Trump has turned words into weapons. And he's winning the linguistic war

From ‘spygate’ to ‘fake news’, Trump is using language to frame – and win – 
debates. And the press operate like his marketing agency

George P Lakoff and Gil Duran

Wed 13 Jun 2018 06.00 EDT

 ‘Trump is subjecting American democracy to a brutal test. Our survival 
requires that the press halt its unwitting complicity in his power grab.’ 
Photograph: Michael Candelori/Rex/Shutterstock

Donald Trump has been a salesman for nearly half a century. He is now selling 
himself, his worldview and his self-serving views of the law and the truth. His 
principal tools are language and the media. By faithfully transmitting Trump’s 
words and ideas, the press helps him to attack, and thereby control, the press 

Trump knows the press has a strong instinct to repeat his most outrageous 
claims, and this allows him put the press to work as a marketing agency for his 
ideas. His lies reach millions of people through constant repetition in the 
press and social media. This poses an existential threat to democracy.

Language works by activating brain structures called “frame-circuits” used to 
understand experience. They get stronger when we hear the activating language. 
Enough repetition can make them permanent, changing how we view the world.

Even negating a frame-circuit activates and strengthens it, as when Nixon said 
“I am not a crook” and people thought of him as a crook.

Scientists, marketers, advertisers and salespeople understand these principles. 
So do Russian and Islamic State hackers. But most reporters and editors clearly 
don’t. So the press is at a disadvantage when dealing with a super salesman 
with an instinctive ability to manipulate thought by 1) framing first 2) 
repeating often, and 3) leading others to repeat his words by getting people to 
attack him within his own frame.

Language can shape the way we think. Trump knows this. Here are some of his 
favorite manipulation techniques.

Reporting, and therefore repeating, Trump’s tweets just gives him more power

First, he weaponizes words. The modifier “crooked” convicted Hillary Clinton 
without a trial. The media’s constant repetition sealed the verdict. “Fake 
news” proclaims that the news is fake. The use of “fake” is designed to 
delegitimize the press itself. Trump also uses strategic name-calling to 
undermine the Russia investigation, tagging it as a “witch-hunt” by the “deep 
state” in an attempt to shift blame. It’s false, but when the press repeats it, 
his narrative wins.

The media perpetuated a Trump lie by repeating “spygate”, which falsely 
characterized the FBI informant as a spy. Once made, such a mistake by the 
press is hard to correct.

A possible immediate correction might have been to use “RussianSpyGate,” 
repeatedly focusing on the Russian contacts of Trump’s campaign aides Carter 
Page and George Papadopoulos, with the FBI informant checking on Russian spying 
in the Trump campaign. This would have had to be done over and over, with 
reporters bring it up whenever “spygate” was used. Not an easy fix.

Then there are what cognitive scientists call “salient exemplars” – 
well-publicized individual cases, where wide publicity leads the public to take 
them as having a high probability and typifying a whole class. Trump turns them 
into weaponized stereotypes. He is a master at defaming entire groups of people 
as liars, rapists, terrorists – or in the case of US law enforcement and 
intelligence agencies – agents of corruption.

He knows how to avoid taking responsibility for a claim. “Maybe.” “I don’t 
know.” “We’ll see.” Yet the claim has been made and stands, with no 
responsibility for it.

John Oliver on Mueller investigation: 'If this is a witch-hunt, witches exist'

Read more
In The Art of the Deal, Trump discusses using “truthful hyperbole” – 
exaggerated claims suggesting a significant truth. His hyperbole can be either 
positive (“great”, “terrific”, “the best”) for what he likes or negative (“a 
disaster,” “the worst ever”) for what he dislikes. “The worst trade deal ever” 
frames trade agreements as “deals”, where “deals” are seen as zero-sum games 
that you either win or lose – and winning is the only good outcome. “Doesn’t it 
feel good to win!” “You’ll win so much, you’ll feel tired of winning!”

“Deal” and “winning” are not just words. They are central to his worldview. 
Those who win deserve to win; those who lose deserve to lose. Those who don’t 
win are “losers”. This is a version of individual responsibility, a cornerstone 
of conservative thought. There is a moral hierarchy. Those who win are better 
than those who lose.

“America first” means that America is better than other countries, as shown by 
its wealth and power. And that wealth and power should be used to win – to 
acquire more wealth and power in all its “deals” – even with our allies. Power 
includes the power to bully or punish – for example, to impose tariffs or pull 
out of treaty – or at least threaten if others don’t go along with him.

Trump’s tweets are not random, they are strategic. There are four types: 1) 
Pre-emptive framing, to get a framing advantage. 2) Diversion, to divert 
attention when news could embarrass him. 3) Deflection: Shift the blame to 
others. And 4) trial balloon – test how much you can get away with. Reporting, 
and therefore repeating, Trump’s tweets just gives him more power. There is an 
alternative. Report the true frames that he is trying to pre-empt. Report the 
truth that he is trying to divert attention from. Put the blame where it 
belongs. Bust the trial balloon. Report what the strategies are trying to hide.

Cornered by the Russia investigation, Trump is working overtime to twist the 
facts, the law, and reality in general, to benefit himself. As the indictments 
and the evidence pile up in favor of a case for Trump-Russia collusion in the 
2016 election, he’s made it clear that he considers himself above both the law 
and the truth. As president of the United States, anything he says – true or 
false – is faithfully parroted by the press. This needs to change.

Trump is subjecting American democracy to a brutal test. Our survival requires 
that the press halt its unwitting complicity in his power grab. The press has 
become complicit with Trump by allowing itself to be used as an amplifier for 
his falsehoods and frames. When the press gives Trump absolute power to dictate 
coverage, it abdicates its role as a pillar of democracy.

How can the press do a better job? Here are some basic suggestions:

First, journalists must understand how propaganda works on the brain and grasp 
the cognitive science that marketers of propaganda have implicitly mastered: 
frames, metaphors, narratives and brain basics.

Second, keep a steely focus on the fact that American democracy is under attack 
by a foreign power, possibly with collusion from the sitting president’s 
campaign. This is a crisis. Certain rules don’t apply in a crisis, especially 
the rule that the press must amplify the president’s words, whatever they are.

Third, stop letting Trump control the news cycle. Newsgathering should be a 
serious affair controlled by editors whose power rivals any politician’s. Stop 
chasing his tweets and elevating every sideshow. Start every story with truth 
and the context of what’s really important to citizens in a democracy. More 
BBC, less TMZ.

Fourth, don’t spread lies. Don’t privilege Trump’s lies by putting their 
specific language in the headlines, the leads or the hashtags. Don’t repeat the 
lies assuming people will automatically know they’re lies. People need to know 
the president is lying, but be careful about repeating the lies because “a lie 
repeated often enough becomes the truth”. Repetition of lies spreads them.

The job of the free press is to seek the truth and report the truth, especially 
the morally important truths and their consequences. If the press fails to do 
this job, not only does it lose its freedom, but we all do.
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