Sticks & Stones — How Donald Trump is using language to come out swinging

Photo by Maan Limburg on Unsplash

In the late 1980s, the short-lived XFL took professional football by a very short lived storm. Billed as rougher and sexier than that bastion of American beer drinking — the NFL — the XFL was filled with colorful characters, perhaps none of whom was more colorful than running back Rod Smart, known on the field as “He Hate Me.”

In a promo for the league, the affable Smart holds up his jersey and proclaims something to effect that his opponents hated him because he was faster, stronger, and, well, smarter than the average player. It was a hell of a moniker to have on the back of a football jersey, sort of like those cartoon bubbles that hover over the heads of comic strip characters, telling you what the person is thinking inside.

I’m (fill in the blank with your own superlative) and hence he hate me.

It was a cultural marker filled with both swagger and despair, the use of a vernacular that was at once charming and disturbing to those outside of the African-American community who would instantly think, at first, that Hate is missing an ‘s’ and then wonder at the bombast of the word hate on the football field (which is perhaps one of the few places where the word actually belongs).

Language is power. It’s a tool to organize the world, convey meaning, develop communities and, yes, to tear things apart.

Trump is a master manipulator. And despite his image in the minds of the left as a blundering buffoon, stumbling over words, mispronouncing, full of bombast and swagger, his intent is far more sinister and calculating that it appears.

Communications researchers give a lot of thought to the ways in which humans construct meaning. When we name something, be it Shakespeare or Snoop Dogg, we are sending a signal, a code, to the person on the other end. “See, I’m calling this thing by this name, don’t you agree?”

Trump is no Churchill nor even a Ronald Reagan. He’s in a class all by himself when it comes to malapropism. His extemporaneous speech is often baffling. There is one aspect of rhetorical and persuasive language in which he almost reigns supreme in modern times.

Long before he became president, he perfected the art of the epithet, a short catchphrase that works as shorthand to depict (and usually stereotype) another person. .

Trump’s outrageous epithets stun his opponents and send an immediate, electric charge to his followers. Yes, they think enthusiastically, that’s right! That’s exactly the way we see it! And every time he hurls at epithet at one of his rivals, his in-group feels more powerful, stronger, more entitled, and on the right side by siding with him.

The epithet is a linguistic trick as old as the ancient theater of Greece.

In ancient Greece, poetry and theatre held the culture together. It was the outlet for political commentary. Social development depended upon the sharing of common experiences (much like today, though, of course there was no electricity nor Internet). Theatre was all important in this and the stories told were sung, as in poetry, and featured characters and themes that were instantly familiar to the audience and relevant to the culture.

Because these stories were serialized, appearing over multiple evenings or even lasting for years (think installments of a TV series or a video game here for some modern context), the playwright needed a way to characterize the heroes in such a way that they were instantly recognizable to the audience without building up a lot of backstory. To achieve this characterization, the writer had to do two things — first, establish the traits that he wanted to highlight and secondly, explain them in a kind of shorthand so that the audience would know immediately who was appearing and how that would be important to the drama that would lie ahead.

A chorus stood on either side of an arch-like stage — good on one side, evil on the other, god in the middle. These choruses would move the action along by singing poetry back and forth (this is known as strophe and antistrophe, but one easy way to remember is it’s like those Bugs Bunny cartoons where an angel sits on one shoulder and the devil on the other.

Choruses in the ancient Greek theater thus relied heavily on the use to language to characterize or stereotype the characters who might appear. This is done via the use of epithets, a kind of shorthand that explains the character consistently so that the audience can instantly recognize who was about to appear and, more importantly, what that person was like in the context of the play or the relevance of the culture.

Hence, “bright eyed Athena” or “Brave Odysseus” or “Loyal Penelope.”

Epithets are a kind of shorthand familiar to the listeners. In ancient Greece, when the descriptive term for the Greek gods or the Greek heroes were sung to the audience, they would sigh in unison. They knew what was going to happen next in much the same way that your favorite musician launches into the chords of a familiar refrain.

Sound familiar?

Think “Lying Hillary,” “Sleepy Joe Biden,” or “Pocahontas.”

Epithets are instrumental in what communications researchers call code-sharing. It’s a kind of verbal shorthand, a way that groups use to construct meaning. It’s a skill that starts at birth, one way that we all use to identify our role within groups and the fast track to our relationships.

When we code share, we establish an in-group, a culture of familiarity that we slowly populate with other concepts and ideas upon which we agree. It might be a positive thing (calling your spouse “sweetie” would be one example, a term of endearment that changes and adapts as your relationship changes and adapts) or it might take the darker cloak of hate speech.

Epithets are a powerful tool in the arsenal of bullies and garden variety haters. They allow the ‘ingroup’ to feel positive about their agreement (even if it might be a negative thing, a person who uses a pejorative for a racial or social group is not trying to be positive, he’s trying to influence those around him to think in the way that he thinks).

Code sharing thus strengthens one group (the “believers” or those in agreement) at the detriment of the people being described. Further, the distance between the familiar (the ‘in-group’) and the different (‘the outgroup’) is exaggerated. Anyone who has ever been called a name by an 8th grade bully knows that epithets pack a powerful punch to the outgroup.

Stereotyping via epithets and other linguistic code-sharing devices is one of the favored methods employed by Trump via his school-yard bullying of his political rivals. Hence, people who disagree are ‘snowflakes.’ Recently, in a social media debate, a Trumper told me to ‘take a cookie on my way out.’

The level of childish snark seems to be at an all-time high.

Trump is a ringmaster when using the fears and superstitions of his base to help them feel better about themselves. He forcefully supported the Birther movement and used it to continuously disparage Barack Obama.

Right wing pundits (and general nut job conspiracy theorists) such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity repeatedly refer to Obama as “Hussein” (his middle name) in an effort to draw into question his allegiance to the United States, his legitimacy as a political candidate. As a bonus, Trump was able to rile up the prejudices of his political base, harkening back to the first Iraq War, 9/11, and a Pandora’s box of conspiracy theories relating to everyone from Bill Clinton to Osama Bin Laden. The mental shorthand, the free association code share, was clear. Hussain as in Saddam Hussain. A foreigner. Non-white. And, hence, to the uneducated portion of Trump’s base, possibly un-American.

His media flunkies such as Limbaugh and Hannity willingly do his bidding, his political base gets energized by the conversation and throw another log on the fire with their own, ill-crafted, amateurish sleuthing and discussions of the ‘deep state on social media.

The stakes in geopolitics are much higher than those faced by an 9th grade bully. The extrinsic rewards is that the in-group, who create meaning for themselves and stereotype the other out of bounds of actually reality. This allows the ingroup to feel stronger and more empowered at the expense of the ‘weaker’ party.

After all, how do you counter the argument when someone in a position of authority calls you Pocahontas. Do you respond by proving your Native American heritage? Do you try to invigorate a less powerful minority group that has been traditionally sidelined, a group with few political resources and no seat at the table to begin with?

Talk is cheap. If you’ve ever been on the wrong side of bullying, there at the 8th grade lunch table (where this type of ‘rhetoric,’ actually it is shameful to even call it that, much less to discover that a sitting United States president indulges in it), you know that there is nothing — NOTHING — you can say or do or be that thwarts the death spiral of stereotyping once it starts. There is nothing you can do to tamp down the power of this tactic, to diffuse the feeling of superiority that it gives to the in group that buys into the notion of their superiority, to make it go away. It is the same feeling that makes bullied people jump off bridges and eschew their high school reunions.

The Democrats seem to think that a sense of righteous indignation will get Trump to stop, to work as a conciliator and ‘bring the country together.’

And yet, thinking back to your experiences in junior high school (where this ‘tactic’ has its origins), did the expression of outrage ever make a bully hang up the bullying? Did you ever see that pimply, pushy boy from school, the one who laughed and you and got him minions to join in the torment, suddenly say, “Oh, you are right, Bubba, you are not a dork. Your name is James. Have a seat. Have some ice cream?” Then why do we expect the Bully in Chief and his nude model wife to suddenly come to their senses and remove the political epithets from their lexicon of dirty tricks?

It didn’t happen in junior high and it’s not gonna happen now. The sooner that the Democrats realize that one way they are being had is with this clever trick of language, the easiest way that Trump is solidifying his base at the expense of the reasonable voters on the other side, the sooner they will be able to form a strategy that will bring down the Bully in Chief and possibly allow them to win the election in November, 2020.

Once epithets take hold in the public conversation (both good and bad), they are impossible to remove with reason. You cannot shout louder than a bully. You cannot one up them, no matter how you try. What you can do is stop responding. This is harder than it seems. But how would Elizabeth Warren’s future have been different if, rather than spending an ounce of energy attempting to prove her Native American heritage or being outraged at Trump’s rhetoric, she had instead redirected the conversation to an issue that actually mattered, say, the economy?

Part of Trump’s power lies in this supreme power of distraction. This is the hallmark of any great ringmaster, the ability to distract.

It is almost as if you cannot believe what you are seeing, that he would mock a reporter with a disability, or call a woman fat or hysterical, or gloat about his romantic conquests or say that he would probably be dating his daughter if she wasn’t his daughter. When you express your disbelief, just in the same way you expressed your shock and embarrassment when that 8th grade bully tied your shoes to the book rack under your desk, you are playing into the reinforcement of those ideas to his base. They might be unseemly (they are). They might be ridiculous (they are). They definitely are beneath you. But every time you respond, every time you express your outrage, they get stronger and you get weaker. And this, my friends, is not the way to win in November. It’s the way to make certain that those monikers will linger around forever. The more you talk about them, the stronger they get.

Let us consider for a moment the recent efforts of First Lady of the United States, the former nude model Melania Trump. Her ‘pet project’ as First Lady is apparently anti-bullying, with the somewhat baffling and utterly nonsensical slogan extolling America’s school children to “Be Best.”

The stiletto-clad Melania, apparently reformed from her days of lounging on rented private jets wearing nothing but a sloe-eyed glance and a few jewels, says that the Be Best campaign has some positive goals:

“By promoting values such as healthy living, encouragement, kindness, and respect, parents, teachers, and other adults can help prepare children for their futures. With those values as a solid foundation, children will be able to better deal with the evils of the opioid crisis and avoid negative social media interaction.”

This from a woman who visited a McAllen, Texas INS detention center for children in 2016 clad in a cryptic, $39 Zara jacket with the slogan, “I really don’t care, do U?” emblazoned on her back.

If you really do care, you need to show it by not responding to those who apparently parade around not caring.

The Democrats must reframe the narrative around their own ideals if they are to win in November. This means not responding to Trumps’ epithets and ignoring the First Lady’s graphic fashion choices. It means understanding that language, all language, is power and stereotypical to some degree. Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by 2%. He did not win by a landslide. He eeked out the electoral college vote to capture the White House much in the way that 8th grade bully (shall we give him a name? Shall we call him Ronald Dumph?) grabbed the chocolate chip cookie off your lunch tray while you were untying your shoes from underneath the table and wouldn’t give it back to you. By focusing on his language instead of his ideas, the Democrats undermine their own authority to the benefit of the incumbent.

Trump loves to refer to himself as a “wartime President” (it’s a war that he has created, a war of his own devising, but, to quote George W. Bush, “Facts are stupid things”). He also loves to harken to that great Republican Abraham Lincoln. My theory in this is that Lincoln is just far back enough for Trump to feel safe that no one really remembers what he was about.

Lincoln once wrote a letter to his son Willie’s teacher about bullying. In this letter, he noted that a “bully is the easiest to lick.”

This might not be a true story. What is true is that bullying, and the bullying language of the epithet, energizes like minded people and leaves outliers on the other side. This is known as the ingroup/outgroup phenomenon. It is key to understanding stereotyping and why minorities, women, people of color, immigrants, the media, and others who somehow acquire the President’s seemingly endless ire, are at a tremendous disadvantage when shaping the narrative that is so crucial to the 2020 election.

The best approach is to reframe by ignoring the pejorative language and, as Michele Obama would put it, “go high when they go low.”

Remember, they really don’t care.

We do.

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