You may know the story now of how Donald Trump’s grandfather’s original name was Friedrich Trumpf and that it changed upon Mr. Trumpf’s arrival in the United States in 1885. What we don’t know is how or why he changed the name — did Trumpf deliberately change his name to conceal the illegality of his departure from Germany? Was he simply trying to hide his ethnicity from anti-German prejudices here in the U.S.? Did he have ambitions of achieving the American Dream? While the reasons behind the change may be impossible to identify, it’s intriguing to think of the implications and impact on Donald Trump. Surely — whether his own grandfather intended it or not — the Trump name influenced Donald in many immeasurable ways, conscious and unconscious, to become the relentless, irrepressible-if-unqualified (more on that later) businessman and President that he is today.
There is a longer, convoluted, and contradictory story behind Trump’s family-name, but we won’t get into that. Suffice it say that his grandfather arrived here as Trumpf and become Trump. Of course, the sound Trumpf or Drumpf hardly conjures of images of success or ambition. Rather, as John Oliver put it, that’s the sound that we’d hear when a “morbidly obese pigeon flies into a window of a foreclosed Old Navy”. Trump himself — or his ghost-writer, more likely — pointed out in his 2004 book Think Like A Billionaire that “Drumpf Tower doesn’t sound nearly as catchy”[as Trump Tower does]. He’s right.
Could Mr. Drumpf have been a real-life Jay Gatz, choosing for himself the ersatz Jay Gatsby? It’s possible. He arrived in the country aged 16 with little more than a name but did well enough to create a modest fortune and to have an estate worth approximately $500,000 (in today’s money) when he died 33 years later. That would be an admirable achievement, one that would on its own validate the choice of “Trump” as a new surname. We can skip a generation here, leaving Fred Trump by the wayside so as to focus on Mr. Trump.
At the time of this writing, the federal government’s partial shutdown had entered its 21st day and is would prove true Mr. Trump’s frequent claims to “unprecedented” achievements although not quite in the way he meant. The Special Counsel investigation has convicted Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, Richard Gates, and others of various crimes; indicted more than 30 Russian nationals; and there’s no end in sight. Trump, who has boasted that he never settles, settled a lawsuit against Trump University, paying out $25 million to students who had been defrauded. That’s just the latest in a long string of failed business projects, which includes Trump Airline, Trump Vodka, Trump Mortgage, three casinos, and Trump Steak, to name a few. Add to that the ever-expanding catalogue of falsehoods, misstatements, and lies — approaching 8,000 since he took office. Trump As of January third, the Democrats who took office will have subpoena power to investigate the Trump administration’s policies and Trump’s personal finances, including his tax returns, self-dealing from his Trump Foundation’s charity, possible violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen MacDougal, the firing of James Comey, the travel ban that targeted Muslims, the response to Hurricane Maria, and many, many more. In other words, for all we have learned about Trump’s ineptitude, about how unqualified he is to be President, the floodgates have been held closed by the Republican majority in the House and Senate and, to a lesser extent, by the tight lips of the Special Counsel’s team. The question then is, just how much has Trump gotten away with so far?
On one hand, Trump’s obsession with his own name as a brand is legendary. On the other, we (and perhaps he as well) should ask ourselves, will all of this negative attention ruin more than the Trump brand? If things continue as they have, much as Trump’s ancestors did, his descendants might find ample reason to again change the family name. Not that many tears will be shed, but Eric and Donald, Jr. might see the merits of a fresh start, a clean slate. Nominally, that is, if not morally. The rot is already spreading — by October 2016, reservations at various Trump properties had fallen by 60%, prompting what else but a name change:Scion. Clever, catchy, euphemistic perhaps, enough to run on if not quite hide. As new revelations of malfeasance, incompetence, and corruption snowball, that brand will likely plunge even further to the depths.
That’s almost a foregone conclusion, it seems. What I’m interested in here is whether Trump will change the English language himself (he seems hell-bent on mangling it beyond recognition anyway). What I mean is this — whereas “trump” took its original meaning from “triumph”, as in “trump card”, it’s possible that Trump will so thoroughly taint the word as to change its meaning. To this point, Trump has shown an alarming anti-Midas touch: everything he touches turns to fool’s gold. Nearly every project, business, or organization he has led is now under investigation, including, of course, his Presidency. Could the stain spread to a word whose meaning has stood for victory and success for close to five hundred years?
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “trump” first came into use as a stand-in for “triumph” in the early 1520s, taking its meaning from the French word triumphe, meaning “success in battle, conquest”. At the rate we’re going, however, it’s entirely possible that “trump” will, at a minimum, take on a second, almost-directly opposite meaning depending on how the proverbial cookie crumbles. Is it possible that “trump” could come to mean “fail, lose, be defeated”? Pending the Special Counsel’s report to Congress, results of those dozens of subpoenas, possible impeachment, and more, stranger things have happened.
Maybe, in an ironic nod to the Trump-Drumpf family legacy, that word “trump” will restore its original, more-accurate meaning: “to fabricate, devise, deceive, cheat”, which would derive from late fourteenth-century Middle English’s trumpen, which seems to have evolved from the Old French tromper, “to deceive” (thanks again to the Online Etymology Dictionary). The 19th century’s Etymological Dictionary of the French Language defines tromper as “to play the horn, alluding to quacks and mountebanks, who attracted the public by blowing a horn, and then cheated them into buying.”
Come to think of it, that’s not too far off from how Trump has risen to such dizzying (nauseating?) heights. As a businessman, Trump has left behind a long trail of bankruptcies, unpaid bills and contractors, and more. As a President, he’s convinced a significant percentage of American voters that he alone can solve our problems, some of them real, some imagined. After boasting that he would make Mexico build a wall along the border, we’ve now witnessed the longest government shutdown in our history as he insists that Congress allocate $5.6 billion to pay for it while simultaneously insisting that the new trade agreement with Mexico will somehow make Mexico pay for it…while insisting that he never said he’d make Mexico pay for it. Trump may not literally blow a horn, but he does tweet prolifically. Different kind of bird, perhaps, but he’s still a quack.