language, politics

Being Wherever


A great movie that came out in 1979 was Being There, adapted from the Jerzy Kosinski novel of the same name. Its lead character is a gardener, Chance (Peter Sellers), who has lived all his life in isolation, in the house whose garden he tends for its owner. As a result, he has no real world experience, and so he speaks in vague generalizations in the form of aphoristic statements. (Since he has no way to connect words to actual referents, he cannot speak precisely about anything definite.) Other people take his utterances as true-for-all-time pearls of wisdom, and Chance himself as a prophet.


Trump the builder is not much like Chance the gardener, except that in important ways he is – though not in the way he talks, in the way his utterances work on hearers. On the surface the two are altogether different. Chance’s para- and extralinguistics are nonexistent: he speaks as if in a trance, or in a language he doesn’t understand, completely devoid of emotional punctuation in the form of facial expression, intonation, or gesture. That absence gives his words the ring of truth: he is merely a conduit for meaning, he is not personally involved in creating it. Trump’s style is completely different: highly emotional, excited and exciting, fully expressive and committed to what he is saying.


Or so it would seem.


Although Chance’s and Trump’s superficial communicative strategies are totally different, the effects of both on hearers are remarkably the same: the belief that the speaker is a trustworthy truth-teller. Trump, for all his razzle-dazzle, is making use of a rhetorical strategy that has the same effects on its hearers as the very different strategy employed by Chance.


Many years ago Deborah Tannen and I wrote an article in which we discussed two ways in which discourse types could be compared: we called them pragmatic synonymy and pragmatic homonymy. Two forms were pragmatically synonymous in case they had the same intended function, but looked different. So “upspeak” and euphemism may function as pragmatic synonyms: both are ways of saying something and, simultaneously, avoiding responsibility for what is being said. Analogously, the rising intonation of upspeak and that of a typical English yes-no question are pragmatic homonyms: they sound identical, but the first is a form of avoidance, the second a way of expressing a need for information. Trump’s and Chance’s strategies are pragmatic synonyms. They look different, but both make the hearer think she has experienced something profound and moving, while in fact they convey nothing. Both are all things to all people: every hearer hears in every such utterance what she wants to hear, but that meaning is not really there in the utterance itself, but in the hearer’s wishful mind, conveniently enabling the speaker to maintain plausible deniability. Both Trump and Chance offer a wide range of interpretive possibilities, because both are ultimately empty, devoid of real meaning. Both have pragmatics but no semantics – not the art of the deal, but the art of the wheeler-dealer, the snake-oil salesman, the propagandist.


Trump is by no means the first dangerous propagandist in history. You may remember Adolph Hitler and his pet propagandist Joseph Goebbels. They gave the world the theory (and practice) of the Big Lie: if you tell a little fib, people may be able to see through it, since they can imagine themselves doing a bit of harmless fibbing; but tell a really big whopper and everyone will say: that is a really amazing claim. No one could possibly have the gall to say it if it weren’t true. So the Big Lie will be believed. Trump is the master of a particular kind of Big Lie, the Big Pragmatic Lie, as opposed to the Hitler-Goebbels Big Semantic Lie.


Just how does he do it?


A semantic lie, what we usually mean by the term, is a false linkage between language and the reality to which the language purports to refer: it negates meaning. Such a lie can be disproved by uncovering the actual facts — no easy job, but doable. Semantic lies operate mainly at the linguistic, and lexical, level. Words can be questioned and controverted.


A pragmatic lie creates a disconnection between an utterance and its presumption of meaning, that is, that there is a meaningful and therefore legitimate connection at all between the words and their purported referents. The words, by design, are magnificent: big, strong, powerful, highly emotional; they appear to engage with important and troublesome issues and to offer comforting solutions to them. The lie seems to enhance meaning, but in fact it confuses it. Because it is done via para- and extralinguistics, it is very hard to point out, analyze, or question: our language is not designed to talk about nonverbal discourse.


Trump’s pragmatic lies are wrapped in dazzling para- and extra-linguistics, which give a sense of legitimacy: the speaker is involved, he cares, his emotions are your emotions and therefore legitimate. Trump is a master of the technique: his paralinguistic range is extraordinary, his face and gestures highly expressive, even his clothing intensely communicative. The forcefulness of his extra- and paralinguistic strategies gives the impression that he has actually made meaningful statements. But the words are emotion-carriers, not concept-carriers, and closely examined, signify nothing (except “I am great!”). His superlatives and high-flown language are empty substitutes for semantic explicitness. He uses pugnacity and bullying to disguise the fact that he is evading answers rather than providing them. We can call his technique, “hyperbolic avoidance”: the use of exaggerated pragmatics to conceal impoverished semantics. (Trump himself, in The Art of the Deal, refers to his technique as “truthful hyperbole,” but that itself is not truthful, though certainly hyperbolic.)


In his interesting article about Trump’s success, in the August 31 New Yorker, Evan Osnos gives several examples of the technique at work. Arriving in Laredo, Texas, he remarks that he feels unsafe (being so close to the border). He is asked why. His reply:


“Well, they say it’s a great danger, but I have to do it. I love the country. There’s nothing more important than what I’m doing.”

He seems to be picking up on the question, i.e. answering responsively, by echoing “unsafe” with “danger,” a form of anaphora. But the “answer” is vague and evasive: who are “they,” and what is “it”? What, exactly, does he “love to do”? How does his patriotism in any way respond to why he feels “unsafe” on this bit of U.S. soil? Yet, if you’re not listening closely, you are apt to be left with a positive, upbeat – yet wary – message: here is a man who, for love of our country, would take a bullet for you. When a self-identified person of Greatness makes this offer, you cannot refuse. He’s your man and you will protect and defend him, as he will you.

As this and other examples of Trumpese illustrate, The Donald makes effective use of the little words: pronouns and similar words that normally have antecedents that supply their reference, but in his utterances those antecedents are missing and we have to fill them in. Each of us fills in our own. Thus, in the brief example above, the two “it’s”; the empty “they”; the vague “what I’m doing.” Encouraging hearers to draw the desired conclusion is the hyperbole: “There’s nothing more important than what I’m doing,” because “I” am the most important man in the world.

It is possible that Trump’s hyperbolic avoidance represents his ignorance of something any serious candidate for the presidency of the country should know: the powers and constraints of the office: can POTUS, on his own, build a bridge across the border? Ship millions of people across that border against their will? For over 200 years we have had a document called the Constitution, which is quite specific in laying out just what the President can and can’t do, and the two possibilities above happen to be two of the things he can’t.

Possibly Trump is conflating “POTUS,” a position that has strict checks and balances, with “Chairman and President of the Trump Organization,” a very different position that permits its holder many privileges not available to POTUS. Trump never addresses this important distinction.

My favorite Trumperies express his feelings about women. He has been subjected to some scrutiny on this topic following the Megyn Kelly contretemps. He has done his manful best to reveal the kind of guy The Donald really is, womanwise.

The women I think I’ll do great with because I cherish women…. I will be the best thing that ever happened to women. I cherish women.

I will take care of women’s health and women’s health issues better than anybody and far better than Hillary Clinton, who doesn’t have a clue.

Underlying many of his remarks about his feelings about, and dealings with, women, is implicit sexual innuendo: he “does great” with women, he will be “the best thing that ever happened to women.” These comments leave me with the same queasiness that his pre-candidate comments always did, when he talked about his requirement for “quality women” and his preference for “supermodels.” All suggest that – no matter what he claims to mean – he sees and will always see women as subordinate to him and of value to him only to the degree that they are sexually available and desirable to him.

But he says he “cherishes” women! Isn’t that nice? Isn’t that respectful?


“Cherish” is a word with great emotional power, which means that it should be used with caution. Normally, its use implies that its subject and direct object have a deep, caring, and emotionally strong relationship. We don’t “cherish” strangers and we don’t “cherish” masses of undifferentiated people. To say that you “cherish women” suggests to me that you can’t and don’t care to tell us apart or see us as individuals. Or maybe just that you don’t know the meaning of “cherish,” other than that it makes you sound as if you had human feelings.

Here is another example of Trump’s use of repetition, or anaphora. Repetition is a form of emotional emphasis: it says, “I really care.” It does not necessarily mean that the speaker really cares.

The second item annoys me even more, since it perfectly illustrates The Donald’s majestic and monumental gall. Just what, if anything, is his expertise in “women’s health issues”? Would he know a woman’s health issue if he saw it? Is there any expertise in the world that he cannot or will not claim? He’s saying that he knows more about your wherever than you do, because you’re just you and he is The Donald. The idea that Donald J. Trump automatically knows more about women and their bodies than they do is insulting to half the world’s population, yet no one to my knowledge has tried to confront him on that. His claim would be reasonable only if he were a licensed whereverologist. The Hillary bashing makes sense only if you read his statement about knowing more about these things than “Hillary” as invoking a metonymy in which “Hillary” stands for “all women.” (Otherwise, how could he possibly know what “Hillary” knows and doesn’t know? Even a four-year-old has a more sophisticated theory of mind.)

Trump’s communicative strategy is appalling and dangerous. We have not seen its like in a long time – not, in fact, since the 1940s, in Germany.




203 thoughts on “Being Wherever

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