President Donald Trump mounted a vigorous defense of his presidency and accused America's news media of being 'out of control' at a White House news conference Thursday, vowing to bypass the media and take his message 'straight to the people.' Time
President Trump is a master of language.
His performance at Thursday's news conference may have baffled political insiders and been skewered by late-night comics, but there's no denying the country has hung on his every word from the moment he began his presidential campaign.
While Trump's standing in the polls has dropped nationwide, his support among his core following remains strong. That's in part, experts say, because of his use of language that resonates with them and captures their feelings better than any politician has in years.
It may not be poetry, but among the most effective weapons in Trump’s rhetorical arsenal has been his ability to stick labels on his opponents (Crooked Hillary, Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted).
“Labeling and trying to imprison the opponent in a cage of your making is a shrewd move,” says
Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor of journalism and sociology.
Yet when critics try to stick a negative label on Trump, he successfully flips the term around, either turning it into a positive or hurling it right back at his opponent.
Case in point: Fake news.
During Thurday's news conference — ostensibly to announce his new Labor secretary nominee — Trump lambasted the news media and used the term "fake news" at least 10 ten times in doing so.
It was the latest example of how Trump has managed to twist the meaning of fake news — which initially referred to intentionally false reports from online sources posing as genuine news sites — into a pejorative for news reports and organizations he doesn't agree with.
It's become one of Trump's favorite labels, rivaling his monikers for his political opponents. He has used the term in 24 tweets attacking various news reports since Dec. 10 (roughly one tweet every three days). During the primary campaign, Trump used "Little Marco" in eight tweets about
Marco Rubio, "low energy" in nine tweets about Jeb Bush and "Lyin Ted" in 28 tweets about Ted Cruz (roughly once every other day). Of course, none of these come close to his use of "Crooked Hillary," which he included in 208 tweets over 191 days.
It makes sense that Trump has created a label for the media the way he has for political opponents, since the president and his senior adviser
Steven Bannon have identified the media as the "opposition party."
Jason Stanley, author of How Propaganda Works, describes Trump's use of "fake news" as "undermining propaganda," which allows him to undermine both the accusation and the credibility of the accuser. With "fake news" Trump is undermining the credibility of the news media and turning truth into a matter of belief.
Stanley says this strategy reminds him of the propaganda employed by authoritarians. "That’s what authoritarians do," he says. "They are the only source of truth and any other source of truth is a threat."
Reality, even down to the meaning of words, then becomes a question of power, rather than reason and truth, he says.
Nicholas O'Shaughnesy, author of Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand, agrees that Trump's rhetoric shares authoritarian characteristics. That is why he found it "extraordinary" when Trump tweeted, "Are we living in
Nazi Germany?" after reports surfaced of an intelligence dossier containing unverified, salacious allegations about the then-president-elect
"He’s developed a persona which enables him to say these utterly outrageous things and to invert the meaning of language," O'Shaughnesy says. "It taps the zeitgeist of the era that everything is feeling, everything is opinion, there is no objective truth."
O'Shaughnesy calls Trump the "ambassador of the post-truth society."
Top advisers to Trump have said the president's words aren't meant to be taken literally.
"Why is everything taken at face value?” Trump surrogate
Kellyanne Conway asked CNN's Chris Cuomo last month. "You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.”
A similar argument was made by
Corey Lewandowski, Trump's former campaign manager, in December:
This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that
Donald Trumpsaid so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes, when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar, you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.
Fake news is not the only example of Trump winning arguments through language. Call him inexperienced? He says he’s a Washington outsider living in the real America. Attack him as vulgar? He’s just telling it like it is and rejecting the political correctness that is smothering Americans. When
Hillary Clinton called his supporters a "basket of deplorables," Trump jumped on it, and his supporters began to wear the term as a badge of honor. When Clinton tried to paint him as a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he responded: “No, you’re the puppet.”
This may all sound like the stuff of playground arguments, but what Trump is doing is part of a process referred to as “reappropriation.” It's commonly associated with marginalized groups, who take the sting out of slurs by making them their own — the LGBT community taking back the term “queer,” for example. But reappropriating language is increasingly used in politics on both sides of the aisle;
President Obamaembraced "Obamacare" and Hillary Clinton supporters made "Nasty Woman" T-shirts.
“It’s really about the power of who owns and controls the term,” says social psychologist
Adam Galinsky. In the case of the term "deplorable," for example, Trump supporters adopted the term because they “felt like they didn’t have much power in society and so they kept the term and used it in a positive way as a way to gain power in their own minds.”
As a salesperson, Trump intuitively understands the importance of controlling language, Galinsky says. He knows that “if you can win that battle over language, you can get people on board.”
The power of labeling is magnified even further by social media, says Jason Gainous, author of Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution in American Politics. Twitter has been the ideal medium for Trump’s messaging: “a perfect storm of a person who has built their life on branding,” combined with a platform that relies on short, simple messages and a receptive audience.
The labels create “a shortcut to a larger set of ideas that resonate with voters” Gainous says. With the nickname “Crooked Hillary,” for example, Trump was able to evoke all of voters’ negative attitudes toward the former first lady and all of the baggage tied to her long, public career. That label was then juxtaposed against the positive, Make America Great Again brand that Trump created for himself.
“Twitter works perfectly for it because he can say this in these short little messages that can then get shared over and over again. Retweeted ad infinitum,” Gainous says.