The U.S. 2016 presidential campaign is nothing short of Orwellian. A billionaire real estate mogul who’s lived the most privileged of American dreams, able to leverage his birthright wealth into fame and celebrity, is now using the political power of that celebrity to usher in a dark American nightmare he calls “making America great again.” The upside-down world of Donald Trump and his legions of angry supporters are trampling on every fundamental notion of what it is to be an American and indeed what values our country stands for. Our most basic institution, our democracy, is now being questioned and assaulted by a man who talks more like an authoritarian dictator than someone running to be the president of the free world.
It needs to be said that the Trump campaign stands on the shoulders of decades of hate and vitriol from many Republicans, who have comfortably graced the “conservative media” landscape. Conservative talk radio brings in high profits all around the country. Even in liberal areas of the country, conservative radio is a dominant force. It greets us where we are, in our cars and in our homes with highly inflammatory anti-liberal political rhetoric. Leaders like Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell have fed this hate beast for so long, it paved the way for Donald Trump. What Trump has added to the equation is a level of ignorance, cynicism and propaganda that is shocking even to staunch Republican Party conservatives.
Trump and his surrogates, appearing daily on every news program to “balance” coverage, have inundated our media with so much hate and ignorance, so many lies, twisted facts and conspiracy theories, that it feels like America is drowning in a swamp of propaganda. Watching cable news or listening to the radio is genuinely anxiety-producing, and I’m sure mine is not the only blood pressure reading that has risen in this election cycle.
Much has been written on Trump’s bullying bigotry and the deplorable xenophobic, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant rhetoric from his campaign and supporters. What I’d like to focus on here is some aspects of Trump’s language of propaganda. People are sucked into Trump’s disinformation swamp through a variety of linguistic techniques, aimed to elevate emotional responses while building a special kind of rapport based on a divisive “us vs. them” model. You will be agitated whether you buy into Trump’s conspiracies or see through them.
A common propaganda technique used by Putin’s Kremlin in Russia as well as in Ukraine and Europe is to put out so many lies that people are simply too overwhelmed and exhausted to think critically. This technique confuses and obfuscates with information overload and whataboutism, ultimately ending up leaving audiences unable to think critically or make sense of all the chaos before them. The idea is that given so many falsehoods, something will stick, and people will be unable to resist succumbing to at least some portion of the lies. Perhaps a broadcaster or journalist politely swats away one lie, meanwhile 50 more pop up.
Such classic propaganda techniques are enhanced by Trump’s ability to build rapport with his audiences by using the everyday informal language of “the common people,” creating a divided “us versus them” world, a world based more on perception than reality. Exploiting America’s culture wars and perceived grievances (e.g., “Obama’s war on Christmas”), Trump uses ordinary language to put himself squarely in the good camp–the common people, while the others–liberals, Democrats, elites, government institutions, and government itself–are the enemies. This may be the most insidious among all his salesman tactics – creating a cult of personality of an oxymoronic “Trump the common guy billionaire” which he then uses to divide society, manipulating common working people’s anxieties and insecurities through the use of powerful language techniques, including insidious dog-whistles and code-words. He laces his dog-whistle rhetoric with simple and simplified working-class colloquial vernacular to strengthen his appeal as he widens divisions. Trump’s “regular guy” “authentic” language and entertainer style “resonates” with voters because he literally talks like them and to them.
Trump arouses his audience as he takes them down his own fact-free road to his reality, pushing his own alternative “facts” and perceptions, laced with fake facts, Orwellian misinformation and downright disinformation, couched in highly charged language to enhance their effectiveness. His goal is to influence public opinion by building rapport by “working the crowd” with chummy engaging language, as if he is a personal friend of his voters.
Trump is always speaking this way to his voters, and that is why his voters are always sure they understand him perfectly, even though in reality he is a candidate in constant need of interpretation. How many times have we heard a Trump surrogate or pundit say, “What Mr. Trump meant was ….” When he says something off the rails or contradictory, we are told “Oh, Mr. Trump didn’t mean that. He meant something else,” which they proceed to explain as their personal interpretation. Trump didn’t really mean that Obama and Clinton created ISIS. He didn’t really mean to disrespect Mr. Khan, the GoldStar family father. He didn’t mean that Russia didn’t invade Ukraine or annex Crimea. He didn’t mean what he said about grabbing women by their private parts. How is it that a man is so praised for authenticity and straight-talking language when so many people have to continually explain and interpret what his words mean??
This is because of the way Trump uses propaganda language techniques to divide and conquer based on perception and emotion, not reality or facts. People interpret Trump to hear what they want to in his words, and, importantly, excuse and dismiss the rest, seemingly because Trump is an entertainer, or because he’s not a politician or some other non-rational reason. These excuses allow Trump to break norms and conventions, which amounts to great advantage for Trump, putting him above the rules in play for everyone else. Neither reality nor facts matter because Trump leaves his audience with a powerful perception of the world. As former KGB psychological warfare specialist Yuri Bezmenov has pointed out, once minds are convinced, they resist accepting reality, even when presented with hard evidence that what they believe is in fact a lie.
Trump’s use of “rigged” is a perfect example of such manipulation. There is absolutely no evidence that our election is rigged. But Trump repeats this highly charged lie, a Big Lie, as Goebbels would call it, so that eventually people will begin to believe it. Or at least, they’ll have doubts about fairness. In reality, if anything is “rigged,” it is “rigged” FOR Donald Trump, yet in Trump’s Orwellian “us vs. them” perceived world, he uses the word “rigged” to charge the exact opposite, that everyone is AGAINST him. The notion of “rigged” in itself is emotionally laden with a sense of injustice and resentment. Such outrageous and inflammatory language riles up the public while manipulating the media. As a result, instead of focusing on substantive issues of how Trump has benefited all of his life from a system rigged in his favor, the media is busily dispelling allegations of voter fraud. In so doing, they repeat the false charges over and over, providing, for those primed by Trump to distrust the media, the very snippets of misinformation needed to confirm his false claims. Meanwhile Trump has expanded his “rigged” charge well beyond the election, to virtually the entire media–TV networks, online media and traditional press. Everyone is busily preoccupied trying figure out what he means, to interpret his words. Meanwhile his audience feels they know what he means, they “get it.” This is a sure sign that Trump speaks a language aimed at a very specific audience for a specific purpose. And they hear him loud and clear.
It’s no coincidence that Trump often says “I hear you” and “I am your voice.” This conveys more than simply he understands his constituency. Trump is literally talking like them, a kind of linguistic surrogate to persuade working people that he understands their problems, their insecurities, their anger. He has divided the world into “us” and “them” and his language reminds his audience that he is one of “us.” And, importantly, they are opposed to the elites, the liberals or the “liberal media elites,” all reviled and ridiculed for political correctness and the like. It’s of course absurd on its face that an elite privileged billionaire who’s lived a lavish lifestyle since childhood, who’s defrauded workers and contractors in his business life, who’s abused his power with women in the workplace, would somehow become the voice of worker-class Americans. Yet Donald Trump has negotiated this role with many Americans, largely because of his ability to use ordinary talk to build rapport with the very people he has nothing in common with and has screwed all his life, while using propaganda techniques to thoroughly vilify his opponent as an unacceptable and even criminal choice.
Trump is able to manipulate his audiences because language is a powerful element of identity. Language identifies who we are, where we come from and where we belong. Sociolinguists study language patterns including accents, words, slang, intonation and the like that send signals to listeners about age, social group or groups, gender, whether we are college-educated, etc. Donald Trump uses a variety of rapport-building patterns and strategies together with marketing techniques and phraseology to sell himself as “one of you guys” and his fake image that he is some sort of working-class hero in a starkly divided us-versus-them world.
Here’s a sampling of some common Trump phrases and rhetoric that I heard just today.
This is your last chance.
You’ve never seen anything like this before.
Believe me, folks.
That I can tell you.
People are fed up with stupidity and weakness. They’re fed up with ISIS, and all of those things.
There’s nothing like this in the history of this country.
Never before in our history has someone so criminal been able to run for president.
It’s absolutely disgraceful that Hillary Clinton got away with email scams and corruption.
I know more than the generals, believe me.
Our system is rigged like never before. The system is corrupt, folks. The system is rigged. It’s a broke, corrupt, rigged system. I’ve been saying this for a long long time.
It’s a horrible, horrible situation. What’s going on. Our leaders are stupid. These are stupid stupid people. And they have no commonsense.
The media is rigged. Don’t believe the New York Times. They are all against me. But they’re really against all of you. They look down on the hardworking people of the country. They’re condescending.
I see you and I hear you. I am your voice. Remember, I was on the other side of this equation for a long time. I know.
I will never ever let you down. I promise I will never let you down. This is bigger than Brexit.
Me me me I. Trump uses “I” and “me” statements often as a way to instill both trust and authority. He’s never worked in government or been in the military. Yet he paints a dark world of corruption, injustice and incompetence, and then declares that he knows more than everyone, more than our leaders, experts, generals, etc. In this way he presents himself as a trusting “father knows best” figure. The people, his people, must believe him and trust him only. Recall his “I alone can fix it” line from his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. This psychologically manipulative language is of course reminiscent of some of history’s most notorious authoritarian leaders, including Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, whose survivors and survivors’ children are mortified as they recognize in Trump echoes of their parents and grandparents’ traumatic histories.
Hyperbole and repetition. Notice also Trump’s rampant use of hyperbole and repetition. These are linguistic strategies that hammer messages home, leading the audience to think what they’re hearing are their only possible options. In other words, you must trust what Trump is telling you because things are so dire that the sky is about to fall. Trump often repeats and tweets “This is your last chance,” a phrase instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with infomercials. It’s a salesman “hook.” It’s the phrase used by car salesmen trying to close a deal with a customer, psychologically backing them into a corner so they don’t walk away. This language creates a stress response, and is anxiety-inducing, trapping the listener to accept a false sense of impending disaster.
Colloquial extremes and exaggerations. Further building on the psychological agitation is Trump’s use of extremes like “fed up,” “rigged” “disaster” and repeating them often. There’s something powerful and engaging when someone speaks so resolutely and audaciously, using words that many don’t use in polite company. We don’t think of American English as having a literary language that is all that different from colloquial language, as in French, for example, but of course we do. It’s natural for people to write differently from how they talk, and to use language differently in different settings. We talk in a house of worship differently from a classroom or a boardroom or a bar. We speak differently with our family at home than we do with our bosses at work.
Some of this is rooted in a generalized private and public distinction. But Trump’s characteristic rule-breaking style also breaks language conventions, and that gets a rise from people, and sucks them into his world. He uses a crass, in-your-face confrontational style of speaking, which includes insults, name-calling, even accusations of criminality, all of which feels jarring precisely because we are witnesses to and viscerally experience the breaking of conventions as we are listening to him. And those who are present at Trump rallies feel this even more strongly, as confirmed by many journalists and writers who have described their experiences as witnesses to the extremely agitated crowds.
Trump’s verbal attacks on people with simple characterizations like “stupid” or “crooked” that vilify his opponents with special brand names (like “crooked Hillary,” “lying Ted” etc.) also get an emotional rise out of people, precisely because ad hominem slurs and smears are rarely said openly in public, where we expect decorum and respect for cultural norms and politeness conventions. Trump’s language breaks those rules and the resulting outrage factor is psychologically exciting, agitating our human brains. Again, we can’t avoid this psychological effect. Trump’s language either pulls us in or reviles us, but the high level of emotion and agitation is common to all his listeners at the end of the day.
To be sure Trump has debased political discourse and divided the nation further. It’s unsettling and worrisome thinking about where all the agitation and anger goes after the election is over. It’s more than likely Donald Trump will not be president, thankfully, but the important question is, what will the agitated people he now commands do to the country they purport to love so much? A new TrumpTV news network looks to be a likely reality on the horizon, with an extreme alt-right bent. Right-wing media like FoxNews and talk radio figureheads like Rush Limbaugh will also continue their agitation of the electorate. The media will continue to be attacked and discredited, government will continue to be demoralized, and the first woman president will be delegitimized as was the first African-American president.
What will we do? What will you do? Putin and Russia will continue foreign pressure and agitation. But we never anticipated that the same kind of propaganda techniques would take such a firm hold here, in the land of the free and home of the brave.
The 2016 election has exposed a brave new world of gaping holes in journalism in newsrooms and media organizations. How will the media and importantly cable TV networks respond to these vulnerabilities? Will CNN continue to have talking heads spew unchallenged lies on their panels? Or will pro-Trump talking heads Jeffrey Lord, Corey Lewandowski and Kayleigh McEnany and their false balance fade into the background? Will there be a government or NGO response to push for more accuracy and responsibility in media?
In this teachable moment, it’s important to recognize that our great American democracy, a beacon of hope to so many in other parts of the world, is an experiment and is not a guarantee. Democracy cannot survive too much ignorance, as former Supreme Court Justice David Souter said ominously in a 2012 interview. I would add, given what we know of Russian meddling and Trump’s financial and PR ties and of course his unsubtle Putin bromance, that we are too easily kept ignorant through propaganda. And so we must be vigilant in calling out not only the obvious dissemination of lies, fake news, distortions and mind-numbing conspiracies. We must also recognize the more subtle propaganda techniques in language patterns used so skillfully by Trump and others to manipulate so many into following Donald Trump down his rabbit hole.
A version of this article appears at EuromaidanPress.com