Nobody wrote about words better –and more beautifully- than Pablo Neruda, the late Chilean poet. In a short segment of his Memoirs Neruda wrote, “You can say anything you want, yessir, but it’s the words that sing, they soar and descend . . . I bow to them . . . I love them, I cling to them, I run them down, I bite into them, I melt them down . . . I leave them in my poem like stalactites, like slivers of polished wood, like coals, pickings from a shipwreck, gifts from the waves . . . Everything exists in the word . . .” And nobody has misused them more than President Donald J. Trump.
Words can be used to punish, to threaten, to influence, to undermine, to mock, to trivialize and to abuse, among other objectives. Throughout the run for the presidency, and since becoming President, Donald Trump has made use of almost all of those characteristics, usually in the most negative sense.
Language is a powerful tool. In his book The Political Mind, the noted linguist and author George Lakoff wrote, “Language gets its power because it is defined relative to frames, prototypes, metaphors, narratives, images and emotions. Part of its power comes from its unconscious aspects: we are not consciously aware of all that evokes in us, but it is there, hidden, always at work”.
One of Donald Trump’s tactical moves is to apply nicknames to his adversaries. Who can forget his calling Marco Rubio “Little Marco”?; or Hillary Clinton “Crooked Hillary”?; or Bernie Sanders “Crazy Bernie”?; or Jeb Bush “Low-energy Jeb”?; or Ted Cruz “Lying Ted”?; or Elizabeth Warren “Goofy Elizabeth Warren”? By calling them names, he wanted to brand them, to create a negative narrative about his opponents.
That explains why, like a circus barker, he keeps repeating platitudes, although he must know how far away from reality they may be. Win is one of his favorite words. At a rally in Albany, New York, in April 2016, he said, “We’re going to win so much you may even be tired of winning. And you’ll say, ‘Please, please. It’s too much winning. We can’t take it anymore. Mr. President, it’s too much’. And I’ll say, No, it isn’t!” So far, however, his presidency has proven to be a banquet of losses.
Becoming President didn’t deter him from continuing to use language to further his aims. When Kay Ryssdal, an American radio journalist, asked Lakoff how he had predicted that Trump would win the election, he explained, “Based on what he was saying, how he was saying it, and how he very cleverly managed to manipulate other people’s brains to his advantage as a super salesman, which he’s been doing for 50 years. And he instinctively knows exactly how to do that. He knows what to say, and those tweets that he gives are entirely strategic. There are four types. Each of them fits a strategy, you know, and he has an advantage when other people think that he’s just crazy or stupid.”
Donald Trump likes to boast about his accomplishments. “I went to an Ivy League school. I’m highly educated. I know words. I have the best words, but there is no better word than stupid. Right?”
The President probably never imagined that his own words could be used to define him. Rex Tillerson, his Secretary of State, reportedly called him a “moron”, a charge that Tillerson refused to deny. When asked whether he had indeed referred to Trump as a “moron,” Tillerson said: “I’m not going to deal with petty stuff like that.”
More courageous was Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of “Hamilton” one of Broadway’s great successes. Miranda was dismayed at the Trump administration’s ineffective relief efforts to Puerto Rico after Hurricane María hit the island, and of Trump’s personal attacks against Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital city. Miranda counterattacked, using the President’s favorite weapon. “You’re going straight to hell, Donald Trump. No long lines for you. Someone will say, “‘Right this way, sir. They’ll clear a path,’” Miranda tweeted.
At the end, it is possible that Trump will be undone by his words, carelessly used. The Bard of Avon seems to have presaged this possibility when he wrote, “Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”