STICKS AND STONES

A linguist explains how Trump is using the language of victimhood to position himself as America’s savior

Obsession
Language
Obsession
Language

US president Donald Trump aims to trick the American public with the collective experience of victimhood. By portraying Americans as the innocent victims of hostile enemies, Trump is able to present himself as the savior, equipped with exclusionary rhetoric and policies.

Since his rise to power, Trump’s speeches have been dominated by images of victimhood. In his inauguration speech, the president referred to “mothers and children trapped in poverty” and “young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” In an interview five days later with ABC News, Trump described American society as “forgotten men and women.” In a talk at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) he was speaking about “Americans and lawful residents victimized by open borders.” Talking to Fox News, he claimed to represent “a lot of people that were mistreated by government for many, many years.”

Trump already assigned the role of the villain to various people and entities throughout his campaign, including the Obama administration, Muslim and Mexican Americans, China, and the news media. A linguistic analysis of the speeches and interviews that Trump has given since his inauguration suggests that he will stick with the rhetoric of victimhood in an effort to legitimize the implementation of his controversial policies.

Here are some of the ways in which Trump’s verbiage abuses the language of victimhood.

The victim: America

Passive voice

The passive voice highlights when someone is not causing but experiencing the effect of an action. Hence, passive sentence structures can radiate hopelessness and helplessness. This is what happens when Trump talks about people who are “trapped,” “deprived,” “forgotten,” and “victimized.”

In his inauguration speech, Trump utilized the same strategy, promising Americans that they “will never be ignored again.” A few days later, he used the same passive structure to address “the victims of illegal immigrant crime” in his talk at DHS: “To all of those hurting out there, I repeat to you these words: ‘We hear you, we see you, and you will never, ever be ignored again.’” The past-participle verb form (“ignored”) highlights the perception that Americans are subject to mistreatment without the ability to do anything about it.

Metaphor

Talking about the “American carnage” in his inauguration address, the president used a powerful metaphor to trigger extreme feelings of sympathy. In his interview Trump with ABC News, the same metaphor reappeared a number of times concerning the murder rate in Chicago: “It is carnage. It’s horrible carnage.” “Carnage” is a word loaded with meanings and visuals that are unusually strong.

Anthropomorphization

President Trump’s language reinforces victimhood through the use of rhetorical tropes that portray nonhuman objects (jobs, factories, and the border of the US, for example) as human beings. “The jobs left” and “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” were anthropomorphizations he used in his inauguration address At the joint press conference with the British prime minister Theresa May, Trump argued that the American “border is soft and weak.” In these quotes, jobs and factories appear as human victims who can emigrate and die, while the American border is seen as a defenseless and even feminine figure that seeks protection. Such personalized rhetorical constructions might evoke a sense of loss, grieving, or vulnerability in the audience.

Re-verbs

Verbs that contain the prefix “re” point to the need for repeated action. In his inauguration address, the president pledged to “rebuild” the US, to “restore its promise” for all of its people, to “reinforce” its old alliances, and to “rediscover” people’s “loyalty to each other.” The implication is that the US is in ruins, that the country represents a promise only for a select group, that the state’s old alliances have vanished, and that the American people are no longer loyal to each other.

The victimizers: Washington and Mexico

Metonymy

If there is a victim, there must be a victimizer as well. In his inauguration address, for instance, Trump assigned the latter role to “Washington.” Speakers use a common rhetorical device called metonymy when they replace governments with their capital cities. In the inauguration speech, the trope allowed Trump to direct America’s anger toward the political elite: “Washington flourished—but the people did not share in its wealth.” By contrasting the affluence of “Washington” with the struggles of the rest of America, the billionaire Trump could attack the political elite without condemning the business elite to which he belongs.

At the press conference with British prime minister May, Trump likewise described both “Washington” and “Mexico” as the victimizers of America. The president argued that Mexico “has out-negotiated us and beat us to a pulp through our past leaders. They’ve made us look foolish.” In this case, Trump utilized a different type of metonymy, where Mexico stood for the Mexican government. By talking about “Mexico” in general, he could construct the country and its whole population as an enemy. Trump’s vivid metaphor (“beat us to a pulp”) implied that Mexicans humiliated the US by using physical force, while the phrase “they’ve made us look foolish” suggested Mexican intellectual superiority. These constructions described the US as a defenseless and naive victim of Mexico.

Personal pronouns

In the rhetoric of victimhood, the personal pronouns “they” and “them,” and the possessive form “their,” are widely used to present particular groups or communities as hostile or alien. In his inauguration speech, Trump used “they” and “their” in the context of the political elite, and “you” and “our” for Americans to create a victim/victimizer set-up: “Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.”

Trump utilized pronouns in a similar way when talking about the Mexican people, saying that “they’ve made us look foolish.” In his address at the DHS, pronouns again helped Trump present Mexicans as an enemy: “The day is over when they can stay in our country and wreak havoc. We are going to get them out, and get them out fast.”

The savior: Trump

Superlative terms

In his own context, Trump uses determiners (“every”) and adverbs (“ever” and “never”) that express absoluteness and heroic qualities. In his inauguration speech he stated: “I will fight for you with every breath in my body—and I will never, ever let you down.” He offered the sense of heroism to Americans by using the same linguistic tools: “You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.” By describing his political movement in superlative terms, Trump also suggested that he himself is changing history.

Imperative tone

As social beings, we are conditioned to downplay and belittle the significance of speech by contrasting it to action. This dichotomy is routinely imprinted into us through such popular sayings as “actions speak louder than words.” Playing on this deep-seated cultural stereotype, Trump presents himself as an action-hero figure who is tough enough to meet actual challenges. At his inauguration he said: “We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action–constantly complaining but never doing anything about it.” He also declared: “The time for empty talk is over, now arrives the hour of action.”

As these quotes show, Trump expresses strong authority, speaking oftentimes like a parent who orders his child to stop doing something by saying “because I said so!” The imperative tone characterized a number of his presidential statements. In his inauguration speech he declared: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” At the DHS, Trump announced that “beginning today, the United States of America gets back the control of its borders, gets back its borders.” In the same speech, he said about the immigration regulations existing prior to his presidency, “But that all turns around beginning today.” This phrasing creates the impression that he has the power and the capacity to implement his commands and change the circumstances with immediate effect.

* * *

Trump’s most recent presidential utterances offer an opportunity to look at a rhetoric of victimhood at work. However, the speech strategies he employees are far from unique. The role of the victim, the victimizer, and the savior can be assigned to different people depending on the context. At the same time, the linguistic arsenal that supports the construction of these roles remains identical in most of the cases. Indeed, the elements of the rhetoric of victimhood are similar to those sandbox tools that can be filled again and again but will always produce similar shapes. Nevertheless, in terms of consequences, the rhetoric of victimhood is anything but child’s play.

This post was adapted from Anna’s blog, TalkDecoded. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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