language, politics

Trump Talk – And How to Talk Back to It


The major problem with Donald Trump’s use of language is not so much what he literally says, but with what his utterances reveal about who and what he really is.


Here is my thought on this question: Trump is the Antichrist and his discourse can only be properly understood from that perspective. Remember: I am a linguistic scientist so I know about arcana of this kind.


The notion of the Antichrist is one of the murkiest, yet scariest and therefore most potent, narratives comprising the discourse of Christianity. There are several versions of the story: where he comes from, what role he plays, and how his existence fits into the larger understanding of Christianity.

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language, other topics, politics

The Donald Has a Dream


I know this will sound bizarre, but I’m going to say it anyway: the media are not paying enough attention to Donald Trump, or at least to one of his recent effusions.


On Saturday, May 28, Trump delivered a speech from the same spot in Washington, D.C., where, in 1963, Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. This choice of venue itself suggests a peculiar kind of effrontery, or immodesty, to begin with. But it gets worse.


King’s audience is estimated to have numbered about 250,000, Trump’s about 5,000. But Trump has an explanation for the discrepancy…of course he does! It couldn’t be that MLK was HUGER than Donald J. Trump. No….


Trump claimed that “more than half a million people” attempted to attend his speech, “but,” he said, absent all evidence, “unfortunately they aren’t allowed to come in.”


Note the passive: “they aren’t allowed.” By whom? Why are there no reports of 245,000 disgruntled citizens milling around Washington, D. C.?


Actually, according to Trump, the situation was even more outrageous: not a trifling 245, 000, but 600,000 denied their right to share in the world’s greatest experience.

As usual, Trump’s aesthetic judgment is about numbers: quantity is quality. “We have the biggest rallies by far, far bigger than Bernie Sanders,” Trump told the crowd on the National Mall. “Far bigger. I mean, look at today. They say you have 600,000 people here trying to get in.”

They. You. Who?

But the most extraordinary piece of chutzpah Trump manifests here is the notion that he is in any way comparable to the Rev. Dr. King. In fact, if we compare Trump only rhetorically, not in terms of morality, accomplishment, or anything concrete, it would be hard to find two human beings who are further apart. Taking a leaf from Trump’s own playbook, one is almost forced into superlatives or superlative equivalents: Trump’s posturing can only be described as outrageous, psychotic, and/or pathetic. And maybe the most outrageous fact of all is that the media, which hang on Trump’s every syllable, has had practically nothing to say about this, although even brief consideration should tell us all something about the man who would be president.

So, Donald, you wanna compare yourself to MLK?


King’s speech was uncontroversially one of the greatest speeches ever delivered in America, remarkable not only for what it said and the courage and passion with which it was delivered, but also for its rhetorical elegance and eloquence. Let’s compare King’s speech with Trump’s typical public address:

King                                                                                        Trump


eloquent                                                                     banal

inspiring                                                                     humdrum

inclusive “we”                                                            exclusive “we”

uniting                                                                        dividing

immortal                                                                    forgettable

all-inclusive                                                                egocentric

trusting                                                                      paranoid

on topic                                                                      meta


MLK’s speeches were powerful, above all, because he explicitly and directly addressed a topic few were willing to confront head-on. Trump, in this speech as elsewhere, proffers no topic. No Trump speech is about anything other than “I am great” and “they are not.” Hence his oratory is necessarily “meta”: Trump’s effusions are about “aboutness,” not on any topics themselves. He is obsessed with numbers and polls, with other people’s responses to him (usually inadequate) and personal irrelevant insults. You will find none of the above in King’s speech. He speaks of soaring ideas.


King could have given a divisive speech about “us” versus “them,” but he did not. It is true that parts of his speech are about how whites have mistreated blacks and how the behavior of whites has to change, but especially near the end, King works to unite his audience: everyone is included in the “we” who will be the beneficiaries of full equality for all. He recites a stanza of one of America’s secular hymns, “America” (the one schoolchildren know as “My country, ‘tis of thee”). We all own this song: we are unified by singing it together.


King’s speech is not only memorable, but immortal. To this day, most of us can recite a phrase or a paragraph, or at least when we hear a line of it, we can identify the source. Can anyone reading these words recite a phrase from any of Trump’s speeches – other than for purposes of parody?


King speaks in metaphor and parable. He refers to the Bible, to the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln’s speeches. In doing so, not only is he building his inclusive “we” – these are words everyone listening to his speech would share with one another and with him – but he is inviting his audience to make his meaning along with him. The topic – the reality, and the evils, of American racial inequality – is divisive, but the way King brings it to his audience, black and white, is unifying. Despite the dangerousness of his message, King trusts his audience to grasp it and be changed by it.


Trump’s favorite tropes are hyperbole (those superlatives) and anaphora (repetition). He uses metaphor and parable little if at all (unless you count remarks about hand size). His choices do not gently coax the audience to participate, but beat them over the head: they must agree with Trump, or else. Trump does not trust his audience – he feels they are unworthy of trust. Like your average tinpot dictator, Trump is only comfortable wielding absolute power. But you know what Lord Acton said about absolute power.


Contrasting these two orators, separated by half a century and so much more, I am tempted to declaim with Cicero, “O tempora! O mores!” (Roughly, “We are going to hell in a handbasket.”) How could so many Americans have fallen so low as to cast their lots with such a disappointment? But perhaps there is a ray of hope. This Trump speech did not bring out the 600,000 fans he thought his eloquence merited, but a measly 5,000. Is this – dare we hope? – an augury? Was his reaction even more of one?


There is something not quite normal about someone – a candidate for president, no less – falling into a lengthy and vituperative harangue about how “they” aren’t letting 595,000 people into his presence to hear his speech. Is decompensation finally, at long last, setting in? Mother of mercy, is this the end of the Donald?


The right kind of media attention would help the process along.




language, other topics, politics

Cold Comforts, or None at All


It is comforting to think that Donald Trump is a nutcase who has given his mouth over to his egomania and just opens it up and lets whatever come out, without concern for the fact that he is destroying the Republican Party’s hopes for success in this year’s Presidential election, and perhaps forever. After all, he’s not a real Republican.


It is comforting to think that Bernie Sanders is a nutcase who has let egomania triumph over reason, refusing to get out of the race for the Democratic nomination and show some support for his rival, without concern for the fact that he is destroying the Democratic Party’s hopes for success in this year’s Presidential election, and perhaps forever. After all, he’s not a real Democrat.


Those are the comforting scenarios. But they might not reflect reality. Continue reading

language, politics

The Socialist, the Donald, and the Unmentionable

I am going to say something that, if you don’t read carefully, you will find outrageous and unjustified. Please read carefully.


Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Adolf Hitler share an important trait.


Notice that I did not say that the three are the same, or even alike in general. I am saying that all three share a rhetorical habit. The similarity ends there. Analogy is not identity. But the quality they share is one that can have serious and problematic consequences for a great many people. Continue reading

gender, language, politics

Bye, Bye, Biden


This has been an especially interesting political week, chock-full of moments worthy of comment. I will concentrate on one, Joe Biden’s announcement on Wednesday that he would not seek the Democratic nomination for president. Several commentators offered reasons to mourn his departure; but judging from his speech itself, I can’t help feeling that his withdrawal was a distinctly good thing both for the Democrats and for the country. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

language, politics

Understanding the Unintelligible

Donald Trump may be a jerk, but he’s a compelling jerk. Jeb Bush may be the closest anyone can come to a rational Republican, but he’s a bore. Understanding this distinction clarifies the Republican primary process, which otherwise might seem even weirder than it is.


Candidates’ behavior on the stump falls into three neat piles: linguistic, paralinguistic, and extra-linguistic. The linguistic behavior is what shows up in the printed transcript of a speech: the words and grammar alone. Paralinguistic behavior is everything else that emanates from the vocal cavity: intonation, pitch, speed, loudness, and more. The extra-linguistic part of a message includes facial expression, gestures, and stance. Continue reading