Trump’s Smart at Mesmerising Metaphors
Linguistically Donald Trump leads the field with his power of persuasion and he uses metaphors to do it. Language such as “America is sitting in a bubble about to explode” enhances the urgency of the situation whilst evoking startling imagery. (The inference is, Catastrophe is upon us! I know what’s happening - and I’ve got the answer - so follow me.) His pre-election themes extended mainly to “the future is bleak and about to get worse” and ‘combative’ metaphors. He also uses an ‘O’ shaped finger sign to anchor and summarize his explanations.
Using metaphors in our conversation is a natural thing to do - for example, “The news hit me like a ton of bricks”. So metaphors state that something is like something else, they offer a shortcut to understanding.
Donald Trump built his fortune from selling properties, so he knows that people change things when they are dissatisfied. His campaign theme of things are bad, and they’re going to get worse, mined a similar vein. Peter Urey studies the use of metaphors and examined three hours of Trumps ‘campaign’ speeches. He notes that “Trump used 237 metaphors in 180 minutes at the podium - more than one metaphor per minute! He peppers his language with powerful and repeating imagery. He uses metaphor to communicate in ways other politicians can only hope to aspire to.”
Trump uses seven basic metaphors types throughout his speech.
- The Present is Bleak – 62 times
- Argument is Combat – 56
- Winning is Up / Losing is Down – 47
- Leaders are Deal Makers – 22
- Change is a Journey – 17
- Argument is a Story – 15
- Others – 18
- A poem comparing illegal immigrants to venomous snakes – 1
When it comes to the future and what that is going to look like it is difficult for anyone, to predict. Here Trump’s descriptions are sparse; stating mainly that the future will be “great” or he will “make America great again”. The statement is anchored to his familiar ‘O’ sign to dispel anxiety people might feel about plunging into an unknown future. This cleverly links familiarity with the pattern he has followed before and encourages people to paint their own vivid ‘pictures’ of what the future will look like; more jobs, less immigration - and fill in the blanks according to their preferences.
Why are Donald’s Metaphors so Powerful?
Because people are not the rational beings we think they are. Metaphors bypass rationality and lowers audience defences to the salesman’s pitch. People are responding not just to words but also their internal images, ideas experiences and feelings which all help to enrich the viewing experience.
Whilst Trump plants his linguistic bombshells in plain sight, often political influencers leave hardly a trace. In the run-up to the British elections Conservative minister, Michael Fallon used a vivid soundbite. “He (Ed Miliband) stabbed his brother in the back to become Labour Leader. Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become Prime Minister.” The media seized the soundbite and within hours voters were repeating in TV interviews “he stabbed his brother in the back” as a reason why they would not vote Labour.
As with the Hilary chant “lock her up”, now subsided, few British voters have since bothered to comment on the fact that both Miliband brothers are fit and well, and neither has been stabbed. Is it because it seems a bit foolish to say I didn’t like the way he eats his burgers - so the ‘stabbing’ metaphor fits my bias - that way I don’t have to think for myself or rationalise about the reasons why I don’t like him.
The problem with complex ‘a’ equals ‘b’ metaphors is that the accompanying imagery, as in the Miliband case, can be so strong that it overrides the natural inclination to examine the words to see if they really do make logical sense. So we fail to check the validity of the statement by asking the questions ‘how does the fact that someone falls out with their brother mean that they are incapable of doing their job? Or, ‘has there ever been a case where someone has fallen out with a sibling and still managed to perform well in politics.’
The treacherous side to metaphors is that they can have unintended consequences when we switch off our thinking and swallow them whole. They slip past our conscious thinking and become widely accepted. Long standing metaphors stating something is something else e.g. ‘honour killing’ can close down debate thus sanitizing the acts of child murderers. What the political metaphor of ‘drain the swamp’ does is gain agreement from an audience and shut down debate on what the words actually mean.
Metaphors and Soundbites
The confrontational nature of politics is based on the assumption that opposition leads to truth. Combine this with the need to make opponents wrong in order to be right and it can have a devastating effect. Take the case of ‘Obamacare’; millions of health care users who get caught in the middle become ‘political footballs’ kicked one way then another depending on who is in power. This can lead to good ideas being flushed away or ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ to demonstrate political distain.
The presidency has been won by Donald’s mastery of metaphor and tweets, not on reasoned and rational debates of issues.
Trump in office is moving fast. Scripts such as: “My administration is running like a ‘fine-tuned machine’” appear jarring amid the chaos that is happening around him. And as accusations escalate of the Trump team’s contacts with the Russians before he was elected - another metaphor springs to mind: “Donald is sitting in a bubble about to explode”
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