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Trump has turned words into weapons and he’s winning the linguistic war

George Lakoff, professor emeritus of linguistics | June 13, 2018

Co-authored by George Lakoff and Gil Duran

Trump speaking through a megaphoneDonald Trump has been a salesman for nearly half a century. He is now selling himself, his worldview and his self-serving views of the law and the truth. His principal tools are language and the media. By faithfully transmitting Trump’s words and ideas, the press helps him to attack, and thereby control, the press itself.

Trump knows the press has a strong instinct to repeat his most outrageous claims, and this allows him put the press to work as a marketing agency for his ideas. His lies reach millions of people through constant repetition in the press and social media. This poses an existential threat to democracy.

Language works by activating brain structures called “frame-circuits” used to understand experience. They get stronger when we hear the activating language. Enough repetition can make them permanent, changing how we view the world.

Even negating a frame-circuit activates and strengthens it, as when Nixon said “I am not a crook” and people thought of him as a crook.

Scientists, marketers, advertisers and salespeople understand these principles. So do Russian and Islamic State hackers. But most reporters and editors clearly don’t. So the press is at a disadvantage when dealing with a super salesman with an instinctive ability to manipulate thought by 1) framing first, 2) repeating often and 3) leading others to repeat his words by getting people to attack him within his own frame.

Language can shape the way we think. Trump knows this. Here are some of his favorite manipulation techniques.

First, he weaponizes words. The modifier “crooked” convicted Hillary Clinton without a trial. The media’s constant repetition sealed the verdict. “Fake news” proclaims that the news is fake. The use of “fake” is designed to delegitimize the press itself. Trump also uses strategic name-calling to undermine the Russia investigation, tagging it as a “witch-hunt” by the “deep state” in an attempt to shift blame. It’s false, but when the press repeats it, his narrative wins.

The media perpetuated a Trump lie by repeating “spygate”, which falsely characterized the FBI informant as a spy. Once made, such a mistake by the press is hard to correct.

A possible immediate correction might have been to use “Russian spygate,” repeatedly focusing on the Russian contacts of Trump’s campaign aides Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, with the FBI informant checking on Russian spying in the Trump campaign. This would have had to be done over and over, with reporters bring it up whenever “spygate” was used. Not an easy fix.

Then there are what cognitive scientists call “salient exemplars” – well-publicized individual cases, where wide publicity leads the public to take them as having a high probability and typifying a whole class. Trump turns them into weaponized stereotypes. He is a master at defaming entire groups of people as liars, rapists, terrorists – or in the case of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies – agents of corruption.

He knows how to avoid taking responsibility for a claim. “Maybe.” “I don’t know.” “We’ll see.” Yet the claim has been made and stands, with no responsibility for it.

In The Art of the Deal, Trump discusses using “truthful hyperbole” – exaggerated claims suggesting a significant truth. His hyperbole can be either positive (“great,” “terrific,” “the best”) for what he likes or negative (“a disaster,” “the worst ever”) for what he dislikes. “The worst trade deal ever” frames trade agreements as “deals,” where “deals” are seen as zero-sum games that you either win or lose – and winning is the only good outcome. “Doesn’t it feel good to win!” “You’ll win so much, you’ll feel tired of winning!”

“Deal” and “winning” are not just words. They are central to his worldview. Those who win deserve to win; those who lose deserve to lose. Those who don’t win are “losers”. This is a version of individual responsibility, a cornerstone of conservative thought. There is a moral hierarchy. Those who win are better than those who lose.

“America first” means that America is better than other countries, as shown by its wealth and power. And that wealth and power should be used to win – to acquire more wealth and power in all its “deals” – even with our allies. Power includes the power to bully or punish – for example, to impose tariffs or pull out of treaty – or at least threaten if others don’t go along with him.

Trump’s tweets are not random, they are strategic. There are four types: 1) Pre-emptive framing, to get a framing advantage. 2) Diversion, to divert attention when news could embarrass him. 3) Deflection: Shift the blame to others. And 4) Trial balloon – test how much you can get away with. Reporting, and therefore repeating, Trump’s tweets just gives him more power. There is an alternative. Report the true frames that he is trying to pre-empt. Report the truth that he is trying to divert attention from. Put the blame where it belongs. Bust the trial balloon. Report what the strategies are trying to hide.

Cornered by the Russia investigation, Trump is working overtime to twist the facts, the law and reality in general, to benefit himself. As the indictments and the evidence pile up in favor of a case for Trump-Russia collusion in the 2016 election, he’s made it clear that he considers himself above both the law and the truth. As president of the United States, anything he says – true or false – is faithfully parroted by the press. This needs to change.

Trump is subjecting American democracy to a brutal test. Our survival requires that the press halt its unwitting complicity in his power grab. The press has become complicit with Trump by allowing itself to be used as an amplifier for his falsehoods and frames. When the press gives Trump absolute power to dictate coverage, it abdicates its role as a pillar of democracy.

How can the press do a better job? Here are some basic suggestions:

First, journalists must understand how propaganda works on the brain and grasp the cognitive science that marketers of propaganda have implicitly mastered: frames, metaphors, narratives and brain basics.

Second, keep a steely focus on the fact that American democracy is under attack by a foreign power, possibly with collusion from the sitting president’s campaign. This is a crisis. Certain rules don’t apply in a crisis, especially the rule that the press must amplify the president’s words, whatever they are.

Third, stop letting Trump control the news cycle. Newsgathering should be a serious affair controlled by editors whose power rivals any politician’s. Stop chasing his tweets and elevating every sideshow. Start every story with truth and the context of what’s really important to citizens in a democracy. More BBC, less TMZ.

Fourth, don’t spread lies. Don’t privilege Trump’s lies by putting their specific language in the headlines, the leads or the hashtags. Don’t repeat the lies assuming people will automatically know they’re lies. People need to know the president is lying, but be careful about repeating the lies because “a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth”. Repetition of lies spreads them.

The job of the free press is to seek the truth and report the truth, especially the morally important truths and their consequences. If the press fails to do this job, not only does it lose its freedom, but we all do.

Cross-posted from The Guardian, UK.

Comments to “Trump has turned words into weapons and he’s winning the linguistic war

  1. I’m not a scholar, just a citizen. I wanted to make you aware that I enjoyed reading your blog and will try to catch more. He (# 45) also studied the smile, facial expressions, body language, mannerisms including his hand gestures. “Of course you’re aware of the aforementioned; if ordinary individuals can “See The Writing On The Wall,” “what is really going on?”
    You don’t have to answer that question.

    Thank you……

  2. Dear Prof. Lakoff,
    It was interesting to note the exact words ” make America great again” spoken in an old movie about race and ethnic hatred in the middle west. These racists went as far as giving a black man a gun with ten shots,let him loose in a forest, and then hunted him down and shot him. This may be a stretch, but Trumps slogan could be a code to racists. If this is the case, racists knew in advance that he was there man.

  3. Unfortunately with the dumbing down of Americans, who get their news from a quick sentence on their devices, and couldn’t recount a brief understanding of (for example) what happened in WW2, they will never get past the first paragraph of this article. It would require that they READ. Then they would have to THINK.!

  4. 1) The universities are not powerless. Intelligence is the power of the universities.
    Education as an antipole!
    Demand that sensible laws be passed to prevent the abuse of power.
    If the students unisono and uninterruptedly call people to use their minds, their reason via the media Twitter, facebook etc., they will get new followers every day.
    Show that America is not prepared to lose the principles of democracy.
    Do not express hatred in the tweets – just a wave of community, equality, freedom, self-determination, good and bad action and reason. (Emmanuel Kant). These thoughts from Switzerland.

  5. Thank you for succinctly explaining what my gut has been telling me for months. Now, if you would please put these thoughts into the form of an educational conference for the media and help them to respond appropriately to this unprecedented assault on all that is good and right about our nation, I would be so grateful. How can those of us who are not media personalities or journalists help? How can we unify our voices to be heard above the din of this anti-democratic demagogue and his cronies?

  6. P.S. It’s time to find a much better way to fight the linguistic war. Two most important imperatives to focus on are:

    1. In the Spring issue of CALIFORNIA alumni magazine Chancellor Christ posted the following Letter:
    She asks us: “What are the critical issues—the grand challenges—facing our state, our nation, and our world that Berkeley is uniquely suited to address and solve? Where are we best positioned to be a global leader, and what investments do we need to make to become so?”

    2. The new July issue of National Geographic has a feature article by Andrew Revkin “Climate: The More Thing Change…”

  7. “The job of the free press is to seek the truth and report the truth”

    If this were true, then Prof. Lakoff’s criticism of what the press is doing would follow. But that hasn’t been true for most Americans alive today — as Les Moonves said, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”

    The job of the media is to make money for its owners, and to attract eyeballs for its customers. The American people are not the owners or the customers, they are the product. If we wanted the free press to seek the truth and report the truth, we would have a different business model.

    Similarly with government — if we wanted government to serve the interests of the people, we would get money out of politics. But as G.W. Bush’s campaign staff and administration personnel made clear two decades ago, the purpose of government is to redistribute power and wealth from the many to the few, or more simply government is there to make things easier for the people those in power like and harder for those who they don’t like. By paying lip service to ideals like ‘respect for the rule of law’ we gloss over the actual function of redistribution from the have-nots to the haves.

    I’m in favor of holding on to aspirational goals and ideals, but if we keep acting as though those ideals are actually being sought, we will continue to be throwing up our hands and wondering why the press keeps ~mistakenly~ reinforcing Trump’s (or Budweiser’s or Toyota’s or Lorillard’s) messages and frames. It’s not a mistake.

    As President of the European Council Jean-Claude Juncker said in 2007, “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.”

  8. It’s hard to believe we are witnessing and participating in the beginning of a fascist takeover by the President of the United States.

  9. Gentlemen, We The People have a problem that is threatening the survival of the human race and we have no leaders to save us from our mental limitations. How can it be that we have the greatest political, education and economic institutions that should enable us to produce solutions but we have no solutions we can implement in time to prevent our self-destruction?

    Instead, our institutions are failing due to hate, greed and immorality and all we can do is threaten each other with out of control consequences of an environment that now exceeds an escalating 411 ppm atmospheric CO2 to the point of out of control climate changes we are experiencing today are totally unacceptable, our United Nations has totally failed to protect humanity, and inequalities are destroying our quality of life.

    Historians and social scientists have warned us about this far too many times but all we can do is destroy ourselves. However, we are proving that we can blog, tweet, document, pontificate and fool far too many people most of the time.

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