My colleague and friend Keith Schlegel, a retired university English chair and owner of a baritone voice most guys would go to jail for, wrote and recorded a video reading of the following (I'll share a link when I have it [Update 12/8: video is here]):
"Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: "Words, words, words."
Well, yes, when we read or speak or listen, that is all we encounter, mere words, which, unlike sticks and stones, can never hurt us, or so we teach children. Hamlet's answer to Polonius is that it doesn't matter what Hamlet reads, that whatever it is is meaningless, that words are meaningless. Yet this play, itself made of words only, shows the meaning, purposes, and effects of words, which include cruelty, since words can hurt very much and not just our feelings about ourselves.
Words are in fact a species of action and the result of choice. Words are more than mere words to those who depend upon them to represent something like truth, to inspire us, to console, to teach us. Alas, words can also anger, harm, and, most dangerous of all, deceive.
Notwithstanding his claims that he has "great" words, President-elect Trump is pitifully lacking in good words, in accurate words. Is Pakistan really a "fantastic" nation full of "fantastic" people and led by a "fantastic" leader, as Donald Trump has recently said? When he said he "saw" hundreds of Muslims in America celebrate the horror of 9/11, his words were fully as perilous as a bomb thrown into a crowd. More recently, he exchanged words with the president of Taiwan, violating established diplomacy. Examples of irresponsible talk abound from the 2016 campaign, but now that it's over, Americans can and should assert a higher standard of active citizenship that listens, reads, judges, and most of all uses words critically and accurately. No excuses remain.
I doubt we can quickly or thoroughly change Mr. Trump's bad habits of careless speech, regardless of who is advising him. Those of us who worry most about the degradation of truth can, however, focus our resistance to the debasing of language. Accordingly, as we make ourselves the loyal opposition, we commit to name every misrepresentation, every unfounded assertion, every flattery of tyrants, every overly-general or unfair accusation. We plan to speak truth to power.
Over my decades teaching writing, I never let pass without comment any vague use of the word great. "Do you mean famous? large? powerful? important? good?" I'd comment. To make something "great again" surely first requires understanding what the word great means now and what it meant in the past, and much of the divide we now endure stems from people's not sharing the same meanings for words: in that way, the rise of Trumpism has made clear what before was hidden.
I'd be happy to agree that American citizens should try to make America great again if that means to return to the clear humanity of Abraham Lincoln or the hopefulness of a young President Kennedy or to the heroism of the civil rights workers or the sacrifices of American soldiers or indeed the promise of justice that lives in the Constitution, which our Presidents swear to defend in the words of their oath of office. I suspect these are not the values defining "great" of those who even now yell for the President-elect to throw Hillary Clinton in jail, albeit I seriously doubt one in a thousand could even name the supposed crime or explain how any President could exercise such unconstitutional powers. The Presidency is the most powerful office in our nation, but it is also limited in ways that would irritate any despot.
Much of the power of the American Presidency lies not in the exercise of force but in the authority and stature of the office such that Presidential words must be attended to. The Presidency is a pulpit (a "bully" one) to do good. This is a truth that President Obama knows well, as his soaring rhetoric has shown. Mr. Trump also gets the point, at least in part: when he tweeted this week attacking Boeing, the stock shares fell precipitously: now that’s power.
We do no disservice to our country when we demand high standards in Presidential speech: we show thereby that we honor the office.