On Saturday, in “‘It Is Evident There Is No Policy’: Trump Governs By Vacuous Platitude,” we noted that this administration is long on superlatives and short on actual policy.
Problem in North Korea? “We’re sending an armada – very powerful.”
Market nervous about the prospects for tax reform? Trump will announce “something phenomenal in the next few weeks.” Two months later, after nothing’s been announced, Trump says he’ll announce “massive tax cuts” in a few days.
How did the President go about informing Xi Jinping that the US had lobbed 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria? Well, he did it over “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake” Fox’s Maria Bartiromo “has ever seen,” a piece of cake that was about yea “bigly”…
Is Trump’s cabinet up to the monumental task of implementing his agenda? Of course they are – after all, they’re “tremendous people.”
Now all of that is fine as long as eventually, the superlatives are borne out in reality. But if it turns out Trump is actually nothing more than a Rolodex of platitudes, well then that’s a problem.
It’s with that in mind that we present the following amusing bit from CNN who has compiled a list of “the phrases Trump leans on most.”
To help us parse these presidential words, we enlisted the help of Jennifer Sclafani, an associate professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, who wrote a popular piece on Trump for Scientific American.
Said in 26 speeches
“The interpretation of this one depends on the ear of the beholder,” says Sclafani. “To supporters, it likely sounds like a reassurance coming from a president they already trust and believe. To critics, it may sound like a desperate command from a leader who isn’t naturally believable.
“But this phrase — or as linguists call it, a discourse marker — has an interactional function that serves as a cue to his audience.”
During a long speech, a phrase like “believe me” tells the audience to pay attention, and serves to highlight or reiterate a certain point.
Said in 12 speeches
Such phrases “may be interpreted as reassurances as a confident leader or businessman,” Sclafani says. “These constructions … present a positive outlook and optimistic view of what the president can and will accomplish for the nation.”
Said in 9 speeches
“[Trump has a] predilection for speaking in generalities,” Sclafani says. “These general expressions can be seen as having multiple functions, but oftentimes the president uses them to provoke a reaction in his audience — of shock, dismay, or disgust.”
Said in 6 speeches
“Trump tends to talk in personally evaluative terms – both positively and negatively – about his contemporaries. During his campaign, he was better known for his personal insults, but he is also a very complimentary president,” Sclafani says. “HIs compliments, however, tend to be less substantial in terms of touting the complimentee’s professional credentials or abilities, and are rather generally evaluative.”
Said in 8 speeches
“These expressions remind me of what [linguist George] Lakoff refers to as the ‘Strict Father’ model of government, in which the nation is a family and the president is seen as the parent,” Sclafani says. “Conservatives, Lakoff argues, adopt a ‘strict father’ view of the nation-as-family, in which the president-parent is the authoritarian and disciplinarian, but also the protector of the family.”
“I was also struck by the frequency of these expressions occuring in the plural — we vs. I — given that his campaign rhetoric was very ‘I’ (individually) focused,” she adds. “In this sense, since becoming president, one could say that there has been a shift in his language to expressions connoting national unity, whereas his campaign speeches were focused largely on what he could do himself as an individual.”
Said in 6 speeches
This is another example of Trump’s consistent pattern of compliments. If Trump is talking about “incredible,” people, he is most likely talking about the military or law enforcement. Of the six times he’s said the phrase in public speeches, four were in reference to law enforcement, one was in reference to the Navy, and one was in reference to those “who serve our country in uniform.”
Said in 7 speeches
“The exact amount of money is not important to convey his message, as what may sound like ‘a lot’ to some may not to others, depending on their personal economic background,” Sclafani says. “So expressions like ‘a lot of money’ and ‘billions and billions of dollars’ are ways of conveying the idea of an expensive undertaking while not having to provide specifics (which he may not have).”
“Winning” is one of Trump’s favorite persuasive motifs. Like his use of “beautiful” and “great,” the idea of “winning” invokes an immediate reaction. Winning is good. Winning is what people want to be. It also frames everything as a challenge, a competition to be won, which definitely echoes Trump’s competitive personal nature and business background. It also harkens back to one of his most iconic campaign moments. At a rally in Albany, New York in April 2016, Trump delivered a passionate acclamation that was full of “win:”
“You are going to be so proud of your country. Because we’re gonna turn it around, and we’re gonna start winning again! We’re gonna win so much! We’re going to win at every level. We’re going to win economically. We’re going to win with the economy. We’re gonna win with military. We’re gonna win with healthcare and for our veterans. We’re gonna with every single facet. We’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning. And you’ll say, “Please, please. It’s too much winning. We can’t take it anymore. Mr. President, it’s too much.” And I’ll say, “No, it isn’t!”
We have to keep winning We have to win more! We’re gonna win more. We’re gonna win so much. I love you, Albany! Get out and vote. You will be so happy.”
If you are counting, that is 13 “wins” in the span of a few sentences.
Oh and on the first phrase listed above (“believe me”), remember that when it comes to things people say that suggest you in fact should not believe them, “believe me” is at the top of the list.