggo-gulpo” involving Trump. In an earlier excrement thrown out in public, Trump announced that General Milley should be executed for treason. Trump, on his social-media network, Truth Social, wrote that Mark Milley’s phone call to reassure China in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, was “an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH.” (The phone call was, in fact, explicitly authorized by Trump-administration officials.)
On an earlier occasion, Gen. Milley invited a severely wounded Army captain, Luis Avila, to sing “God Bless America” at an event attended by then President Trump. Avila, who had completed five combat tours, had lost a leg in an IED attack in Afghanistan, and had suffered two heart attacks, two strokes, and brain damage as a result of his injuries. To Milley, and to four-star generals across the Army, Avila and his wife, Claudia, represented the heroism, sacrifice, and dignity of wounded soldiers.
Trump often dressed down military officials, calling Milley a “dumbass” in 2021 and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis “the world’s most overrated general.” Trump made it clear that he believed himself to be more knowledgeable than the military’s leadership. “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me,” he bragged in November 2015. “They don’t know much because they’re not winning,” he repeated in June 2016.
And the gasps keep taking the breath away from rational people. Trump complained to General Milley: “Why do you bring people like that here? No one wants to see that, the wounded.” Never let Avila appear in public again, Trump told Milley.
As Burke does his theorizing about politics, his stubborn “gulpo-gaggo-gaspo persists. On February 22, 1952 he write to Cowley: “Nor do we ever for a moment overlook the breath-taking nature of the current political gagging.” Burke, writing during the demagogic outburst of McCarthy, has significance for us as we battle a similar explosion of demagoguery.
Our Politics Making Us Gasp, Gulp, and Gag
Burke establishes a sensorial link between contemporary politics and the gagging stench of newsprint: “Though I am fascinated by the crookedness of our journalistic rhetoric-hacks, in press and radio, I listen with a horrified sense of being gagged (To think that our children’s destiny in in the hands of so dingy a priesthood!) Burke suggests that the overpowering smell of print “mingles with and becomes the overpowering crookedness of the world, and makes it hard for him to breathe.
In addition, Burke found all sorts of ideas to be so incongruous with truth and reality, that he experience what amounts to psychosomatic “coronary spasms.” He writes: “Meanwhile, all sorts of ideas …. produce in me a kind of stoppage so that, literally, I forget to breathe.” The ideas are so reprehensible that its seems to produce in Burke a “state of arrest.” He describes his agony as one of suppression – of “carrying a lot of things in an unresolved state.”
The “gaspo-gaggo-gulpo” becomes a regular trope in Burke’s letters: “Today all gaspo-gulpo-gaggo.
Burke attests that he has “been gasping-gagging-gulping most fantastically, and about two or three times a week I state saying goodbye (literally).”
How better to approach the machinations of Trump and his devotees than expressing natural “gaspo-gluppo-gaggo” at every instance of insane outbursts more fitted for reality television than for reasoned political deliberation. The Trump Show has turned, to use a note from Hawhee’s Moving Bodies, “to shit.” If it doesn’t leave us all gasping, gulping, and gagging, then we are not paying attention.
Democracy, in all its variegated forms, is now on trial for its life. Our gasps need to turn to praise of democracy.