In the underappreciated 1996 comedy classic Kingpin, Woody Harrelson plays an up-and-coming bowler named Roy Munson who gets his hand chopped off when he and another bowler (played by Bill Murray) are caught trying to hustle some small-town goons at a bowling alley. Suffice it to say, that ends his promising career.
Later on, Munson finds out that the circumstances of his de-handing have become so locally famous that an entirely new verb was coined — munson — to describe situations like his. As a young Amish bowler played by Randy Quaid explains to him, to munson means “to have the whole world in the palm of your hand and then blow it.”
It’s a potent idea: to have some tendency or failing or incident become so synonymous with you, as a person, that you get thrust unwittingly into the English language itself. And in light of Donald Trump’s handling of his once-vociferous birtherism, it might be time, Kingpin-style, to coin a new verb for how he handles these sorts of situations.
Last night, just hours after Trump (again) refused to acknowledge that Obama was born in the U.S., his campaign released a statement that did acknowledge this, but that also entirely distorted Trump’s longtime role as a prominent birther. In reality, for years Trump helped amplify and spread questions about Obama’s birthplace and citizenship arguably more than anyone else on the planet, given his high profile and the enthusiasm with which he beat the birther drum. In his campaign’s statement’s alternate reality, though, it was Hillary Clinton who was responsible for starting the birther rumor during the 2008 Democratic primary, and Trump merely wanted to put the whole sorry thing to bed by getting at the truth.
“As usual, however, Hillary Clinton was too weak to get an answer,” explains the statement. But lucky for all of us, “Mr. Trump was finally able to bring this ugly incident to its conclusion by successfully compelling President Obama to release his birth certificate. Mr. Trump did a great service to the President and the country by bringing closure to the issue that Hillary Clinton and her team first raised.” Trump echoed these claims earlier today, when he did finally acknowledge that Obama is an American-born citizen.
Setting aside that Clinton simply didn’t start the birther rumors — this idea has been debunked for a long time — this is a rhetorically stunning move on Trump’s part: Trump is portraying himself as the solver of a problem that he, likely more than anyone, helped to exacerbate. It’s a different kind of lying than what we’re used to seeing during a political campaign: This isn’t a fudging or a caressing or an omitting, but rather a rarely seen judo move that flips the script an entire 180 degrees. Trump solved that annoying birther problem that Hillary started!
And it isn’t even the first time Trump has done this. Back in 2009, Trump invited then-Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi to set up a big tent and stay, with his retinue, on Trump’s 230-acre property in Westchester County, in advance of Qaddafi’s address at the U.N. According to BuzzFeed, this was likely because Trump was seeking to curry favor, hoping to access Qaddafi’s money and network of business contacts. An advance party arrived on the property — they erected a giant tent, procured a lamb to be sacrificed once Qaddafi got there, and so on. But once neighbors and the media found out about the imminent arrival of a brutal North African dictator, it wasn’t long before “the town of Bedford issued a stop-work order, based on a local ordinance against building temporary structures without a permit.” As BuzzFeed reported, after Trump’s people initially denied any knowledge of the invitation, later “Trump took credit for shutting the site down, saying he had asked the Libyans to leave. Trump said he was ‘proud’ that Qaddafi never got to visit the site, especially after Libya paid Trump ‘a lot of money for one night.’ Speaking to Fox News in 2011, Trump said: ‘I don’t want to use the word ‘screwed,’ but I screwed him. That’s what we should be doing.”
It’s the same move! Except in this case, the problem in question — Muammar Qaddafi’s potential presence in Westchester — would not have existed were it not for Trump’s invite. And then Trump portrays himself as the savvy, proud patriot who drove the dictator out of Westchester, lightening his purse in the process.
Trump is already a verb, unfortunately, but this act — “To take credit for solving a problem you yourself caused or severely exacerbated” — is so profoundly Trumpian that it warrants a word of its own. To Donald, perhaps? For example, imagine a suburban teenager named Greg who hosts a giant party while his parents are out of town, only to have the cops called on him. The next day, maybe his friends have a conversation like this:
“So did Greg get in trouble with his parents for what happened last night?”
“Actually, no! He somehow convinced his parents that he was at the library at the time, studying, and that since everyone knew his parents were out of town, a group of our classmates had broken into the house and started the party on their own. Then, in Greg’s telling, he got home, saw the party, and was so angry he called the cops himself. His parents are actually proud of him for being so responsible.”
“Holy crap — he totally donalded them. Totally donalded himself right out of that mess.”
“He really did. If I got donalded that badly, I’d be embarrassed.”
How many more times will Donald Trump donald during this campaign? Only time will tell.