In America now, people are summoned to social consciousness by our most distinctive feature. We are “homeless man,” “black woman,” “trans person,” “poor girl,” “fat boy”—it’s where we are not first a person who may also happen to have PTSD, but instead we are a “traumatized solider”—where we are not in fact a being who houses a soul, but an illegal immigrant—a threat, an “evil.”
A light, anesthetized glaze wraps itself around eyes in this America. When these eyes try to look at one another, they search first for the feature, the adjective. Those intermediary words disrupt the direct link between person and name. Power is willingly ceded—the power of responsibility. If you don’t know the given name of the human, then you do not have to see. If you allow the adjective to wedge between the person and his true name, you are no longer obliged to connect the two, only to meet the descriptor halfway. It is a gentle blinding—so subtle in texture and grammar that most often we participate unconsciously and without hesitation.
In this place, real names are like gold ingots—they grow more valuable as the mints print depreciating paper adjectives by the ream. How you invest the gold you possess will determine everything.
Evolution starts small. It is impossible to notice, until you see what was there before and realize the now-indelible alterations. Consider, for example, the Anthropocene, which was not a “time” until the reality of our damaged earth began to impact human health and consumptive practices. We don’t tend to name things until they mean something, until they cause aftershocks.
I’m not sure where this particular evolution of names began exactly. In ancient mythology, gods recognized that withholding a name could garner them some kind of leverage. The god Ra first kept his name to himself, and Isis, wanting her own son to be the most powerful, created a serpent to poison Ra. She alone held the antidote, and only gave it to him when he revealed his true name. After this, Ra feared Isis, as she possessed his secret name and so wielded a new power.
In Judaism, the name of God is taboo. The faith holds that to invoke the true name would so bestow the speaker with power over his own creations. And man, of course, being so susceptible to abuse of power, had to be disallowed use of the name. In Christianity, to use the name of the Lord God in vain is a sin.
Maybe everything once had a name, and so once had equal power.
These old stories and faiths create the fabric of a society, where names are inherently potent, and where possessing the true names of things can bring both power and potential havoc. They demonstrate that names are no blithe things, that they are commodities, that they have value, and that to squander one away is the act of a fool who possess no pecuniary acumen.
In fact, names have become something of an obsession in fields from medicine to business to psychology, where studies attempting to understand the impact of names are rife. These examinations reach far beyond the esoteric walls of academia, too, into attempts to understand the practical impacts of names on our daily lives—for example, how much influence a candidate’s name may have over an employer looking to fill a job.
I’m thinking, too, of a story most of us will have heard, though perhaps in different variations, about a young girl tasked with spinning straw into gold. With the help of a small, imp-like creature, she maintains the charade long enough to placate a greedy king, but not before first promising her firstborn child away to the very imp who assisted her. The imp finally tells her that if she can guess his name, she may keep her child. With a little luck, she manages to uncover his name, and when she reveals him as Rumpelstiltskin, she and her child are saved.
Different versions of the tale find different fates befalling Rumpelstiltskin. Some say he merely runs away, some say he goes mad, and in other versions, he drives one foot so far into the ground in rage that he grabs the other and ultimately tears himself in two.
It’s not a fairy tale that I’ve ever liked very much—I think the distaste comes from something far more sinister and unsettling that lurks in the story—something to do with how it echoes our present time. It has to do, I think, with seeing a woman’s command over her life controlled and manipulated by a string of unnamed males, first her father, then the king, then the imp.
It has to do with how a name is dangled so precariously before her. In the fairy tale, she ultimately grabs it and so retains her inherent power, but now, in this day and time, it seems a new name is being dangled—that a new imp is taunting us. Do we dare not speak his name and so let him take from us our most precious possessions—our self-possession—or do we grab it and watch him tear himself in two from madness when he comes to understand that those he so taunts cling tightly to what is rightfully theirs as people—as named beings—and in that course, escape his rule?
Power and names are interwoven and patterned across philosophy, mythology, and folklore. But while these myriad sources inform us time and time again of the interdependence of the two, the fact is that, in this moment, we persist to exist in a nameless world, and it is of our own making.
Maybe we know our intimate family and friends and lovers by their names, but even names in those relationships are sometimes codified. We certainly don’t call those who wield familial power over us by their given names. Instead, we call them mother, father, grandma, uncle—a friend of mine reminded me once: Your first government is your family.
This is both syntactic and semantically layered. The gray space between language and its human implications exists in the extra step, the point between the person and the name—power. When that indistinction is allowed, so is the transfer of said power. When we call our parents mom and dad rather than by their names—when we say professor, or reverend, or doctor, or honorable judge, we allow this transmission. This isn’t a decrying of titles—titles are, ideally, earned, and a means of conveying respect. All I wish to call attention to is the idea that when these things lie between the human and the real name, those two concepts grow further apart, just as they do when Muslim, lesbian, disabled, bipolar, or any such descriptors are enabled to stand instead for the person behind them.
As Donald Trump has ascended to his new position and heralded in a new era of national and global uncertainty, I have been struck not by the outrage, the fear, the disgust—all of which are such profoundly true reactions—but rather by an emerging trend I’ve noticed of not naming Trump in writing about him. I’ve even seen, in lists of action items, the imploring to not use his name, to refer to him only as “45” and only if you must. Mostly explanations for this directive are not given—at most I’ll see a terse mention of how it affords him more power or contributes to the normalization of his actions, however morally heinous.
I have also noticed for many months now, since right around the time of the presidential debates, the rise of the phenomenon of nicknaming Trump (this was also when the country sat up and asked, Did he really just say ‘bad hombres’?; when it looked as though Trump was a penned bull, prepared to charge Clinton on stage; when his vile sound bite surfaced across the media—in short, when the matter of Trump finally became visceral, sensed).
This trend is now rife on social media. I’ve seen it acted out in a slew of ways. Some call him “Tramp” or “T***P” or “The Unpresident” or “He Who Must Not be Named.” Some of them, admittedly, make me want to chuckle a bit at first (“Chest-Pounder-in-Chief”), and some are mightily problematic in attacking Trump’s more distinctive physical characteristics (“Tiny Hands,” anything prefaced with “Cheeto,” references to “The Orange One,” or, as I have even seen recently, his name replaced merely with the orange emoji). These are far less amusing, as this tactic is fundamentally counterproductive, implementing and utilizing his own weak and petty strategies in an endless loop.
The impulse makes so much sense. If we don’t acknowledge a name, then surely we cede no power to the thing which embodies it, right? As is so often the case with impulses, however, they seem to arise from either a primal fear in the face of a predator (the compulsion toward flight or fight), or our unmitigated wounds (I have been hurt in this way previously and so will strike back accordingly). The impulse to nickname—or to not name at all—is in truth, deeply unsettling. Perhaps because it is a form of omission that may as well be an acceptance of silence—of complicit, tacit proclamation that “I am afraid. I have already lost. I have ceded power.” It is an echo of this method so deeply ingrained in our own language, of describing a quality before the person. Of saying homeless before saying a human being who also is homeless.
Maybe you don’t utter the name of an old love. Maybe you can’t even bear to think the name of a loved one who has died. Maybe you use names as a placeholder for something that never was. A woman I know miscarried twice and named each child. She still writes their initials on her calendar—“I.M.’s due date” and “A.G.’s due date.”
Another, less evident, way of grieving might be the names we take on. Even giving a fake name to a barista at a local coffee shop can make you feel as though you’ve assumed an alternate way of being—that you can step outside of yourself for a moment. An authorial pseudonym may be protective. Internet trolls hide their abuses behind screennames. Celebrities assume personae all the time. They are methods of escape, of shielding, of anonymity. They are, inherently, ways to deflect the grief we might feel at our given names—the ones which provide us no escape route from our insecurities and fears.
We make up names all the time. Why, then, are these things not nearly as dangerous as defiantly not naming Trump online, or referring to him as the “President-in-Cheeto”? Why should we grant him the humanity which he denies to so many? We must remember that if this is the method, then he, like Ra or Rumpelstiltskin, will still retain the power of his true name. It bastes another layer of that old glaze in our eyes, the one which employs adjectives before the inherent truth of something.
Conversely, calling him by his true name does not grant him humanity, but rather simply humanness, that which we all possess. It is an equalizing force, a method for moving the arena of the battle to even ground, a stripping naked of all combatants. It rewrites the rules of combat, where other weapons will need to be employed. And what weapons does Trump have in his arsenal, beyond the name he has been able to hide malignant words and actions behind? Without that barricade, we might see how woefully depleted is the stockpile that lies within. And in that, we might then recognize how bursting our own stores are—how we might be armed in ways we never before understood, perhaps with canniness and empathy, with discernment and wisdom, and most of all with sight—clearest eyes once the glaze has melted away to leave a glistening.
The relationship between Trump’s name and power has a brutally different timbre from what we’ve seen before. It is hardly new in its methods but it is very much new in the age of social media, where fear hurtles from one page to another with more alacrity than any mode of communication in history has ever allowed before. The act of not naming Trump has a new and disquieting resonance—one where the intermediary appellation between the person and their given name is not one that has been earned by education and experience, as it is in doctor or reverend, but has in fact been ceded by fear. The nicknames, though absurd on their surfaces, represent something so much more sinister—a driving apart of the person and the name and the allowing in of terror. By separating “Trump” from the man, there is an admittance of fear—one which he can take and dangle before us with threats, just as Rumpelstiltskin did while he still possessed his true name.
Ultimately, “The Unpresident,” like any common rock without a name, is immortal because it inhabits no body or likeness or spirit of the man it stands in for. Trump, however, is every bit as mortal as you or I, every bit as culpable and fallible and subject to human foibles and absurdities.
When we speak or write a name, we remind ourselves of their humanness and our own. When we use a name, we don’t allow an adjective to stand in, to disrupt. When we use a name, we lose that glaze that can wrap our eyes when we pass someone on the street and say silently to ourselves, homeless. Instead, as with a name, we might first perceive person, and so proceed accordingly, perhaps even more compassionately.
Donald Trump is, after all, just a man, one of a species, who should wield no more power than that which he earns for himself.
A name comes with responsibility, an obligation to the aliveness which allows it to even be. We must train ourselves to say names, to connect them to one another, to remind ourselves of our humanness—our mortality—to remind ourselves that beyond adjectives lies a way forward, a means of grasping power rather than giving it. Here we might become unblinded to our own world, where we might each hold and wield our own fundamental human force. Our names—those gold ingots we were given at birth—now more than ever we must invest them wisely.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.