As the world is still reeling with varying levels of disbelief, anger, and fear in the weeks since Donald Trump has taken office in the US, there is still a desire to find some explanation for his popularity. How is it that some groups of people just can’t see through the lies, the manipulations, the threats, and the abject incompetence? What tools could we use to help understand this? With varying degrees of quality, I’ve seen several attempts to answer that question with reference to Trump’s unique public speaking (and Tweeting) style.
Here, I’m picking out a recent example of a Twitter rant that was particularly frustrating to me. I copy it here in screenshot form.
The most frustrating thing about this type of linguistic analysis is that it’s based primarily on assumptions about how language works, which in fact don’t rest on solid ground. Trump’s speaking style is far from a separate ‘language’, and while I appreciate the reference to one of this linguistnerd’s favourite Star Trek episodes, it isn’t remotely similar to that form of metaphorical/mythical/historical talk. The specific quote that is analyzed as three “sentence fragments” is nothing of the sort – each of the three is easily analyzed into its subject/predicate phrase structure, and each could essentially be meaningfully stated on its own as long as you know the pronominal referents (the one element that comes off as grammatically awkward when stated in isolation is the “you” in “You look at what happened in Sweden last night”. Delete the you, however, and you have a very common standard English sentence – I would use the linguistic term hortative to describe it [Ed: You linguists love your technical terms, don’t you?]). Sure, there are connotations and implicatures to what he is saying. But that’s a basic feature of talking, not some uniquely Orwellian “different language” that Trump is using. And in fact, Trump does complete his thought – he doesn’t describe in detail what happened (or, of course, didn’t actually happen at all) in Sweden, not because he’s invoking some reference points only those in the know will understand, but because it’s not the focus of his statement. He finishes the thought with “They’re having problems they never thought possible”. The utterance is entirely grammatical, with maybe one question mark for awkwardness, and at a discourse level, its overall meaning is absolutely clear.
This example annoys me enough to write about first because it was widely shared in my Twitter feed with many thumbs up emojis and exclamation marks of praise, but second because it illustrates a pattern of faux-linguistic analysis that is most often used in a classist/racist manner, rather than against people in power like Trump. It draws on a literary/written/schooled form of “grammatical correctness” to downgrade this way of speaking as not just odd or different, but as full on not English. And while it’s absolutely the case that Trump doesn’t speak as most presidents do in his public addresses, he uses linguistic forms that are extremely common in everyday spoken versions of the language. Generally such contexts have been treated as sites for delivery of prepared oratory, which uses much more literary style. In an everyday conversation, I might easily say something like “Look at what happened with my baby last night, she wouldn’t sleep, I’m having so much trouble concentrating”. I wouldn’t write that in a formal context, but that doesn’t make it “a different language”, and grammatically/stylistically, it’s essentially the same thing. And the vast majority of the time someone assesses these ways of speaking as “ignorant” or somehow fundamentally different/incomprehensible, it’s a form of marginalization of those who don’t regularly employ formal registers and schooled structures.
The thing is, I can relate to the urge to find some way of making sense of what seems like a chasm of difference in reactions to what Trump has to say. While I recoil in horror literally every time he opens his mouth, and while I respond to commentary on “what happened in Sweden” with a locked-in “WTF” face because I know it’s another “alternative fact”, somehow we have to figure out how to communicate that to swaths of people who really do believe actual real truth is a product of a giant fake-news media conspiracy. But, much as I love my discipline and value the explanatory potential that the study of language brings to politics and power, I don’t think the foundation of this divide is in a comprehension of his “language” that his followers have, but we don’t. In this case, I agree with many scholars of colour and critical race theorists who have pointed out that Trump’s popularity among white people is unsurprising in light of the historical and present patterns of white supremacy and racism. If “we” can’t see how those prejudices are being invoked in Trump’s language, or how his followers accept the lies that confirm their underlying views about racialized people, it’s not because “we” don’t speak Trump’s language. It’s because “we” haven’t been paying attention to whiteness.