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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Lakoff: Why Progressives Must Better Understand Trump’s Language

Trying to better understand Donald Trump’s use of language may seem like one of the least agreeable chores a sensible person would want to embrace. As George Lakoff acknowledges at HuffPo in the final installment of his two-part analysis of how to understand Trump (we flagged part one on August 1) :

Responsible reporters in the media normally transcribe political speeches so that they can accurately report them. But Donald Trump’s discourse style has stumped a number of reporters. Dan Libit, CNBC’s excellent analyst is one of them. Libit writes:

His unscripted speaking style, with its spasmodic, self-interrupting sentence structure, has increasingly come to overwhelm the human brains and tape recorders attempting to quote him. Trump is, simply put, a transcriptionist’s worst nightmare: severely unintelligible, and yet, incredibly important to understand.

…Trump’s crimes against clarity are multifarious: He often speaks in long, run-on sentences, with frequent asides. He pauses after subordinate clauses. He frequently quotes people saying things that aren’t actual quotes. And he repeats words and phrases, sometimes with slight variations, in the same sentence…Some commentators have even attributed his language use to “early Alzheimer’s,” citing “erratic behavior” and “little regards for social conventions.” I don’t believe it..

As unappeling as studying Trump’s communication may be, it is pretty important to do so. As Lakoff puts it, “the very fate of the nation, indeed human civilization, appears destined to come down to one man’s application of the English language — and the public’s comprehension of it.” Lakoff cautions, however, that ridiculing Trump’s language and dismissing it as unworthy of analysis may be a mistake:

…I have found that he is very careful and very strategic in his use of language. The only way I know to show this is to function as a linguist and cognitive scientist and go through details.

Let’s start with sentence fragments. It is common and natural in New York discourse for friends to finish one another’s sentences. And throughout the country, if you don’t actually say the rest of a friend’s sentence out loud, there is nevertheless a point at which you can finish it in your head. When this happens in cooperative discourse, it can show empathy and intimacy with a friend, that you know the context of the narrative…

Trump often starts a sentence and leaves off where his followers can finish in their minds what he has started to say. That is, they commonly feel empathy and intimacy, an acceptance of what is being said, and good feeling toward the speaker. This is an unconscious, automatic reaction, especially when words are flying by quickly. It is a means for Trump to connect with his audience.

With respect to the way Trump addresses his adversary’s attitude toward the Second Amendment, for example,  Lakoff notes, “his words are carefully chosen. They go by quickly when people hear them. But they are processed unconsciously first by neural circuitry — and neurons operate on a thousandth-of-a-second time scale…Trump begins by saying, “Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment.” He first just says “abolish,” and then hedges by adding “essentially abolish.” But having said “abolish” twice, he has gotten across the message that she wants to, and is able to, change the Constitution in that way.”

Never mind the “well-regulated militia” part of the second amendment. Trump, like all Republicans and NRA minions, ignores it. “The Second Amendment has been reinterpreted by contemporary ultra-conservatives as the right of individual citizens to bear contemporary arms (e.g., AK-47’s),” adds Lakoff.  “The term “Second Amendment” activates the contemporary usage by ultra-conservatives. It is a dog-whistle term, understood in that way by many conservatives.”

Lakoff quotes Trump, who explains, “By the way, and if she gets to pick [loud boos] — if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.” Lakoff breaks it down:

“By the way,” marks a parallel utterance, one that does not linearly follow from what was just said, but that has information relevant to what was just said.

“And” here marks information that follows from what was just said.

“If she gets to pick …” When said the first time, it was followed immediately by loud boos. The audience could finish the if-clause for themselves, since the word “pick” in context could only be about Hillary picking liberal judges. Trump goes on making this explicit, “if she gets to pick her judges…”

“Gets to” is important. The metaphor here with “to” is that Achieving a Purpose Is Reaching a Destination” with the object of “to” marking the pick. The “get” in “get to” is from a related metaphor, namely, that Achieving a Purpose Is Getting a Desired Object. In both Purpose metaphors, the Achievement of the Purpose can be stopped by an opponent. The “if,” indicates that the achievement of the purpose is still uncertain, which raises the question of whether it can be stopped.

“Her judges” indicates that the judges are not your judges, from which it follows that they will not rule the way you want them to, namely, for keeping your guns. The if-clause thus has a consequence: unless Hillary is prevented from becoming president, “her judges” will change the laws to take away your guns and your Constitutional right to bear arms. This would be a governmental infringement on your freedom, which would justify the armed intervention of ultra-conservatives, what Sharon Angle in Nevada has called the “Second Amendment solution.” In short, a lot is entailed — in little time on a human timescale, but with lots of time on a neural timescale.

With respect to Trump’s “Nothing you can do, folks,” Lakoff explains, “This is a shortened version in everyday colloquial English of “There will be nothing you can do, folks.” That is, if you let Hillary take office, you will be so weak that you will be unable to stop her. The “folks,” suggests that he and the audience members are socially part of the same social group — as opposed to a distant billionaire with his own agenda.”

Then Trump’s punch line, which created a media mess that lasted for days: “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is.” Lakoff adds “Although the Second Amendment people” calls up the alternative for those who would act violently to protect their Second Amendment right.” Lakoff continues:

“I don’t know” is intended to remove Trump from any blame. But it acts unconsciously in the opposite way. It is like the title of the book I wrote, “Don’t Think of an Elephant.” The way the brain works is that negating a frame activates the frame. The relevant frame for “Second Amendment people” is use of arms to protect their rights against a government threatening to take away their rights. This is about the right to shoot, not about the right to vote. Second Amendment conservative discourse is about shooting, not about voting.

The point here is that Trump’s use of language is anything but “word salad.” His words and his use of grammar are carefully chosen, and put together artfully, automatically, and quickly.

Trump never overtly used the word “assassinate.” He says he was just suggesting that advocates of the Second Amendment vote, and was being sarcastic. A sarcastic invocation to vote would sound very different. A sarcastic invocation to vote might be, “The American way to change things is to vote. But maybe you care so much about shooting, you won’t be able to organize to vote.”

It’s important for Dems to understand that this is not just verbal diarrhea. “He chose his words very, very carefully.”

Lakoff has much more to say about Trump’s deployment of carefully-chosen terms like “believe me” and “many people say,” as well as the reasons Trump appears to ramble “off topic,” when really he is “always on topic,” as Lakoff sees it.

…But you have to understand what his topic is. As I observed in my Understanding Trump paper, Trump is deeply, personally committed to his version of Strict Father Morality. He wants it to dominate the country and the world, and he wants to be the ultimate authority in this authoritarian model of the family that is applied in conservative politics in virtually every issue area.

Every particular issue, from building the wall, to using our nukes, to getting rid of inheritance taxes (on those making $10.9 million or more), to eliminating the minimum wage — every issue is an instance of his version of Strict Father Morality over all areas of life, with him as ultimately in charge.

As he shifts from particular issue to particular issue, each of them activates his version of Strict Father Morality and strengthens it in the brains of his audience. So far as I can tell, he is always on topic — where this is the topic.

Lakoff cautions that “He is a talented charlatan. Keeping you off balance is part of his game. As is appealing to ordinary thought mechanisms in the people he is addressing.” Further, “It is vital that the media, and ordinary voters, learn to recognize his techniques. When the media fails to grasp what he is doing, it gives him an advantage. Every time someone in the media claims his discourse is “word salad, “ it helps Trump by hiding what he is really doing.”

Lakoff also flags Trump’s fake ‘apology’ and Trump’s disclaimer: “Too much is at stake for us to be consumed with these issues.” However, says Lakoff, “note how carefully he has chosen his words. And what is the intended effect? He should be excused because inaccurate word choice is so natural that it will inevitably occur again, and he should not be criticized when the stress of the campaign leads inevitably to mistakes in trivial word choice.”

“The words he carefully uses,” concludes Lakoff, “often over and over, get across his values and ideas, which are all too often lies or promotions of racist, sexist, and other un-American invocations. When these backfire mightily, as with the Khans, there can be no hiding behind a nonspecific “regret” that they were just rare, accidental word choice mistakes too trivial for the public to be “consumed with.”

Once Dems understand that Trump’s ‘word salad’ is not mere buffoonery, but a carefully calculated ploy to mask his anti-democratic ideas in a self-righteous cloak, then Dems can begin to refute his real agenda and media domination with more compelling responses.

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