Why Elites Lose at Trump’s Language Game

Trump supporters aren’t brainwashed by the Republican candidate's “illogical” lies — they're listening to a different conversation altogether.

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 1: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the American Legion Convention September 1, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Trump spoke about his plans to secure the border and reform the Veterans Administration. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 1: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the American Legion Convention September 1, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Trump spoke about his plans to secure the border and reform the Veterans Administration. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Much has been made of Donald Trump’s use of language in the 2016 presidential campaign. A recent Foreign Policy piece even uses linguistic theory to explain his rise. But the authors incorrectly diagnose the complex language play through which Trump constructs his audiences and message. That leads them to echo a refrain of liberal political commentators — namely, that Trump’s supporters blindly adhere to illogical and false conclusions about the world.

More measured linguistic analysis reveals that Trump supporters often explicitly reject the literal meanings of his speech, attending instead to what he indexes or connotes. Trump uses hyperbole, humor, hedging, and repair to take stands — both for or against certain general political programs (immigration, trade deals), but more importantly against certain kinds of scornful elite discourse that belittle those supporters. Understanding that complex conversation, rather than dismissing it out of hand, can help us not only better comprehend the Trump phenomenon but also see why the rest of the world is so flummoxed by his verbiage.

Christopher M. Livaccari and Jeff Wang, the authors of the FP article, suggest that Trump’s campaign subscribes to a “strong” version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its public rhetoric, but the view the authors describe bears little relationship to the hypothesis at all. Sapir and his student Whorf were concerned with deep structures of language — things like semantic and grammatical forms that influence the way we think about the world. To suggest that Trump, through his limited number of public speeches, could change his listeners’ deep structures of language and persuade them to believe untrue or contradictory claims about the world is to suggest that he bears otherworldly rhetorical power — and that his supporters are disconnected from truth and logic.

This kind of liberal dismissiveness is common but does not reflect the way that many Trump supporters actually talk about his statements. To use some terms from linguistics that actually may apply to the candidate, we can observe that Trump supporters are highly cognizant that what his words denote (building a wall, for instance) are not as important as what they index (his stance toward the world: that he is against the status quo, that he is willing to offend, that he is not phony, that he is willing to discuss racial animosities that other politicians dance around). Take, for instance, a Trump supporter quoted in a recent Washington Post article:

Trump just says things, like he’s going to build a wall. You know he’s not going to build a wall, and he certainly won’t get Mexico to pay for it, but it shows he wants to be different, get something done.

Indeed, when Trump started to walk back his comments about a related issue — deporting millions of undocumented immigrants — many supporters didn’t seem to mind. NPR reported this week that his supporters continue to back him on immigration despite the shift. NPR conveys confusion over such disregard of policies, but his supporters seem to understand the nebulous nature of policy commitments — that statements made today have little bearing on what becomes actual policy in the context of a corrupt political system in which many forces are at play and compromise is necessary. What matters is the stance (to issues, to supporters) that is performed, as described perfectly by supporter Judy Callahan:

I listen to half of what Trump says … and then I move on because you have to get people’s attention…. And not everything Trump says is true — I mean, it’s not true like it’s in concrete…. He said he would stop the border flow, he would build some kind of wall, and he would work on the people that are here. That’s all there is; the rest of it’s kind of fluff.

Moreover, these supporters relish the way that elite liberals are so deeply committed to the denotational meanings of language that they are doubly flummoxed when Trump announces he’s just joking. When New York Times columnists literally describe themselves as “scandalized” by Trump’s incitement of Russia to “illegal” behavior, he responds by pulling the rug out from under them: He was being sarcastic!

Central to Trump’s appeal is this deep play, his uncaptured nature, the way he maneuvers out of traps he has laid for himself, all while making those who would catch him seem sanctimonious and worse: uncool — not in on the joke. He will likely lose the election, but he’s won the hearts of those who feel marginalized, made to feel uncool in their position in post-industrial, post-job America. Trump has made the elite bullies the brunt of the joke for once.

Nowhere was this clearer than during the opening of Trump’s Republican National Committee acceptance speech in which he declared: “Nobody knows the system better than me. Which is why I alone can fix it.” Read as text, this statement is innocuous, but viewed in full context — in which Trump pauses and smirks for nearly five seconds between the two sentences — the statement points to another set of meanings. The pause/smirk indexes to his supporters the times he gave money to the Clintons, the times he beckoned them to his weddings and events; it hints at unspoken stories of gaming the broken system, knowledge and experience he will use to embarrass the elites by whom supporters feel tormented.

Such attendance to indexical work done by Trump speech helps us address a final concern of Livaccari and Wang: why foreigners find his language so vexing. While Livaccari and Wang use the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis — again mostly incorrectly — to argue that translation is a difficult endeavor, they focus on simple denotational problems that any decent translator could avoid. Livaccari and Wang neglect the truly vexing challenge of translating Trump that we can observe in the pause/smirk above: How to capture and convey to audiences abroad the vast and ongoing conversation between Trump and the country that occurs in every sentence — especially when the country’s own liberal elites seem to miss it as well?

Photo credit: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

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