A collage of the head of Donald Trump and a megaphone with various letters shooting out of it.

Shifting Language

Words Matter. And Political Propaganda Is Destroying Them

Politicians have always manipulated language to fit their agenda. But when journalists validate and repeat it, they're introducing it into the national idiom.

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Words have meaning. Or at least they should. In the past 18 months, we’ve seen some words suddenly gain prominence, their definitions recast (e.g., fake news, alternative facts, resistance) while others have all but lost their meaning (e.g., outrage, fascism, Nazi). In this ongoing series on “Shifting Language,” we’ll explore what these sudden changes in language mean in the broader scheme of things. What are the historical precedents for these shifts? How does the media’s use of words alter their meaning? How has our rapidly evolving language shifted the way the American public understands key issues, and the way the rest of the world perceives America?

In 2016, I reported on a Trump rally in Reno, Nevada, for a local public radio station. The experience shook me. Not just because of the way the crowd shouted at the press gaggle (they did, and it was unsettling), or because of the brazenly anti-immigrant rhetoric I heard over and over (I did, and it was disturbing), or even at anything Trump was saying in particular. To put a finer point on it, his words were shocking, yes, but what made them even more so was his delivery—the non sequiturs, the repetition, the leaping around from subject to subject without ever finishing a complete thought. Equally concerning was the fact that no one I spoke with afterward seemed to have noticed. They liked that he sounded like “the real deal,” that he wasn’t “just reading off a script,” that he “just says what he thinks.”

According to linguists, that universally positive reaction boils down to two things that, at first blush, seem fairly immutable: personal experiences and neural circuitry. Jennifer Sclafani, a sociolinguistics professor at Georgetown University, studied Trump for two years as part of her research on defining the idiolects of politicians and, particularly, campaigning. She found that Trump does indeed have a preference for casual speech, non sequiturs, and repetition. More importantly, she found that two people could easily watch one of his speeches and come away with wildly different impressions, depending on their opinion of him before the speech and their own personal life experiences. “While a working-class Italian-American dialect gives the impression of ‘mobster’ to many, it gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling that I associate with my childhood,” Sclafani wrote in Scientific American recently. “So for some people, they hear Trump speak and it reads to them as ‘relatable’ or ‘authentic,’ while others view his style as ‘casual,’ ‘unprepared,’ and even ‘reckless,’ not really traits you want in a president.”

Sclafani points out that anyone’s read on a particular Trump speech has as much to do with their past experiences and their overall impression of him, as with what he actually says. UC Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff says that’s because of how our brains are wired. “Ideas are not in the air, they are physical things,” he says. It’s something Lakoff says in almost every speech or lecture, and it means that any thought that pops into our brains is not coming out of the ether, but rather is the result of a system of neurons in the brain, built by our experiences, what we’ve heard and read, what we’ve been told and seen, and so on.

Lakoff’s research on what he calls “the neural mind” has led him to the conclusion that it’s not just that conservatives and progressives “think” differently, their brains are actually wired differently.

“Progressives and conservatives have worldviews inconsistent with each other. They have different brain circuitry,” Lakoff says. “People can only understand what fits their neural circuitry. When facts come in that can’t be made sense of by one’s neural circuitry, they will either go unnoticed, ignored, found puzzling, seen as false, ridiculed, rejected, or, if threatening, attacked. All of these happen in politics. This creates a political divide with alternative realities and ‘alternative facts.’”

Which is both soothing in its ability to explain how someone can look at something as objectively fact-based as a court document and call it “fake news,” but also terrifying if you’re one of the many Americans wringing their hands about the divisiveness in the country right now. Still, Lakoff is not fatalistic about the entrenched frameworks of both sides. He says it’s possible to shift frameworks, you just have to know that they’re there and understand how to deal with them.

When we talk about nations and politics, we often use the same moral logic and frameworks that we use to understand family dynamics. We talk about “Founding Fathers,” for example, and “Mother Earth,” and who can forget everyone’s favorite way to mock Trump’s offspring, “large adult sons.” Lakoff ascribes a “nurturant parent family” framework to progressives, one that’s big on empathy and the importance of the collective good, and a “strict father family” framework to conservatives, that’s big on authority, individual responsibility, and discipline.

“Children must develop individual discipline to do what the father says instead of what feels good or right,” Lakoff says in describing the moral logic of conservatives. “If they develop such discipline, they will grow up to be prosperous. What if they are not prosperous? Then they did not have sufficient discipline, are not moral, and so deserve their poverty. There is only individual responsibility.”

This is the idea underpinning the notion of the American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” meritocracy. Winners deserve to win, losers deserve to lose—the poor are poor because they lack discipline, which removes any responsibility the rich may otherwise feel to help those less fortunate. It’s the neat trick that enables religious conservatives to hold the New Testament’s emphasis on charity and the GOP’s disavowal of all social welfare programs in the same worldview.

In his research, Lakoff has found that about 37 percent of Americans have the “strict father” morality. “That’s the Republican base,” he says.

The danger, then, of the media bending to Trump’s will in many cases—covering his tweets, letting his repeated accusations of bias influence how they report or frame things—is that it reinforces the strict-father framework while also continuing to put Trump right where he wants to be: at the center of everyone’s attention.

“The media can be viewed as a megaphone that projects certain types of language—either regional, social, and ethnic, or broader genres and discourses—and mutes others,” Sclafani wrote in the chapter of a textbook on sociolinguistics.

In an interview with DAME, she elaborated on what that specifically means with respect to Trump: “The extensive reporting on and quoting of Trump’s language in the media is notable, but not because it represents a broader shift in linguistic norms,” she says. “Rather, the media attention his language has garnered is indicative of just how much value we place on linguistic etiquette in American society, and it brings to the surface our underlying beliefs about what is and isn’t ‘presidential language.’ I believe that Trump’s extreme deviation from the norm has forced us to ask fundamental questions about what the current norms are, and whether they should remain that way.”

Lakoff has repeatedly chastised the media for covering Trump’s tweets, thereby allowing him to control the public discourse about his presidency and what’s happening in the country right now. His “Taxonomy of Trump’s Tweets” went viral on Twitter earlier this year. He says he’s not saying “ignore Trump” so much as he’s encouraging the media to discuss the real news that Trump doesn’t want people talking about, not the outrageous things he’s said to distract from it.

But beyond the treatment of any particular tweet, the media and its use of language can hugely influence the public’s understanding of an issue. Consider the shift away from the term “illegal alien” to “undocumented worker” for example, or the ongoing debate over when to call a lie a lie, or the integration of the pronouns they and them in recent years, or the way in which media will (still) often refer to women’s husbands or children and describe their physical appearances in ways that are not used to describe men. Think of how the term “fake news” has been weaponized by the Trump administration, so effectively that he can now call any news report he doesn’t like “fake” and millions of Americans will just believe him, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. Or consider a rare loss in Trump’s war of words: the “Muslim ban,” which the Trump administration has been campaigning—unsuccessfully—to call a “travel ban” since it was first announced.

He’s not the first to deploy such tactics, nor is politics the only realm in which it happens. Plastic manufacturers, for example, successfully banded together decades ago to convince everyone, even the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to call plastic pollution in the ocean the much more palatable “marine debris.” As though it were something that just appeared in the oceans naturally, the result of a bad storm or a strong wind. Activists have spent a considerable amount of time since focused on changing that language; they’ve been fairly successful and the push has correlated with increased awareness, and understanding, of the issue. Free-market champions like the Kochs and the Mercers and the various think tanks and front groups they fund have for decades used the language of “consumer choice” and “consumer freedom” to fight regulation of everything from greenhouse-gas emissions to drunk-driving laws.

The repetition of certain words can be used both to convince people of a particular meaning, and to dull a word’s power. We have heard and read the words Nazi, fascist, and autocrat so many times in the last several months, for example, that their once-sharp edges have grown dull in our collective consciousness. When words are overused they lose their meaning, and their currency. In the past month alone, author Roxane Gay tweeted about the overuse and misuse of the word “outrage,” feminist twitter corrected New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s use of the word “redistribution” by the thousands, and Amanda Marcotte tweeted, “As far as I can tell, ‘elite’ is just right-wing code for ‘people who read books.’”

Language is a living, breathing thing and it changes all the time. Which is good and bad when you think about the connection between language and ideas. According to Lakoff, framing something a certain way, repeating that framing often, getting other people to repeat it and then attacking it in ways that make people defend it can work to rewire someone’s circuitry—it’s why we have all those stories of people who were raised in extreme religious settings and then grew up to think, Hey, actually it’s objectively terrible to protest outside people’s funerals. It’s also the strategy currently being deployed by Russian trolls, ISIS, and the GOP, according to a recent report from RAND.

Democrats could use it, too. In fact, for some, the reason they feel strongly that the Democrats “need a message” is that the party has been historically bad at picking a framework, repeating it, and defending it, while the Right has been quite effective at it. So you end up with Democrats who have pretty flexible frameworks when it comes to policy, and Republicans who have very rigid frameworks: Guess which one is more effective at getting voters to turn out?

Perhaps more importantly, the media could either deploy Lakoff’s framework strategy themselves—stating and repeating the truth, for example, instead of Trump’s latest outburst—or at the very least be aware of how it’s being used, and the extent to which they can be used as pawns in that strategy. Because the biggest blow of all isn’t necessarily that Trump has used the term “fake news” so much that he’s become impervious to scandal where his base is concerned, but that the media has repeated his attacks on them so much they ensured the insults would stick. And in that way the so-called “liberal media” (another framework!) is actually doing quite a bit of work to strengthen Trump’s messages with his base.


This is the first in an ongoing series on Shifting Language.

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