Here at The Dispatch, we are mostly anti-snark and anti-sneer, so I will try to consider this question earnestly: What does it say about our country that we are governed by illiterates?
One “Marshall Law” is a typo. Two is a trend. And the recently published trove of January 6-related texts is a testament to the illiteracy of the people who represent millions of Americans in Congress.
During the attempted coup d’état following Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential election, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene texted Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to say that she had been discussing the possibility of the president’s declaring “Marshall law” with her fellow Republicans. “I don’t know on those things,” she said—she would cop to being only Marshall-law curious, not a full-on advocate.
One full-on advocate was Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, who also texted Meadows: “Mark, in seeing what’s happening so quickly, and reading about the Dominion law suits attempting to stop any meaningful investigation we are at a point of no return in saving our Republic !! Our LAST HOPE is invoking Marshall Law!! PLEASE URGE TO PRESIDENT TO DO SO!!”
Norman’s prose has all of the hallmarks of Drunk Facebook Uncle: multiple exclamation points!!! LOTS OF ALL-CAPS EXCITEMENT! Random Capitalization of Such Words as “Republic.” Generally poor grammar. And, of course, “Marshall Law.”
For video-game enthusiasts of a certain age, Marshall Law is a memorable character from the Tekken franchise. For coup-enthusiasts of a certain age, that is how you spell and capitalize “martial law.”
Greene is, of course, a rich and varied source of such amusing pronouncements, denouncing Bill Gates’ desire to get Americans to eat fake meat “grown in a peach-tree dish”—she meant “petri dish”—and saying other things of that sort. Greene’s career is very much emblematic of our times: Until about five minutes ago, she was an obscure Facebook QAnon kook and part-time CrossFit instructor—and I do not think it snobbery to believe these experiences did not provide her with the best preparation for becoming a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Consider her predecessors in that job: Rep. George Mathews in his time may have been mocked for his rustic ways, but he’d been a colonel in the Revolutionary War, a judge, a town commissioner, and governor of Georgia before the people of the state famous for its
petris peach trees sent him to Congress. Marjorie Taylor Greene would not have passed my sophomore English class in high school.
Donald Trump is, of course, famous for his difficulties with the written word: “covfeve” and all that, his Subliterate Capitalization Habit, etc. His name appears on the cover of a bestselling book written by Tony Schwartz, but the only testament we have to his being a reader is his late wife’s claim that he kept a book of Adolf Hitler’s speeches by his bedside. Trump said the book was given to him by a Jewish friend; the supposedly Jewish supposed friend (“friend”) confirmed that he gave Trump the book but also explained that he isn’t Jewish. Trump told Vanity Fair in 1990: “If I had these speeches, and I am not saying that I do, I would never read them.” For once, he was probably telling the truth. Nobody who writes and speaks the way Trump writes and speaks reads anything more intellectually demanding than the menu at Wendy’s.
I have been an editor for many years and have graded my share of college writing exercises, and my belief is this: Provided that we are talking about someone trying to write in his native language, you can’t necessarily tell if someone is smart from the way he writes—but you can sure as heck tell if he isn’t. And if Mark Meadows’ texts shed light on anything—other than the fact that Republicans attempted to overthrow the government of the United States of America in 2020 by nullifying a presidential election on the shoddiest pretext—it is that we are governed, in no small part, by people who cannot put together an ordinary English sentence.
My guess is that it has something to do with their
reading media-consumption habits. Rep. Mark Green of Tennessee wrote to Meadows: “Dick Morris is saying State Leg can intervene and declare Trump winner. NC, PA, MI, WI all have GOP Leg.” The next thing he texted was a link to a Newsmax story. I haven’t talked to Dick Morris since he bet me $100,000 that the 2012 presidential election was going to be a nail-biter pitting Condoleezza Rice against Hillary Rodham Clinton (which is not what happened!) but the double-dip buffoonery of Green’s texts—Dick Morris says so, and you know that it must be true, because it’s in Newsmax!—makes me think that this is a guy I want to play poker against, a guy who is dying to know who is buried in Grant’s Tomb, who thinks a manila folder is Filipino contortionist. Rep. Paul Gosar’s texts to Meadows cited InfoWars and a blog called—and I am not making this up—“Some Bitch Told Me.”
A culture of law—the intellectual ground in which a government based on the rule of law is planted—is, by necessity, a reading culture. That’s what law is: carefully written language carefully read. A tribal culture, on the other hand, is a culture based on personal relationships: Never mind how silly or specious a claim is—Dick Morris says up is down, so we have to consider the possibility. That kind of culture is by nature small and cramped – a small world. Readers, in contrast, can have rich interactions with people who live far away or who live long ago: If you read—really read—then you can have an impression of the personality and sensibility of John Adams or William Shakespeare, of Saint Paul or James Boswell or Mohandas Gandhi. The illiterate mode of life, on the other hand, is a life lived exclusively in the here-and-now: the immediacy of cable news and social media, the nearness of a relatively small circle of friends and allies. Donald Trump is always surrounded by lawyers, but they are basically illiterate lawyers—creatures of Fox News, not creatures of the library. Their mindset is basically tribal—their loyalty is not to the law, but to the chieftain.
Illiterate is, in this sense, not necessarily a synonym for stupid: Paul Gosar is a former dentist—and there is no character class in American politics quite like that of the ideologically deranged dentist—and so one assumes that he has had some kind of education and that he has or had intellectual ability sufficient for his profession. But he also violated his oath of office in the grossest and most obvious way—he is neither a man of words nor a man of his word, and I don’t think those two unhappy circumstances are entirely unrelated. An oath is made of words—specific words that promise a specific thing and that do not change as convenience dictates.
The Washington life—which is the cable-news life—is a life that is heavily invested in a particular kind of shallow oral cleverness. If Marjorie Taylor Greene speaks enthusiastically about the possibility of organizing an armed putsch, her words are fitted to one audience and one occasion and then dismissed as a joke, even though everybody knows that this was not a joke and not a not-joke—because the distinction between joke and not-joke has evaporated in a world in which Marjorie Taylor Greene serves in Congress—and because Americans have forgotten why it is that they used to hold such craven pandering in contempt. Pandering—including dishonest pandering—is just “reading the room.”
But the people who are reading the room might consider reading the occasional book. The rule of law will not endure long in a postliterate society.