Former U.S. President Donald Trump

Former U.S. President Donald Trump, a 2024 Republican presidential candidate, speaks during a rally at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on August 12, 2023.

(Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s Original Use of Language

The former president's attacks on his enemies have caused grievous harm to the civility of political discourse.

It could be considered one of Donald Trump’s greatest achievements: attacking his enemies and demeaning their integrity or mental capabilities. It is not one, however, that he should be proud of. It has caused grievous harm to language, and to the civility of political discourse.

During an interview with Brian Stelter, George Lakoff, a linguist and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, said: “He [Trump] knows how to use language very effectively. And not only that, he has strategic tweets. His tweets fall into four categories. One, they can preemptively frame something, frame something before it’s framed out there in the public. Secondly, it can divert attention away from something that’s threatening to him. It can shift the blame, either to some other person or to the news media itself. And it can be a trial balloon, something really outrageous to see what the reaction is, and if there’s no real reaction, he can do what he wants. And he also knows how to use psychology. For example, there is a phenomenon in which some well-publicized event that is out there, like some particular terrorist attack or something like that, becomes a weaponized way of just categorizing all people. He knows how to do this. This is part of his sales technique.”

These are techniques that Trump has used, with great effectiveness, since he went into politics. Recently, following his arraignment in New York on felony charges, he said in his Florida home, Mar-a-Lago, “The only crime I’ve committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it.” This is a weird assertion by somebody who is accused of having incited an attack on the Capitol, and didn’t make any effort, of his own accord, to rein in his followers who wanted to hang his vice president and hurt several lawmakers.

Trump managed to make his own lawyer use pernicious arguments on his defense. John Lauro, defending Trump against felony charges and attempts to overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” about Trump’s illegal attempts to overturn the election: “When it comes to political speech, you cannot only advocate for a position, but you can take action, you can petition, you can ask even your vice president to pause the vote. Asking is aspirational. Asking is not action. It’s core free speech.” And as an example of free speech, it is protected by the First Amendment, claims Lauro.

Lauro’s assertions prove that being close to Trump can be contagious, and the person in that situation can make the same grievous mistakes. What Lauro ignores, however, is that the verb aspire is mainly used in a positive sense, when a person aspires to a worthwhile, positive, goal. Thus, it is awkward to say, “Al Capone aspired to kill all the population of Chicago.” However, one can say, correctly, “In love with his teacher, Johnny aspired to be the best student in her class.”

Regarding the fact that Trump’s assertions—no matter how outlandish—have First Amendment protection, legal experts claim that, although all Americans have the right to express their opinion about the 2020 election, they cease to have that right as soon as their words are used to conduct criminal acts. In the case of Trump, those criminal acts included trying to persuade others to join him in criminal conduct, such as signing fake slates of electors or trying to force Vice President Mike Pence to block or delay the Electoral College certification of Biden’s victory.

In an interview with CNN, Bill Barr, a former attorney general during the Trump administration, said that he didn’t think the First Amendment defense was a valid argument for Trump “because, as the indictment says, they’re not attacking his First Amendment right. He can say whatever he wants. He can even lie. He can even tell people that the election was stolen when he knew better. But that doesn’t protect you from entering into a conspiracy. All conspiracies involve free speech. And all fraud involves speech. So, free speech doesn’t give you the right to engage in a fraudulent conspiracy.”

Trump has also repeatedly called Special Counsel Jack Smith a “deranged lunatic,” a “thug,” and “a raging, uncontrolled, Trump hater.” This is Trump’s way of discrediting his accusers. He doesn’t seem to realize that his words don’t hurt Smith, who is widely respected in legal circles but are, perhaps, a reflection of his own inner demons.

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