Donald Trump is an interesting contradiction. He is a linguistic innovator, and he also has the vocabulary of a thirteen year old. No matter what you think of him, he’s going to be President. As a result, the Left needs to radically rethink their approach to language and politics in order to combat the insidious threat of isolationist, nationalist, anti-intellectual rhetoric.
Trump the Orator
A recent study (link above), analysed the vocabulary and grammar of the Presidential candidates (Trump, Clinton, Sanders, Cruz, Rubio), as well as some historical presidents (Lincoln, Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama).
What the study found was that the lowest vocabulary and grammar levels were those of President-elect Trump, and the highest of the 2016 candidates tended to be Bernie Sanders.
Now, this study isn’t flawless – spoken language is generally less intelligent than written language. Were I explaining this out loud, I would likely use less complex grammatical constructions and a more restricted vocabulary. This is because clarity is more important in spoken speech, and that we treat oral conversation differently to how we would treat our writing.
But the study nonetheless highlights an important point: Trump’s vocabulary is markedly different to that of most Presidents and, indeed, politicians generally. And, though it’s easy to laugh at the fact that he has a grasp of grammar equal to that of the average eleven year old, his linguistic limits are actually a large part of his success.
In this article for Bloomberg, Joe Weisenthal briefly explores Trump’s language within the framework of Walter J. Ong’s theories of Orality and Literacy.
Weisenthal argues that, in our increasingly digital era, Trump’s smaller vocabulary, use of repetition, argumentative tone and use of simple, catchy adjectives are key to his success.
Indeed, this view makes a lot of sense. Trump is infamous for his Twitter exchanges and, no matter how ludicrous his opinions may seem, he undeniably manages to communicate his ideas within the 140 character limit. Moving on to the news, we no longer live in a print age. Newspaper circulation only ever decreases, and an increasing number of people get their news from either television broadcasts or on social media platforms. These social media platforms are increasingly incorporating video aspects into their sites – scroll through your Facebook and Twitter feed now and compare it to the sites a few years ago – audio-visual has taken over these sites, and will only become more integral to the way we communicate.
So Trump excels in this environment. His lower language levels and tendency to express himself in very traditionally oral ways separate him from more “intellectual” politicians and the tradition of written speeches. When you think of Trump this way, his success is almost unsurprising.
Still not convinced? Name a Democratic slogan from this race. I couldn’t. What about Trump’s slogan? “Make American Great Again”. And then there’s all his other infamous ramblings: “nasty woman”, “grab ’em by the pussy”, “lyin’ Cruz”, “I will build a great, great wall” or just him tweeting about something and then shouting: “SAD!”
Trump is quotable. His language is simple but effective. He repeats himself. His vocabulary and grammar may be lower than average, but his economy of language is high. He doesn’t mince words and he comes out with punchy slogans quite naturally. He’s very much suited to the current media style, as well as to the backlash against establishment politics which has swept across the West. What Trump says and how he says it make a highly appealing combination.
The New Newspeak
In his classic novel 1984, George Orwell outlined the concept of Newspeak.
“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.”
In other words, Newspeak was designed to limit the people’s ability to dissent by limiting their ability to communicate and even think dissenting thoughts; a deadly simplification of language.
Newspeak was an intriguing concept, but somewhat linguistically flawed. In a repressive regime it could survive, but linguistic phenomenons such as the creation of pidgins and the filling of lexical gaps would constantly threaten to undo the underlying tenets of Newspeak.
However, 1984‘s other central concept, Doublethink, hits a little too close to home:
“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies.”
That’s more or less a description of the phenomenon we’re witnessing right now, which has been dubbed as post-truth. Post-truth politics, put simply, sees politicians say outrageous things, and even outright lie, and completely get away with it. Even if people know it’s a lie, they accept it. The liar doesn’t lose their position or even any status, and many people will believe the lie purely because it conveniently aligns with their personal views and confirms their beliefs. Even though the evidence is entirely fallacious, people can treat is as evidence just because someone with a media platform said it. This makes truth an entirely relative concept, synonymous with opinion, and that’s a very worrying thing.
Politicians have always lied, cheated and got away with murder, but often they’ve covered themselves by putting a spin on the facts. In this emerging post-truth era, Donald Trump can announce something that’s completely and utterly factually incorrect and use his lack of shame to build a platform on which he can springboard himself into the highest office in the USA. If that doesn’t scare you, go back and read this paragraph again.
In fact, Trump is such a liar that the Pulitzer Prize-winning, independent fact-checking website Politifact awarded him their Lie of the Year for “various statements”. As of writing, 70% of checked statements by Trump are considered “mostly false”, “false” or “pants on fire”.
Just to hammer that point home: 7 out of 10 statements the next President of the United States makes are lies.
The right-wing is very good at this subversion of language. Hitler was a notoriously good orator and his propaganda machine as run by Goebbels lives on in infamy.
On the extreme left, Soviet Russia’s propaganda was less consistent and more reliant on the whims of Stalin and, to a lesser extent, his underlings. For example, the composer Shostakovich found his work both censured and censored on more than one occasion during his lifetime, but between these periods he was also lauded as one of Russia’s greatest living composers. Russian propaganda was proscribed: Shostakovich would be denounced in Pravda articles and the people would know he was out of favour. He would produce a symphony more “in line” with Soviet thinking and Pravda would laud him. Russians survived using a Doublethink that allowed them to accept these conflicting statements and accept that what was once was no longer. Right and wrong in Soviet Russia were more fluid than right and wrong in Nazi Germany.
Nazi propaganda was more subtle. Although the nightmarish terror of the SS was an ever-present bogeyman in Nazi Germany, Goebbels’ propaganda pervaded every facet of day-to-day life. Books, newspapers, textbooks, comics, films, fine art and every other medium was hijacked to hammer home the Nazi message. That message was simpler to drill into the populace because it was consistent. Whereas the things that were good and bad for Russia were constantly changing, Nazi propaganda always revolved around anti-semitism, German purity, Lebensraum and a few other, simple concepts that rarely changed. The Nazis were unswerving in their vision, and this allowed them to manipulate their people much more efficiently. Anti-Jewish, pro-Aryan rhetoric was easy to slip into anything published or produced.
So what does this mean for the left-wing? Basically that it’s not very good at slogans. Dictatorships are, by their nature, right-wing (apart from communist dictatorships which are an odd mix of extreme left politics mixed with extreme right authoritarian imposition). However, normal politics isn’t this extreme because, quite simply, it doesn’t need to be. But the modern right-wing nonetheless have the upper hand on propaganda and catchy political rhetoric. The Sun newspaper in England is infamous for its famous headline “The Truth” in which it outright lied about the events at the Hillsborough disaster. It took 27 years for it to be proven a lie. The UK recently voted to leave the EU, and part of this decision was based on the promises of the Leave campaign, notably: that the £350 million a week we pay to the EU would be used to fund the NHS, and that we would be able to retain access to the Single Market. After the event, both of these statements turned out to be lies or, with the very best spin put on them, promises that couldn’t be kept.
That’s not to say the Left doesn’t lie too, but the Right seems to be a lot better at lying and winning as a result. How does the Left win in a world where it’s enemy can promise the opposite of what it delivers and still be trusted?
There’s no easy way. Certainly, I don’t know the answer. All I can propose is the following:
1) We learn from Trump’s linguistics, Brexit’s promises and the rise of populism.
The Right has been winning because it appeals to people’s desires and their gut reactions, and it hammers those points home. It has a clear message and it stays on those messages. “Make America Great Again” and “Take our country back” are utterly meaningless slogans. But Trump and Brexit invoked them at every possible opportunity. When Trump said he was going to build a wall, it was to Make America Great Again. When he said he’d deport Muslims it was to Make America Great Again. Time and time again, he could justify the horrible things he said by attaching them to his populist slogan. The mantra was key to the success of the policies. Likewise, the Brexiteers in England had slogans on their side, even though the economic evidence wasn’t. In fact, they even managed to make “experts” a dirty word when Michael Gove infamously said “People are tired of experts”. That was another catchy phrase people could invoke to discredit people quoting statistics.
So a catchy slogan goes a long way, and the Left doesn’t have many to offer. Every speech needs to capitalise on slogans to hammer the meaning of speeches home. We need to repeat ourselves like Trump, and have an economy of words. Long explanations are for newspaper articles and technical questions. The important thing in political speech is the soundbite, the slogan, and the simple truth of that slogan. Even the Green Party, with it’s 2% of the vote, could probably gain ground if it shouted “We believe in Green jobs. We will create Green jobs. Green jobs is our number one priority.”
Yes, it’s stooping a bit to populist rhetoric. But the truth that has to underline this populist rhetoric is simple…
2) We always uphold the truth.
When they take the low road, we take the high road. The right-wing can invoke it’s meaningless mantras again and again, but no matter what, people will be able to delve into the facts and see that Trump lies 70% of the time, and that Brexit wasn’t supported by economic experts, and that Boris Johnson’s bus had a lie adorning the side of it. Some people won’t be bothered by those lies because they’re a means to an end. But others will be outraged to have been taken in by lies. They will react. They will look for alternatives.
What’s important for the Left is to be that alternative. Despite the populist rhetoric I’m proposing, it’s actions have to stand up to scrutiny. Anyone can repeat an inane phrase like “Make America Great Again”, but to have the policies behind that invocation stand up to further investigation is paramount. When people grow sick of the lies, they need to know that they can trust the alternative. Sticking to a core message, and following through on it is key to the success of the left; unity, action and keeping promises. But it needs to be done in a catchy way.
So there we have it. As I said, I don’t have answers, and the ones I’ve tentatively offered aren’t especially ground-breaking or intelligent, but they are often overlooked by the Left, which wastes time on over-analysing and in-fighting. If we keep the truth in sight, but present in an attractive package, a package that’s easily communicable and which sticks in the mind then, and only then, can we perhaps pull ourselves from the horrific moral void which we’ve fallen into.