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Shifting Language

America Is Literally Warring Over Words


There are four words that have been used again and again throughout American history—up through the Trump era—to justify morally dubious acts and frame wrong as right.



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Much of former President Donald Trump’s speech at the Rally to Save American on January 6 was filled with phrases we had all become inured to since November 3, 2020: “stop the steal,” “rigged elections,” “protect our Constitution.” But tucked at the end of his speech was something new: a call to arms. Congress was about to certify the results of an election he claimed was rigged because he lost. Some members of Congress, Trump said, lacked conviction. The Capitol was just right over there. “So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue…” he finished as the crowd cheered.

It was about 1:10 p.m. An hour later, the U.S. Capitol was breached by insurrectionists.

***

Language is a sly and powerful thing. It’s one of our primary forms of communication, and so, in one sense, is completely objective. Speakers of a language mutually agree on what words mean through placing those words in certain contexts. So eventually, we come to understand that “dog” does not mean “cat,” and “hamburger” is not the same as “chicken sandwich.”

But language is a human institution, and humans are complicated. Some words can be maddening broad, laden with an on-the-page definition that lacks nuance, connotation, force, depth. For centuries, the wilted flatness of what the word “love” conveys has spawned thousands of poems on the subject. Language is ultimately subjective—it all boils down to the speaker’s intention and its interaction with the listener’s reception. This means language is malleable. Words can be stretched or compressed as needed, or loaded up like a pack animal with hundreds of years of connotations and emotion. And once laden, they can be marched right into battle.

In the wake of the last five years, people have been scrutinizing the language of both left and right, pawing through it for hidden meaning. I, too, have done it, but with the sensibilities of a lexicographer, tracing the connotations and denotations of seemingly simple words through their historical use and misuse. There are four words that crop up again and again throughout American history, ones still in use today, to justify morally dubious actions, to give an air of respectability to reprehensible political and social movements, and to frame wrong as right: “patriot,” “protect,” “stand,” and “save.”

***

Looking out at all the amazing patriots here today, I have never been more confident in our nation’s future.” – Donald Trump, January 6th, 2021

***

The birth of America was midwifed by language. When the colonists threw off the yoke of “British subject,” they needed a new identity to try on. “Whig” was popular in the early 1700s as the British name for those who favored the independence of the Colonies. But by the 1760s, colonists who favored independence rejected the British word in favor of a word already in use to describe the volunteers who helped defend colonial forts on the frontiers: “patriot.

It was a masterful choice. “Patriot” already had nearly 200 years of use in English to refer not just to a fellow citizen of a country, but someone who loved their country so deeply they were willing to fight for it. And it wasn’t tainted by association to British political classes or ideologies: “patriot” could be wholly American. It became the rallying cry for revolutionaries who faced the organized British forces, who rejected British rule at the cost of their own lives, to preserve their own freedom. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787. You’re either with us, or you’re plant food.

***

“We’re supposed to protect our country, support our country, support our Constitution, and protect our Constitution.”Donald Trump, January 6th, 2021

***

The work of a country with a functioning government, however, wasn’t to abstractly water trees of liberty. “We have now a nation to protect and defend,” John Adams wrote in 1776, and state delegates to the Constitutional Convention made it clear what they thought “the Nation” should protect: the rights of the individual and the rights of each state to govern themselves as they see fit.

“Protect” is a word that generally has positive overtones. Mother hens protect their chicks; gardeners protect tender plants from cold with soft fleecy blankets; seatbelts protect us from harm in a car crash. The verb requires a protector, who is active and in a position of superiority or strength, and the protected, who is passive, defenseless, and precious. “Protect” has a moral charge to it. If you are protecting something, isn’t it because it’s worth protecting?

The altruistic shine wore off “protect” a bit when pro-slavery secessionist forces adopted it. George Fitzhugh, who claimed that enslaved people in the South were the “happiest, and in some sense, the freest people in the world,” defended the institution in 1857 by claiming it was actually beneficial to the enslaved: “Public opinion unites with self-interest, domestic affection, and municipal law to protect the slave.” This continued after the Emancipation Proclamation was put in place. In 1866, Edmund Pollard wrote that the institution of Southern slavery “by the law of the land, protected the negro in life and limb, and in many personal rights.”

Soon enough, “patriot” and “protect” merged. The Reconstructionist-era Ku Klux Klan presented itself as a patriotic and benevolent society interested in protecting the weak and innocent, and the later Knights of the Ku Klux Klan highlighted the importance of both patriotism and “protecting womanhood.” White-supremacist groups that sprang up in the early 1900s borrowed this formula, looking for “Christian American Patriots” to join their proto-fascist movements.

In order to fuel the fire, the rhetoric had to be amplified somehow. It wasn’t enough to protect something from attack; you needed to imply that the movement would somehow prevail against all attack.

***

“We’re gathered together in the heart of our nation’s capital for one very, very basic and simple reason: to save our democracy.”Donald Trump, January 6th, 2021

***

Where “protect” is paternalistic, “save” is romantic. It conjures visions of knights and damsels in distress, of snatching the innocent and defenseless from the jaws of certain death. It’s the end of a valiant, heroic tale: the victory.

“Save” became a galvanizing rallying cry, and the salvific object was always something no sane person could object to. “Vote to Save America!” hollered an anti-New Deal headline; “G.O.P. Leader Says It Must Save American Way of Life” blares a 1942 headline of an article about how war shouldn’t distract the GOP from governing the way it wanted. Our freedom, our nation, our culture, our women—all “ours,” all requiring saving, and usually by true American patriots.

The rhetoric was effective. When the city of Miami, Florida, passed an ordinance in 1976 banning discrimination against anyone on the basis of sexual orientation, Anita Bryant and a coalition of conservative ministers and activists banded together to repeal the ordinance. They called themselves “Save Our Children.” It worked: the ordinance was repealed in 1977 with 69% of the vote. Who doesn’t want to save our children?

***

“Today, we will see whether Republicans stand strong for integrity of our elections. But whether or not they stand strong for our country, our country. Our country has been under siege for a long time.”Donald Trump, January 6th, 2021

***

“Protect” and “save” are both active verbs, but they’re nothing without the verb “stand.”

“Stand” is deceptive. We think of it as static and passive—no movement—but that’s the beauty of it. To “stand” is to take a defensive position. If you “stand up to” or “stand for” something, you believe it is so worth defending that you will not flee. The imagery it conjures is of a great defender of good, feet firmly planted, chest puffed, arms thrown out against the coming attack. Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, as the threat of communism became a more present reality to Americans, splinter groups like the John Birch Society formed with the intention of standing for American (Christian, white) values and against Communist (godless, global) ones. As the power of the Klan waned, the rise in fringe groups, sometimes paramilitary, grew. These groups borrowed the language of the original patriots, claiming to stand against a tyrannical government they no longer acknowledged—a government that stuck its nose in how they used their land, that was slowly strangling their God-given right to own guns, that was going to wage war against any citizen who dared protect their individual rights.

It wasn’t until the 1992 standoff between a radicalized Randy Weaver and the U.S. Marshals Service at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, that these fringe groups coalesced into what we now think of as the militia movement, sometimes called the patriot movement. Rather than striving for something—the preservation of the white race, for instance—the patriot movement was standing against its loss. According to a 1994 report by the American Defamation League, one militia in Michigan’s stated purpose was “to stand against tyranny, globalism, moral relativism, humanism, and the New World Order threatening to undermine these United States of America”; the Militia of Montana’s propaganda has it “stand[ing] vigilant in carrying out the will of the people in defense of rights, liberty, and freedom.” One officer of the Northern Michigan Regional Militia summed it up as, “We are taking a stand and are prepared to lose everything.”

This juicy language, full of spark and defiance, caught the attention of the right. As the demographics of the nation changed, and as a Black man became president, the right doubled down on their four favorite words: “save,” “protect,” “stand,” and “patriot.” And they found their ideal mouthpiece in Donald J. Trump.

***

Trump is a shell of a man. I don’t mean that conventionally; I mean that Donald Trump is a big, empty cipher. Part of his appeal was that he was a receptacle that could hold the anger of aggrieved white people, militia members, conspiracy theorists, and Fox News devotees and let it shine through his thin skin, sparkling all around him and making the merchandise look spectacular. It’s part of being a salesman.

There’s no clearer example of this than sifting through his Twitter feed (RIP, available on a few different archives). The one I analyzed, the Trump Twitter Archive, goes back to 2009 and includes all his tweets, deleted or note, retweets or original. Prior to 2011, his tweets are more anodyne self-promotion and petty meanness. But starting in 2011, with the rise of the Tea Party movement, Trump’s tweets edge more into politics. “Stand” and “save” and “protect” begin appearing, as does “patriot.” In 2013, all of Trump’s tweets that contain the word “patriot” are endorsements from others, calling him a patriot and asking him to run for president. (Prior to that, most mentions of “patriot” were in reference to football.)

The sudden attention put stars in his eyes. From 2013 onward, he began to tag the Tea Party movement in his tweets, and he becomes more facile with the rhetoric as he declares his candidacy. “Today I am standing with patriots in Arizona for border security! Build a wall! Let’s Make America Great Again!” he tweeted on July 11, 2015. “In my speech on protecting America, I spoke about a temporary ban, which includes suspending immigration from nations tied to Islamic terror,” on June 13, 2016. “Media desperate to distract from Clinton’s anti-2A stance. I said pro-2A citizens must organize and get out vote to save our Constitution!” tweeted August 10, 2016. Suddenly, in Trump’s sphere, patriots were no longer military or law enforcement. People attending Trump rallies were now the real patriots, along with the brave men and women of Fox News who loved Trump.

Trump’s Twitter feed became an echo chamber of QAnon conspiracies about Hunter Biden and rigged elections, militia movement dog whistles about gun control and illegitimate government, and self-aggrandizement through extensive retweeting. A good con man knows his mark: he moved from tweeting about protecting the Constitution to protecting our Constitution, our borders, our beautiful Second Amendment. He was one of them, he seemed to be saying. They believed him. They loved him.

And him? He loved the love.

***

In those interminable two months between the election that Trump decisively lost and January 5, 2021, Trump’s statements revolved into the ramblings of a showman feeling the flop sweat start up. He tweeted 1,524 times between November 4, 2020 and January 6, 2021, but “save,” “stand,” “protect,” and his beloved “patriot” appeared less and less. He was a touch preoccupied with throwing every obstacle he could at the juggernaut of democracy.

But the thing about rhetoric, and the words used to craft it, is that it’s communal:

But he landed on one last great hope:

On January 6, Trump’s own rancid hubris or bad advisors had convinced him that somehow, former Vice President Mike Pence could #StopTheSteal and send the votes back to state legislatures for verification. He began massaging GOP contacts in battleground states and hangers-on who hoped for some of that sparkly reflected glory lined up:

“Patriots” knew exactly what the Trump team meant:

***

The evening of January 5, Trump set the stage for his followers with two tweets:

Washington is being inundated with people who don’t want to see an election victory stolen by emboldened Radical Left Democrats. Our Country has had enough, they won’t take it anymore! We hear you (and love you) from the Oval Office. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! [Jan 5th 2021 – 5:05:56 PM EST]

I hope the Democrats, and even more importantly, the weak and ineffective RINO section of the Republican Party, are looking at the thousands of people pouring into D.C. They won’t stand for a landslide election victory to be stolen. @senatemajldr @JohnCornyn @SenJohnThune [Jan 5th 2021 – 5:05:56 PM EST]

While he rage-tweeted about supposed last-minute ballots in Georgia and Pennsylvania the morning of the rally, others filled in for him and let their followers and him know exactly what was planned for the day:

While members of the House filed in, Trump stood on the grandstand 1.5 miles away, bringing his ramble to a close. “And we fight,” he spat. “We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

“Fight”: Another word with lots of historical use, one that is usually paired with “protect,” and “save,” and “stand.” He didn’t need to say it. With his inflammatory rhetoric, he already had. His patriots picked up their Trump flags and began to march.

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