Editor’s note: This post is part of a summer-long series, The Sociology of Trump. Every Friday RI Future will feature an essay written by a Brown University sociology student on an aspect of Trumpism. Read the introduction: Culture, power, and social change in the time of Trump.
Other disciplines do more with language than sociology – literary and cultural studies and anthropology all have more developed fields. But for our discipline to engage the time of Trump we must engage how language works, as Maya Menefee so powerfully demonstrates. We need not only note what he says, but how he says it with all of the codes and connotations embedded in the multiple layers of Trumpspeak. It’s only by analyzing language and its receptions that we can understand why some view Trump as authentic, and others as a liar. That divide is not just a reflection of America, but it helps extend the manifest polarization of American society and the evisceration of truth power in our public sphere. Read Menefee to help you read Trump. – – Michael Kennedy, professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University.
There is an optical illusion that features an ambiguous drawing of an animal. At one glance, the image looks like a duck, while at another glance one might see a rabbit. It presents an interesting case of perceiving the same image in completely different ways. Now imagine one could only see the rabbit or the duck, and that it was incomprehensible that anyone could see anything differently.
As both an actor and a symbol, Trump often elicits conflicting interpretations from his supporters and critics. After viewing the same speech or listening to the same interview, people can come to radically different conclusions about his intentions, his capabilities, and his legitimacy as a world leader. And how Trump says what he says is just as important, if not more so, than what he says. The sociology of language is integral to the sociology of Donald Trump. This framework must consider how Trump wields language (both intentionally and unintentionally) in order to signal and appeal to signal certain audiences, as well as how this language is construed incongruently between his supporters and critics. Future sociologists will likely look back at this moment in time and consider how language reflected and contributed to the increasing polarization of American society.
What Trump says and how he says it
Trump has incited a multitude of academic analyses investigating how he uses language and gestures to communicate. A linguistic analysis based on word choice and sentence structure found that Trump speaks at about a fourth-grade level. He utilizes simple, often monosyllabic words and very rarely uses sentences with independent clauses. To put it in comparison, the same study found that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders respectively speak at an eighth-grade and tenth-grade reading level. Further, Trump speaks in “punchy bursts” that are easily comprehensible, and he consistently uses emotionally charged words like “terrible” and “beautiful”. During the campaign season, he was known for making pointed jabs at his opponents, criticizing their appearance and questioning their competencies to an exaggerated extent that “enhance[d] its comedic effect” (Hall, Goldstein, & Ingram, 2016). Trump particularly enjoys concluding his sentences with resonating words that he compounds through repetition. If the 2016 election demonstrated the steady decline in the complexity of political speech, Donald Trump was the one leading the charge. His consistent use of memorable phrases like “crooked Hillary” and “fake news” serve as a mnemonic of sorts—even if his message were incomprehensible, these phrases would sear their way into public memory. His Twitter account is the online version of this performance. Trump further punctuates his speech through gestures that create a sort of “embodied performance”: he uses exaggerated gestural re-enactments to mock his opponents while elevating himself, yielding non-verbal communication to great effect (Hall et al, 2016). Trump’s language is brash and forceful, and often comes across as spontaneous and unfiltered—but an even deeper linguistic analysis reveals the subtleties of his performance.
One of the most commonly utilized forms of political speech are dog whistles, coded language that communicates different meanings to certain subsets of a population than to the population as a whole. Trump in particular is no stranger to this trend. In a piece published by Quartz Media, linguistics expert Lynne Murphy analyses Trump’s use of the article “the”. Rather than pledging his intentions to help African-Americans, in the second US presidential debate, Trump claimed he was going to help the African-Americans. The inclusion of this seemingly insignificant article has the profound effect of indicating social distance. Murphy finds that Trump speaks about ethnic minority groups as a monolith in the same way other politicians speak about foreign governments or military groups, effectively “othering” these groups through labeling them as something separate from Trump and his supporters. Jennifer Sclafani describes Trump’s manner of speaking as an “idiolect,” something of an accent specific to himself. Much like the dog-whistles he expertly wields, Trump’s idiosyncratic accent communicates different things to different people. Much like the aforementioned duck-rabbit optical illusion, Donald Trump is construed as a strikingly different beast by different groups of people. This is where linguistic analysis meets sociology: how is Trump’s language perceived differently between his supporters and detractors and how do these groups find solidarity in their interpretation?
Donald Trump in the eyes of his supporters
In 2015, MSNBC, Telemundo, and Marist conducted a poll that found that more than seven in ten Republicans believe that Trump “tells it like it is.” One interpretation of this perception is that Trump gives voice to viewpoints that have rarely been vocalized by other presidents and presidential candidates. Trump’s supporters commend him for his candor and willingness to say what is needed to be said without the filter that inhibits most others. One of Trump’s main selling points was that he was a candidate unlike the “typical politician,” so he was and is allowed significant leeway from his supporters. Any unspoken rule that he breaks or expected behavior he subverts adds to his credibility as a politician unlike any other, which many of his supporters view as a breath of fresh air. As Arlie Hochschild argues, any mistake that he makes is readily forgiven because he is the “messenger” who recognizes the struggles his supporters face (2016: 697). In particular, Trump’s supporters commend him for his stance against political-correctness, for rejecting to succumb to the liberal demands that many of his supporters view as oversensitive. Trump appeals to largely white individuals “disaffected with the status quo and resentful of shifting cultural and social norms” (Weigel, The Guardian, 2016). These supporters construe Trump’s anti-PC rhetoric to be a way of combating the filter of liberal media where people have to unjustly live in fear of offending other people. To these individuals, Trump’s bluntness, crudeness, and forcefulness contribute to an image of a president unfettered by liberal censorship. As Sclafani notes, Trump’s supporters are drawn to this style of delivery. They view his idiolect as “authentic” and “relatable” and the man as someone who “doesn’t mince words” (Sclafani, 2016). The dog-whistle of Trump’s “the” reads to his supporters as a demonstration that he is keeping minorities at a distance. However, these same messages that Trump’s supporters construe so favorably are perceived quite differently by his detractors.
Donald Trump in the eyes of his critics
One does not have to look far to find articles critical of Trump, and many of his detractors have a similar message that he is reckless, offensive, and inarticulate. A Vanity Fair article critiqued Trump for his constant contradictions and opposition to verifiable facts, finding him to be “incoherent” and “rambling” (Kakutani, 2017). The same idiolect that Trump’s supporters perceived as being indicative of a “straight shooter” was perceived as nonsensical and without substance by his critics (Sclafani, 2016). These individuals view the dog whistle of Trump’s construal of minorities as a way of excluding particular ethnic groups from the experience of being American. To many of these critics, something feels off about adding the signifier “the,”—it feels like othering. Trump’s comments during the second presidential debate led to the trending of the hashtag #theAfricanAmericans on Twitter, where thousands of people vocalized their discontent with his remarks. A scathing article in the Guardian called Trump a “clouds-of-smoke-billowing-from-his-pants liar,” a stance in staunch opposition to the positive construals by his supporters. These detractors perceive Trump as being unprepared and incompetent, with a short-attention span and an aggressive inability to take on any sort of criticism. They find offense in his signifiers and his gestures, and malice in his words. This radically different interpretation raises the question of how can the same behaviors can be perceived in such conflicting ways.
Questions to consider going forward
The investigation up to this point of the sociology of Donald Trump has primarily relied on media and academic articles to establish both a linguistic analysis of how he speaks as well as develop an understanding of the divergence in how his supporters and critics construe him. This is far from the only evidence that should be taken into account in developing a sociology of language applicable to current times. Online communities, for example, provide a look into how everyday people talk about Donald Trump and perceive his words and actions. Comparing the largest pro-Trump message board on Reddit (r/TheDonald) to one of the largest anti-Trump message boards (r/esist) reveals the vastly different ways in which people construe Trump’s language. Several posts on the former commend Trump for telling the truth and for not bending to the will of political correctness, while comments on the latter message board call out Trump for lying. These online communities are useful both in determining how people talk about Trump, but also how people build solidarity with others who share their beliefs. Other avenues for investigation might be social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to determine further how people talk differently about Trump depending on what side of the political spectrum they are on. Yet the question still remains: how can people construe the same message so differently?
Sclafani offers one explanation: that people’s impressions are shaped by their “personal experiences with language” and how they rank certain values in the evaluation of presidential candidates (2016). Hochschild would argue that perception is tied to the deep stories we tell ourselves, and that this difference is due to our identification of the heroes and villains in these stories (2016). A psychological interpretation might argue that these differences are a result of confirmation bias, where people look for what they want to see and de-value anything that contradicts their point of view. Perhaps this question is irrelevant, and what we should be asking is: how does Trump’s language speak differently to individuals based on their life experiences and values and how does this reflect and contribute to the growing political polarization in this country?
2017 marks a time of incredible political divide in the United States. While some might argue that Donald Trump is the wedge driving people apart, I argue that it is more accurate to say that he reveals the divisions that had already been festering for some time. The differences between how Trump’s supporters and opponents perceive his language reveal that these two groups do not see eye-to-eye, which has profound implications for how they interact with one another. How can effective communication happen in a time when a portion of the country sees a duck, another portion sees a rabbit, and neither side is willing to entertain the possibility of seeing anything differently? The sociology of language in the time of Donald Trump is one based on how language can be used as a tool to influence perceptions, but also one based on how identity and coalition can be built from these constructs.