Trump and the Power of Language


“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

George Orwell, 1984


In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory, many mourners view the results not simply with regret towards a White House they will oppose, but as the impending validation of a society they have dreaded.

Trump did not create the racism, sexism, religious intolerance and xenophobia that may have won him the presidency. He merely gave a voice to the existent ideology whose intent was to disenfranchise various groups of people, fellow Americans, in order to preserve the delusion that the America that was great had expired, and that Trump could bring it back.

Despite his and others’ insistence that words do not matter, his words–not actions– resonated with and mobilized his supporters. Since he has no experience in government, there were no actions to analyze. But there were speeches. There were promises. There were racial slurs, instances of sexual harassment, excuses, factually flawed Tweets, violent rhetoric, lies, bigoted rants, sexist insults, and a dependence on exaggerated accusations. There was intolerance, and the language that articulated it. With his words and essentially nothing else, Trump empowered millions of losers and won the election.

In a May 2016 CNN interview with reporter Dan Senor, Barry Bennett, one of Trump’s senior advisors, confirmed the candidate’s stance on the futility of words. The two went back and forth about whether or not comments Trump had made, including “build the wall” and his ban on Muslims, were policy proposals or just, as Bennett argued, “suggestions.”

Senor: I know, but typically words matter. When political leaders –

Bennett: Oh, please. This “words matter” stuff. I mean, this is ridiculous. I mean, you are looking desperately for a reason not to vote for him. I don’t care, don’t vote for him.

Senor: My favorite line honestly of this campaign may have been just been articulated by you. This “words matter stuff is ridiculous.” “Don’t take him at his word. Don’t take him at his word.”

A presidential candidate asserting that words don’t matter is like a CFO insisting that revenue doesn’t matter. Words worked for Hitler. Words worked for Mao. Words also worked for Obama, Bush, FDR, Nixon, even George Wallace. Words motivate people to pick a side and show up on election day to support it. A man who built his career on branding understands the power of words. Trump himself says so: “I have the best words.”

In their catchiest forms, words summarize and clarify a politician’s perspective on any given issue that may be important enough to a voter to get him to vote. For some, “grab them by the p****” was not a deplorable and demoralizing crime that had to be coped with; it was a war cry advocating for a return to an era in which there was no pushback against that kind of degradation towards half the world’s population and a good majority of its heroines.

Politicians operate within and for the sake of words. Though the average citizen would have a clear understanding of these obvious truths, perhaps Trump needs a refresher on the nature of government. Debates, speeches, and negotiations all necessitate the use of words. Legislation is written with words. Laws are passed after the written and oral exchange of–you guessed it–words. So if the phrases that are sprinkled into the political cannon of a campaign, and especially a presidency, are littered with overt racism and sexism, that matters.

During his victory speech, Trump’s supporters chanted, “Kill Obama!” His youngest son stood next to him and was visibly startled. “Kill Obama!” is absurd. It seems any words, devoid of logic or context, are acceptable within Trumpism as long as they are somehow violent.

When students at Michigan’s Royal Oak Middle School chanted, “Build the wall!” during lunch, in a room full of their crying Latino classmates, Trump’s words mattered. People have argued that Trump doesn’t really believe what he says, that he makes comments for the sake of winning votes. If that’s true, then he is a successful sociopath. He cares more about amassing personal fame and power than he does preventing the spread of words that lead directly to violent action.

The day after Trump was elected, his supporters celebrated and elevated his rhetoric. A swastika paired with the words, “MAKE AMERICA WHITE AGAIN” was spray painted on a baseball dugout in Wellsville, New York. Outside Buffalo, a black baby doll was found with a rope tied around its neck.

In Durham, North Carolina, a wall had been vandalized with the words, “BLACK LIVES DON’T MATTER AND NEITHER DOES YOUR VOTES.” This inspiring commentator managed to demonstrate both grammatical competency and racial acceptance. “Seig Hiel 2016” and a swastika were spray painted on a storefront in South Philadelphia. The Ku Klux Klan, which endorsed Trump during the campaign, has planned a victory celebration in Raleigh, North Carolina. In the past two days, there have been multiple reports of people ripping off Muslim women’s hijabs. One woman was choked with hers.

These people may not have been following direct orders from Trump, but their actions were facilitated and instigated by his incendiary language. For the past year and a half, some may have identified as a “silent majority,” an invocation of Richard Nixon’s claim to speak for a strong silent law-and-order majority, but they have found their voices in his success. In light of these crimes, the only adequate response from the president-elect is to address these vandals and tell them to stop. They need to know that he does not condone or accept this behavior. Even if that’s just another lie, it is his civic responsibility.

After the election, celebrators seem to feel entitled to act as shock troops on behalf their president-elect: Trump. One word.


Photo courtesy of Brian Quinn/ The Wellsville Daily Reporter.

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  1. Cat Costigan November 13, 2016 at 3:35 pm - Reply

    Yes!!! This is what I’ve been saying!

  2. jackie m James November 14, 2016 at 2:09 pm - Reply

    Great job keep it up !!

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