When Donald Trump uses this phrase, it means that he doesn’t know. He doesn’t have any details about what is being discussed in his mind, nor any solutions to propose. If he were to discuss it, his ignorance would be revealed instantly, so instead he evokes his contempt for the whole subject by going on the attack. “It’s a mess!” he declares. And then he is applauded, by some, for his courage to “tell it like it is.”
Answering, “it’s a mess” when asked about a war zone, or healthcare, or just about any of the hot button issues of the campaign, is not exactly playing darts blindfolded. You’re bound to hit something. If the subject weren’t some kind of mess, it would hardly be a topic of concern. But when Trump says, “It’s a mess,” he is not speaking the truth. He doesn’t actually know what’s a mess and what isn’t. Or what’s a fixable mess, or isn’t, or who’s responsible for what mess. He can’t even differentiate between kinds of mess, occasionally misfiring his contempt, as when he attacked the bereaved parents of a fallen soldier. Oops, wrong kind of mess. Or when he belittled Brussels as a “horrible city” a mere day after it was attacked. (Apparently nothing irritates Trump more than the bereaved.) But events like the Brussels attack must be particularly troublesome to someone as uninformed as Trump. You just can’t plan ahead for something like that. All of a sudden, everybody’s asking him about Brussels. It must be terribly irritating. His answer? “Brussels,” he declared, “is a total mess.” Later in his comments, as he got his groove back, he upgraded it to a “horror show.” These are similar to the kind of sweeping dismissals he uses to paint all immigrants with a criminal brush. Entire swaths of humanity, a whole city, a whole country, a whole region, a whole people, “a mess.”
But this tactless cruelty functions in its purpose to keep our eye off the ball. After he’s finished, we’re left in a fog of anger (his, ours, who can tell anymore?) And by the time the dust settles, we’ve been led far astray. The truth? What is that anyway? It’s all such a mess.
Trump is not the only one to invoke this technique. Recently third party candidate Gary Johnson was asked what he would do about Aleppo if elected. He answered with the question, “What is Aleppo?” He quickly regained his composure. “It’s a mess,” Johnson declared of this ancient and war-torn metropolis with newly christened authority. But while we’re busy laughing at the frankness of Johnson’s question, we might stop to ask ourselves why hasn’t Trump put his foot in it quite so blatantly? Because of this technique. Because of “It’s a mess.” Trump would never ask, “What is Aleppo?” He’d never ask anyone a question. He knows it all. He’s Trump. And if he doesn’t know about it, it’s not important. (Webster’s Dictionary defines narcissism as…)
Hillary has her own ways of dodging questions when she really has no simple, clear-cut path forward, most often diving into long recitations of her deep knowledge about the subject, before eventually, sort of, coming to a kind of answer. If asked about Aleppo, Hillary would probably ask, “which neighborhood?” But the sad truth of Donald Trump’s ascendancy is that he knows little of world events, or economics, or history. He’s not a thoughtful person. And he’s not an educated person on most topics affecting global and national politics. But more importantly, he’s not a caring person. He cannot be bothered. Here’s another possible translation for “It’s a mess.”
“I don’t care.”
Occasionally, Trump comes close to getting caught, as when he was being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos, and he declared – with his usual baseless certainty – that Putin would “never go into Ukraine.” But even that time, after a brief, but vastly awkward pause when Stephanopoulos pointed out that, in fact, uh, Putin already had gone into Ukraine, Trump just parachuted out of the plane altogether, using his ever-handy technique: “It’s a mess,” he declared, before anyone could split any hairs about whether or not Crimea counts as Ukraine, or just what exactly Trump thinks should be done about Russian aggression in eastern Europe. In other words, before the interview could find its way back to the subject, Trump repeated himself. “It’s a mess,” he said, “it’s a mess!” This emphasizing and repeating, by the way, is part of his deflection. “The whole thing is a mess,” he’s said grandiosely and dismissively when speaking of the entire Middle East. Or he’ll tack on a “frankly” or a “really” or he’ll make it “a big mess.”
Afghanistan is a mess.
The state of our union is a mess, frankly.
Or, if you can afford the deluxe version, you’ll get: “It’s a mess, frankly. Really, the whole thing is a mess.”
So, would our country survive a Trump presidency?
Probably. We are a strong, resilient nation built on sound principles. The English language on the other hand — at least as it is practiced by Trump on the campaign trail — frankly, that whole thing is a mess.