Although often ridiculed for his way with words, Donald Trump has consistently managed to get his message across very successfully to large proportions of the US population. One of his favoured techniques for this is usurping the language of his opponents - appropriating their lines of attack, and turning them to his own advantage. In this way he's able to frame the debate to suit his own agenda, and thereby make an emotional appeal to his audience. And the challenge for those trying to resist him becomes not only mounting a convincing counter-argument, but also reclaiming the very words that are used to talk about key issues.
During the election campaign one of Trump's central pledges was to give a voice to the voiceless. The laid-off factory workers he'd met on his travels, the communities who'd been affected by 'horrible and unfair' trade deals, these were 'the forgotten men and women of our country,' he said. 'People who work hard but no longer have a voice.' For them, he vowed, 'I am your voice!'.
In his first presidential address to Congress, at the end of February, he revived this language. Announcing the formation of a new agency for dealing with what he called 'immigrant crime', he declared that this would be a way of 'providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests'. He even named the initiative 'Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement'. Or VOICE for short.
In the same way that he appropriated the term 'fake news' and turned it into an insult used to dismiss anyone he disagrees with, so using the word 'voice' here strategically undermines the critical vocabulary that's traditionally associated with movements which aim to support many of the communities this new policy effectively vilifies.
Giving a 'voice' to the experiences of those disenfranchised by history and politics is a key aim in development and postcolonial studies. It's a way of challenging the inequalities embedded in society, and critiquing the way these are reproduced in institutions such as the law. And this use of the word is reflected in advocate organisations such as America's Voice, whose stated mission is to 'harness the power of American voices and American values to enact policy change that guarantees full labor, civil and political rights for immigrants and their families'.
Trump's 'VOICE' initiative, on the other hand, has the effect of further stigmatising migrant communities, and associating the immigrant experience with a trend for criminality. It does this despite the fact that several studies show that immigrants are in fact less likely to commit a crime than people born in the US. But, as Trump's deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka, said when justifying the programme, it's targeting those who have 'already broken the law by being here'.
Gorka continued by framing the issue as being about the essentials of American identity: 'If you object to [the principles behind the policy], you are in favor of pain, in favor of tragedy, and in favor of chaos, and that is un-American'. This use of the word 'voice' then is not inclusive, as it is in development studies. Instead it's purposefully erecting barriers around what it means to be a legitimate citizen in Trump's America.
Of course, Trump has a long history of making statements which appear to pervert the conventional meaning of words. Each year, the National Council of Teachers of English gives out an award for the most blatant and outrageous use of 'doublespeak' in the world of politics. Based on ideas most associated with George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (and in particular the concepts of 'doublethink' and 'Newspeak'), doublespeak refers to language which deliberately distorts or inverts the meaning of words. Previous winners of the award have included Ronald Reagan, for giving the MX intercontinental ballistic missile system the name 'Peacekeeper' (which recalls all too precisely the Newspeak slogan 'War is Peace' from Orwell's novel). Last year, rather unsurprisingly, Trump himself was the winner, with one committee member commenting that 'I don't think we've ever had a better example of the Doublespeak Award' than him.
His deftness at this sort of linguistic sleight-of-hand was evident throughout the election, where he somehow managed to characterise his opponents as the arch dissemblers, while portraying himself as a plain speaker. Cruz and Clinton became 'Lyin' Ted' and 'Crooked Hillary', despite the fact that it was Trump himself whose relationship with the truth was more problematic than almost any other candidate in history.
Re-appropriating the language of the opposition isn't necessarily a form of doublespeak of course. It's a long-standing political technique. In the ancient Chinese essay listing Thirty-Six Stratagems to be used in war and politics, one of these advises 'killing with a borrowed sword'. In other words, when you don't have the resources to attack the enemy directly you should use their own strength against them. Appropriating the language of your detractors is in many ways the rhetorical equivalent of this.
There are several examples of minority or marginalised groups attempting to reclaim words which have been used against them as terms of abuse. And in these contexts, language becomes a prime battlefield for political attitudes.
The word 'bitch', for example, has been a touchstone for stages in the feminist movement over the years. It originally arose as an insult in the 1920s at the time of women's suffrage. During second-wave feminism in the 60s, with publications such as Jo Freeman's The BITCH Manifesto, there were moves to reclaim it. These continued during the 90s, with the founding of Bitch magazine by Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler, and Elizabeth Wurtzel's Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, for example. But at the same the word was becoming a staple in music, especially rap, where its use was far less positive. Today, it's still very much a problematic term - and as Arielle Pardes comments, 'perhaps the reason it hasn't been truly reclaimed is because conditions for women haven't really changed, either'.
Other examples, such as the reclamation of 'gay' and 'queer' have arguably been more successful, although even these are not without their issues. But there's a very important difference between these campaigns and Trump's linguistic appropriation. And this is the fact that those working to reclaim language that's used as a sexist, homophobic or racist insult are in positions of limited power. Theirs is a project for equality of rights and social legitimacy.
Trump's point would likely be that he's also providing a voice for the disenfranchised. That he himself is speaking out for the powerless, and standing with them against a political tradition which has marginalised them in recent years.
Yet the key point is how he's doing this. The rhetoric he uses - including the cynical appropriation of terms such as 'voice' - is encouraging a climate of division and stigmatisation rather than inclusiveness. It's pitting one marginalised group against another. He's expressing a false empathy with the 'forgotten men and women' he claims to be speaking for. And by appropriating the term voice for himself, he is attempting to silence the legitimate concerns of countless others.Suggest a correction