Speaking Politics phrase of the week: 'tabula rasa'

Donald Trump offered so few specific policy prescriptions in the election that many pundits are saying he remains a relatively blank slate. 

Alex Brandon/AP
In this Nov. 10, 2016, photo, President-elect Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., pose for photographers after a meeting in the Speaker's office on Capitol Hill in Washington. Washington’s new power trio consists of a bombastic billionaire, a telegenic policy wonk, and a taciturn political tactician. How well they can get along will help determine what gets done over the next four years, and whether the new president’s agenda founders or succeeds.

Tabula rasa: A blank slate, as in a politician such as Donald Trump whose specific approach to governing remains the subject of speculation and debate.

Tabula rasa dates from the 1530s and is from the Latin “scraped tablet,” or one on which the writing has been erased, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Its popularity has risen slightly over the past year, Google Trends shows.

Assessing the president-elect’s potential staffing choices, The New York Times’ Mark Landler wrote: “In such a chaotic environment, serving a president who is in many ways a tabula rasa, the appointees to key White House jobs like chief of staff and cabinet posts like secretary of state, defense secretary and Treasury secretary could wield outsize influence.” 

Richard Kohn, a University of North Carolina professor emeritus of history and peace as well as war and defense, used the phrase in urging GOP national-security experts who are suspicious of Trump to take jobs in his administration.

“Given his demagoguery, inconsistency and changeability, Trump lacks a fixed agenda,” Kohn opined. “He’s all style, no substance — a tabula rasa.”

One of those suspicious experts, Max Boot, agreed in Commentary magazine that “Trump’s foreign policy, more than just about any of his predecessors, will be a tabula rasa.”

Even Trump’s hometown of Queens, N.Y., has drawn the description. In the decades after World War II, Marina Budhos wrote in Quartz, Queens “was a kind of tabula rasa; a wide, flat borough where you could leave behind crowded tenement living and carve out a small version of the American dream. The further out you went, the more it began to resemble the suburbs, with slightly larger houses and plots. But you were still part of the city.” 

Influential 17th century British philosopher John Locke wrote that the mind is a tabula rasa “until experience in the form of sensation and reflection provide the basic materials — simple ideas — out of which most of our more complex knowledge is constructed,” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 

Not everyone is applying the phrase to Trump. New York Magazine’s Andrew Sullivan told MSNBC’s “Hardball” the day after the election: “It seems that if some people think Donald Trump is a totally new person, that he can just create a tabula rasa, nothing he said in the campaign matters, he is just going to be this leader, this great leader of a mass movement. 

“But I think that`s very hard to do. He has been so explicit about so many of these promises, that the bottom line is going to be, how does he pull that off without alienating either the rest of Washington or his base, actually?” 

Chuck McCutcheon writes his “Speaking Politics” blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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