This past week, Donald Trump won the 2016 election, much to the surprise of most of the country. In fact, the result was so unexpected that most television, radio and print media reporters described it as a shock, a tsunami, an earthquake or a seismic election. It is not surprising that elections are described in terms of natural disasters. I have written about some of these examples in a previous post. This time, the usage is a bit different.
When one candidate wins the election by a large margin, we sometimes say that he or she won in a landslide, as if the election results came down a mountain after a heavy rain. However, in the most recent election, the margin of victory was very slim. In fact, it seems that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but Donald Trump won the electoral vote – a slim margin indeed. Since everyone was surprised that Donald Trump won the election, there were other examples of natural disasters to describe the unexpected results. Here are a few examples (italics are mine). The source of each quotation is provided below each example.
A tsunami is a huge ocean wave that devastates coastal communities as happened in Indonesia in 2004 and in Japan in 2011. Metaphorically, the word tsunami is used similarly to the term flood indicating a large amount of something happening quickly.
Earthquakes are caused by shifts in the earth’s crust or continental plates. Tremors are smaller quakes that happen before or after a major earthquake. Metaphorically, earthquakes and tremors can describe important events that happen in an organization that change the normal course of activities.
The word shock has several different meanings. One can experience shock from an electrical outlet or a violent impact in a collision. There can also be shocks or aftershocks after an earthquake. There were many people who were shocked by the Trump victory this week.
The word seismic describes the level of movement in the earth’s crust during an earthquake. Metaphorically, any event that has deep and widespread effects on people or organizations may also be described as seismic.
When a river overflows its banks, the surrounding countryside, towns, and cities can be flooded with water. As a metaphor, the concept of flooding is used to describe a large amount of something that covers a wide area.
In some areas, rivers are dammed up and the water is held back with gates. When the water reaches a high level, the floodgates may be opened to release the pressure. Metaphorically, opening the floodgates means that a large amount of information or many actions are suddenly released.
Once again, we can see how our experience with nature, or in this case, natural disasters creates metaphors that we can use to describe political events. Sadly, New Zealand just suffered a 7.8 earthquake early this morning, with possible tsunami waves striking the coast. Fortunately, only two people were killed based on current news reports. The use of such violent metaphors of natural disasters indicate how traumatic the Trump victory has been to many Americans. Stay tuned for more interesting metaphors used to describe the Trump presidency.
This past summer, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were tied in many national polls. More recently, however, Trump has been slipping in the polls due to the release of tapes of him making disparaging remarks about women, and many women coming forward accusing him of inappropriate behavior in years past. Donald Trump has denied all of the allegations, and has often repeated a complaint that the entire election is rigged against him, implying that the Democrats are somehow plotting to steal the election. Trump’s running mate Mike Pence has also suggested that the election is rigged. During the Democratic primary, supporters of Bernie Sanders also complained that the primary process was rigged in favor of Hillary Clinton.
The word rig has an interesting etymology. The word originally referred to the way that ropes were used to secure sails on a ship, a process dating back to the 15th century. The word also referred to a process of tricking or swindling someone, dating to 1775. Although one could argue that the more modern connotation is a completely different word, I believe that the idea of swindling is related to the original idea of using rigging ropes. Swindling someone involves an intelligent process of tying up many details that allow someone to trick other people. The idea of rigging an election requires a complex process of manipulating many details of election procedures. In any case, I would like to offer several other political metaphors derived from the specialized vocabulary of sailing ships.
The person in charge of a ship is usually called the captain. Metaphorically, and sometimes jokingly, any person in command of an organization may be called a captain.
Example: When a candidate is elected president, her or she becomes the captain of the ship of the United States.
The compartment of a ship where the pilot controls the steering wheel and navigation equipment is called the pilothouse or wheelhouse. In baseball, the area of the plate in which a certain batter can hit the ball is also called the wheelhouse. Thus, a good batter can get a hit if the ball is thrown into his wheelhouse. Metaphorically, a person’s area of expertise may be called his or her wheelhouse.
Example: Barack Obama’s supporters claim he can win a debate on foreign policy because that is his wheelhouse.
bring on board
When a ship takes on passengers or freight for a trip, we say that they are brought on board the ship. Metaphorically, when people are hired to work in an organization, we may also say that they are brought on board.
Example: A presidential candidate usually brings good advisors on board when he or she begins a long campaign.
miss the boat
Ships must keep tight schedules when traveling from port to port. If passengers are taking a ship, they must get there on time. If not, they will literally miss the boat. Metaphorically, the phrase to miss the boat means to miss an opportunity to do something.
Example: Somehow the U.S. defense department missed the boat and did not prevent Osama bin Laden from attacking New York in 2001.
When passengers do board a ship and leave port, we say that they are embarking on a journey. Metaphorically, whenever people begin a new project we may say that they are embarking on a new journey.
Example: A newly elected president embarks on a four-year journey in the White House.
learn the ropes
Before the days of steam-powered or gasoline-powered engines, ships traveled across the oceans on wind power. Complex sets of sails were controlled by men pulling on ropes to get the sails in the correct position for maximum effectiveness at catching the wind. We have many metaphors in English from this difficult work of controlling these ropes. In one of these expressions, learning how to manage the sails was referred to as learning the ropes. In modern English, the phrase learning the ropes refers to the process of learning any new task.
Example: When Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State in 2008, she had to learn the ropes of complex international diplomacy.
pick up the slack
When ropes become loose, this is called becoming slack. To tighten the rope, people must do what is called pick up the slack. In metaphorical terms, helping a group of people complete a project when they are shorthanded is called picking up the slack.
Example: When the U.S. government cuts federal spending, state governments often have to pick up the slack to fund education and other social programs.
cut some slack
When one has the opposite problem of having a rope that is too tight, one must loosen it in a process we call cutting some slack. In common slang, whenever we need people to be lenient or allow more freedom in a certain process, we may ask for them to cut them some slack.
Example: When Richard Nixon was involved in the Watergate Scandal of the early 1970s, very few people were willing to cut him some slack. Most Americans were pleased when he resigned from office.
Ropes used to control the sails had to be tightly secured to the ship. If they ropes were not tight, they were described as having loose ends. In yet another sailing metaphor, if a situation is chaotic or unorganized, we may say that the people involved are at loose ends.
Example: A good presidential candidate must tie up all loose ends in the campaign in order to win an election.
When the weather is good and the ship is traveling safely, we say that there is smooth sailing. In common terms, any process that is working well may be referred to as smooth sailing.
Example: President Obama did not have smooth sailing in his first few years as president as he had to manage many different economic crises.
When a boat or ship wants to fix its position in the water, the crew drops a heavy metal hook called an anchor into the water. Metaphorically, the concept of anchor has many uses in English. In one metaphor the person who holds the prominent position in a team of TV reporters is called the anchorman, or simply the news anchor.
Example: During a presidential election, TV news anchors work overtime providing the public with the latest information.
anchor of the team
In a similar sense, a person who is the leader of a group of individuals may be called the anchor of the team.
Example: For the last several elections, Karl Rove has been the anchor of the team of strategists helping Republican candidates win their races around the country.
When illegal aliens have children in the United States, these children are sometimes called anchor babies since the parents are then allowed to stay in the country and become eligible for government benefits. This phrase is considered pejorative and not used in normal speech.
Example: Some Americans claim that anchor babies cost the government millions of dollars in health care and social programs.
When a ship arrives in a port, it will seek safety in a harbor where there are shallow waters, few waves, and access to land. Metaphorically, the term harbor is also used as a verb meaning to provide safety for someone.
Example: Most allies of the U.S. government do not harbor terrorists. They are arrested and brought to trial.
In a similar sense, another meaning of the verb harbor is to hold a specific feeling or attitude about something for a long time. In a common phrase, people may harbor resentment against someone who has hurt them in some way.
Example: Some Vietnam veterans still harbor resentment against the U.S. government for treating them so poorly when they returned from combat in the 1960s and 1970s.
These are just a few of the metaphors derived from sailing ships. The idea of rigging an election may be derived from the process of rigging the sails many centuries ago. It is interesting that we still use words to describe political processes that originated in other fields many years ago. As Trump and Clinton come to the end of the campaign for the presidential election with only a few weeks to go, I wonder if Mr. Trump will continue to complain that the election is rigged.
This past week, Donald Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton was “playing the woman’s card” and would not even get 5% of the vote if she were a man. Critics quickly pounced on this sexist comment. Hillary Clinton may have the last laugh, however, since her campaign claims to have raised $2.4 million dollars as a backlash to the comment. For me, the idea of “playing the woman’s card” reminds me of the popular use of the metaphors of games in American politics. I have mentioned some of these metaphors previously, but they are worth mentioning again.
Also, this past weekend on the television news show Meet the Press (May 1, 2016) the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin described the problems in the Middle East as follows: “This is like three-dimensional chess. And most of us are playing checkers at understanding foreign policy right now.” These types of metaphors are derived from our experiences with board games. Let’s have another look at some metaphors derived from games.
A normal deck of playing cards has 52 cards in four suits: clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds. In some games, a player must put down a card on his or her turn that matches the suit of the previous card. This is called following suit. Metaphorically, one can follow suit by doing the same thing that a previous person has done. In politics, a president may follow suit with a certain program or policy that was already in place when he or she became president.
Example: When Barack Obama became president in 2008, he followed suit with George Bush’s policy in Afghanistan, increasing the number of troops there and stepping up efforts to find Osama bin Laden.
As with the idea of following suit, we would say that a person with many good cards in any suit would have a strong suit, e.g., an ace, king and queen in spades would mean a strong suit of spades. In metaphorical terms, a person’s strong suit is his or her special talent that is superior to the competitor’s abilities.
Example: When George W. Bush was president, he had a talent of appearing to be a regular guy, with rolled up shirtsleeves and speaking plainly. It was such a strong suit for him, he used it many times when giving speeches or press conferences to earn confidence from American citizens.
trump, trump card
In some card games, a certain card may have more value than all the others. This is often called the trump card. In politics, one can trump an opponent or play the trump card to beat an opponent in an election, debate or discussion.
Example: In the 2008, John McCain thought he had the trump card to win the presidential election when he asked Sarah Palin to be his running mate, but they were not able to win a trip to the White House.
Some card games also have a card that is designated as a wild card, i.e., one that can take on the value of a higher ranked card if it is to the advantage of the player who holds it. For example, in the game of deuces wild, a 2 card can have the value of an ace, king or queen if it helps the player win the hand. The difficult part of this type of game is that no one knows when the wild card will appear or how the player will use it, so it could be a surprise to everyone when it happens. In politics, a wild card is a person, program or policy that has unexpected power in a certain situation.
Example: In the 2010 midterm elections, the tea party candidates were often considered wild cards since they were not experienced politicians and no one was sure if they could win elections or not.
In card games, one usually plays a card that will help him or her win the hand or the game. Thus to play a card means to do something to your advantage. In politics, the idea of playing a race card arose when people talked about African-American candidates winning elections because of their race, not their qualifications.
Example: In the 2008 election, some supporters of Barack Obama were accused of playing the race card when they urged people to help him become the first African-American president.
In a similar sense, someone may be accused of playing the so-called age card if they urge people to vote for a candidate because of his or her age and experience and not the qualifications.
Example: Some supporters of John McCain who pointed out the young age and political inexperience of Barack Obama were thought to be playing the age card.
Also, female candidates may be accused of playing the woman’s card.
Example: In the 2016 primaries, Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of playing the woman’s card.
reshuffle the cards
When people play cards, the deck must be shuffled before each new deal. This ensures that the same cards are not dealt out in the same way more than once. When we speak of politics of being a card game, we may say that we need to reshuffle the cards when there has been an unexpected turn of events. Reshuffling the cards means one of two things: 1) there has been a change in the policies or personnel of a certain government agency, or 2) someone must reorganize a current situation to bring a new balance and order to the problem.
Example: When a U.S. president is elected to two consecutive terms, he or she might reshuffle the cards of the cabinet or other key positions at the beginning of the second term.
overplay the hand
In some card games, it is sometimes better not to reveal if you have a very good hand of cards. One must be prudent and not try to win the game all at one time. One must be patient and use strategy to win the game in several steps. In politics, we might say that people overplay their hand if they try to push an issue too hard all at once instead of waiting for the diplomatic process to work.
Example: In 2009, some Middle East experts said that Iran might be overplaying its hand by claiming it was going to build a nuclear bomb. Many other countries began to take a stronger stance against Iran instead of trying to work with them on diplomatic issues.
In a chess game, a player may sacrifice a small-value piece such as a pawn in hopes of winning a large-value piece such as a knight or bishop. This strategy is called a gambit.
Example: President Obama’s gambit of working with Pakistan to end the war in Afghanistan may take years to see any results.
When two chess players are tied and neither player can win, this is called a stalemate. In politics, when two political parties, two candidates or any two persons cannot find a solution to a problem, this may also be called a stalemate.
Example: For the past several decades, many U.S. presidents have tried to end the stalemate between Israel and Palestine with limited success.
When a game of chess is completed, this is simply called the end of the game or the endgame. In common terms, an endgame has come to mean the objective or primary goal of a policy or approach to solving a problem.
Example: When the war in Afghanistan dragged on for more than ten years, many Americans wondered what the endgame really was for our troops there.
Board Games and Puzzles
There are many types of board games and puzzles that people enjoy all over the world. Crossword and jigsaw puzzles are popular games that require a great deal of patience and intelligence to complete. The word puzzle formerly referred only to the game itself. Now it can also signify the action of being confused. In politics, many difficult situations can be puzzling to politicians and citizens alike.
Example: After the 9/11 terrorist acts in New York city, many Americans puzzled over why they were the target of such a vicious attack.
turn the tables
Board games are often played on tables. In some cases, the board can only be read in one direction. Thus a player may have to turn the board around to read all parts of the game when it is his or her turn. This is sometimes referred to as turning the tables. In common terms, when someone has changed a situation to his or her advantage, this is also called turning the tables.
Example: In the 2010 health reform bill, President Obama tried to turn the tables on the health insurance industry and give back some power and choice to consumers.
It is interesting that our everyday experiences with games translates into many creative metaphors. However, it is not merely the aspect of a fun game that we are thinking about when we create metaphors. Rather it is more in the competitive nature of games that is easily compared to politics and elections. Stay tuned for more interesting metaphors in the news!
Two recent articles on Donald Trump in Time magazine illustrate the ubiquity of metaphors of fighting, battles, and war in American politics. Sadly, just as I was working on this blog post about violent metaphors, violence erupted at a Trump rally in Chicago on Friday, March 11. It never ceases to amaze me that politicians treat their profession as a boxing match. These two articles include a long piece by David Von Drehle entitled “Destination Unknown: As Donald Trump piles up GOP delegates, the nations braces for a very difficult 2016” (March 14, 2016, pp. 34-39), and a shorter piece by Alex Altman entitled “Donald Trump: Tribal Warrior” (March 14, 2016, pp. 40-43). The examples below are taken from the print articles and are labeled as being written by David Von Drehle [DVD] or from Alex Altman [AA]. Italics are mine.
Here in no particular order are a dizzying array of battle metaphors in these two articles.
Boxing and Fighting
Boxing metaphors are some of the most commonly used types of figurative language in politics. In this case, we see examples of lightweight versus heavyweight boxing weight classes. We also talk about throwing punches, beating an opponent, or stopping the bleeding after a fight. An opponent beaten badly may be fighting for his or her life.
Judo is one of many different types of martial arts. One way of defeating an opponent in this sport is to do a judo-flip and pin the other person to the ground. In ancient Rome, fighters called gladiators fought each other and wild animals to the death.
Example: “Judging the baby-faced junior Senator from Florida to be short of gravitas, Trump dubbed him ‘little Marco Rubio, the lightweight.’ Sensing shiftiness in Texas Senator Cruz, he coined the name Lying Ted.” [DVD, p. 38]
Example: “You can be sure, as well, he’ll be throwing punches of his own.” [DVD, p. 39]
Example: “’The reason their punches don’t land is they’re being thrown in a world that’s dying,” says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who says Trump may ultimately prove to be ‘the most effective anti-left candidate of our times.’” [AA, p. 43]
fighting for life
Example: “A new Justice Department team might reopen the matter, he implies, “so she is literally fighting for her life” in her effort to beat Trump.” [DVD, p. 39]
Example: “CAN HE BEAT HER [Hillary Clinton]?” [DVD, p. 38]
Example: “Their jobs, their futures, are bleeding away to ‘Mexico, China, India, Vietnam, Thailand’–Trump ticks through the list at his rallies.” [DVD, p. 39]
Example: “He is, they acknowledge, a force like no other: an utterly unpredictable candidate who has judo-flipped the entire political apparatus.” [DVD, p. 39]
Example: “The same gladiatorial mojo that powers football, war movies, professional wrestling and Judge Judy Trump transposes into a political key.” [DVD, p. 36]
War and Battles
Military metaphors are also very common in politics. We can talk about sharpening a weapon, and having a military strategy of dividing and conquering smaller nations. Armies can go on the offense when starting a war while local people may rise up and fight by bringing torches and homemade weapons to a battle.
In occupied countries during a war, local people who fight back against the occupiers are called resistance fighters, while all soldiers and fighters fight against the invaders, and may have to fight in hand-to-hand combat, referred to in Spanish as fighting mano a mano. One of the most famous resistance fighters in history was the Scottish warrior William Wallace who fought against the British in the 13th century. He was referred to as Braveheart in a popular 1995 Mel Gibson film of the same name. Invading armies can also harm or kill civilians in what as known as dragooning, based on the name of 17th century French soldiers.
During a war, armies decide how to defeat their enemies by assigning targets for their guns and bombs, and they attack their enemies. They may also burn the buildings and property of their enemies or putting them into flames. Metaphorically a word meaning to cause widespread disruption and damage to a process is called being inflammatory . At the end of a battle or a long war there is often vast destruction of lives and property. This is known as carnage. Finally, smaller wars between tribes instead of countries leads to the metaphors of tribal warriors who fight for their side in a war. These types of wars may be described as an us-against-them problem. Wars always have hidden threats and dangers for local citizens which may create fearfultribes.
Example: “Even Hillary Clinton is sharpening her smooth-edged coalition politics, telling voters they’re ‘right to be angry.’” [AA, p. 41]
divide and conquer
Example: “How does he win? Divide and conquer” [AA, subtitle of article, p. 41]
on the offense
Example: “’He is totally on offense, 24/7.’ This gives Trump ‘the potential to scramble the electoral map.’” [DVD, p. 39]
Example: “The party bosses didn’t spot the torches on the horizon because they live comfortably cushioned from the concerns of Trump’s tribe.” [AA, p. 43]
resistance fighter, Braveheart, fight to stop, fighting mano a mano [hand to hand combat]
Example: “What about those stop-Trump schemes? Tim Miller, a Bush spokesman turned resistance fighter, made like Braveheart on Super Tuesday. ‘The fight to stop Donald Trump from getting the nomination is intensifying regardless of tonight’s outcome,’ he declared. Cruz suggested it was time for Trump’s other rivals to drop out and let him go mano a mano.” [DVD, p. 38]
Example: “He hasn’t dragooned supporters into believing he’s a conservative; he’s leading a willing rebellion against modern conservatism itself.” [AA, p. 43]
Example: “Close allies of Clinton believe that Trump’s big mouth makes him a deliciously vulnerable target.” [DVD, p. 38]
attacks, attack ads, inflammatory, carnage
Example: “Democrats have been stockpiling research and conducting polls on Trump since last summer, according to sources, and they are studying Cruz and Rubio as the Republican rivals test-drive attacks ranging from the size of Trump’s hands to the mysteries of his unreleased tax returns. They promise a long barrage of attack ads and negative messages in summer and fall, bristling with Trump’s most inflammatory moments, in hopes of motivating Democrats to go to the polls. Meanwhile, Clinton will float above the carnage, they predict, inviting independent women and even Republicans to join her bid for history.” [DVD, p. 39]
Example: “Trump’s eagerness to be inflammatory on issues like deporting Mexicans and creating a registry for Muslims will drive that number higher, she predicts.” [DVD, p. 39]
Example: “On the campaign trail, he leans on stereotypes to explain the world, in ways both inflammatory and complimentary.” [AA, p. 41]
Example: “Donald Trump: Tribal Warrior” [AA, title of article, p. 41]
tribal warfare, us against them, enemies
Example: “But nobody does tribal warfare like Trump. ‘It’s us-against-them politics,’ says Roger Stone, a Republican consultant and former Trump adviser. ‘You define yourself by who your enemies are.’” [AA, p. 41]
Example: “Trump warns of enemies lurking everywhere.” [AA, p. 43]
Example: “Now the same knack for divisive rhetoric could tear the Republican Party in two, leaving Trump as the commander of a new tribe, a coalition of the disaffected.” [AA, p. 41]
Example: “But there is no tribe Trump condemns more than the political elites, both Democratic and Republican.” [AA, p. 43]
hidden threats, fearful tribes
Example: “This theme, of the hidden threat lurking in our midst, is part of what makes Trump a fitting prophet for a fearful tribe.” [AA, p. 43]
As I said, it is always amazing to see how we speak of American politics with such violent metaphors. It is not surprising that real violence sometimes erupts in the political process. I hope that the recent rise in hateful rhetoric is short-lived and politicians and their supporters can revert to more civil and respectful discourse.
Today I would like to share the link to an important blog post by George Lakoff on Donald Trump, simply entitled, “Why Trump?” As my faithful readers may remember, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote the groundbreaking book, Metaphors We Live By, in 1980 which inspired my research into metaphors. After decades of brilliant research in linguistics and cognition, Lakoff turned his attention to the language of politics. He wrote another landmark book called Don’t Think of an Elephant in 2004 (rev. in 2014) in which he described the differences in the thinking of liberal and conservative politicians. In his recent blog post, he builds on his previous work to explain the rise of Donald Trump. The key tenet of his Elephant book is that most people think about government in conceptual metaphors. To quote a section of his recent blog post this week,
“…we tend to understand the nation metaphorically in family terms: We have founding fathers. We send our sons and daughters to war. We have homeland security. The conservative and progressive worldviews dividing our country can most readily be understood in terms of moral worldviews that are encapsulated in two very different common forms of family life: The Nurturant Parent family (progressive) and the Strict Father family (conservative).”
Lakoff extends his theory to explain the views of the conservatives.
“The strict father logic extends further. The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality (the strict father version), and that, in a well-ordered world, there should be (and traditionally has been) a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate. The hierarchy is: God above Man, Man above Nature, The Disciplined (Strong) above the Undisciplined (Weak), The Rich above the Poor, Employers above Employees, Adults above Children, Western culture above other cultures, Our Country above other countries. The hierarchy extends to: Men above women, Whites above Nonwhites, Christians above nonChristians, Straights above Gays.”
I can’t summarize the rest of the blog post to do it justice. You will have to read the rest of the article to see Lakoff’s brilliant analysis of Donald Trump. It is a bit long but well worth the effort. It is the most insightful analysis of conservative politics you will ever read. You can access the blog post here.
If you are interested, I have a list of books by Lakoff and Johnson, together and separately, in my Bibliography page on this blog. Lakoff, of course, has links to his other books and blog posts on his website. Please check them out if you have time. Comments are welcome!
My apologies for the long delay since my last post. I have been swamped with work and family obligations the past few weeks. One of the work projects I have been involved in was being on the selection committee to hire not one, but two, deans at my college. I spent many, many hours in the evenings and weekends reading the files of the job candidates – the time I normally spend working on this blog. I mention this only because I was quite amused to observe that the metaphors we use to describe a hiring process are the same that we use to describe an election process.
We used metaphors of nature to talk about the group of candidates who applied for the positions: we had a large field of candidates that we narrowed down to a small pool of hopeful administrators. We also used personification to talk about the qualities of the candidates: we talked invited many strong candidates to the interview process, while we had to eliminate several other weak candidates.
Then we used boxing metaphors to describe how we arranged the interviews: we had many candidates in the first round of interviews, and then only a few candidates were invited to the second round. Finally, we used metaphors of spatial prepositions to talk about the expected results of the hiring process (still not finalized as I write this): we were excited about the outcome of the hiring process, but it was up to the college president to make the final decision. And now we are getting down to the wire, because the new deans are supposed to be in place at the beginning of our fall quarter only a few weeks away… I am always amazed how commonly we use metaphors to describe everyday actions.
Anyway, back to the blog…
Readers of this blog will know that I have been analyzing the metaphors used in recent announcements of candidates in the 2016 presidential election. Some candidates have used many colorful metaphors such as Rand Paul and Hilary Clinton. Most other candidates have used fairly direct rhetorical styles with few metaphors.
Donald Trump has earned a great deal of notoriety in the past few weeks by being blunt and critical of President Obama, other presidential candidates, other countries and certain ethnic groups. Most liberals and even other Republican candidates have condemned his comments while some conservatives have applauded his candid remarks. In fact, he has surged to the top of the Republican polls. Pundits on TV news shows have claimed that Donald Trump appeals to conservative voters who are frustrated at government gridlock, trade imbalances and foreign policy actions by President Obama.
It has been a mystery to me how a candidate who has alienated so many Americans can be leading in the polls. He dominated the recent Republican debate, and has just appeared on the cover of the most recent Time magazine. I wondered if there was anything in the rhetoric of Donald Trump’s speeches that would attract conservative voters. I was surprised to find a rhetorical style with unusual metaphor usages that would definitely attract some voters.
I found that Trump speaks like someone trash talking other players in a streetball game. He is very critical of other players, uses a lot of hyperbole and compares political situations to various sports. The term streetball normally refers to basketball games played by local people in an urban neighborhood. However, when I was growing up in a far south suburb of Chicago, we did not have any city parks nearby. We had to play all kinds of sports in the street – baseball in the hot and humid days of summer, football in the cool, crisp days of fall, even hockey in the winter if the streets were icy enough. Lacking a hoop, we never played basketball in the street but we called both our baseball and football games streetball. We had our share of trash talking back in the day, mostly teasing our siblings and friends about their lack of abilities in whatever sport we happened to be playing. Calling someone stupid or lazy was not acceptable behavior on our block. In urban streetball games and professional basketball games, however, the teasing and name calling can amount to downright rude or vicious attacks on other players.
Even in common parlance talking about sports, we use metaphors of violent physical attacks to describe victories and losses. We say that one team beat or killed another team. Donald Trump uses similar expressions to talk about political rivals. He often uses hyperbole or exaggeration as he does his trash talking. Here are a few examples from his speech announcing his candidacy for president back in June. The metaphors in question are in italics.
Example: “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time.”
Example: “When did we beat Japan at anything? They send their cars over by the millions, and what do we do? When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo? It doesn’t exist, folks. They beat us all the time.”
Example: “When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically.”
Example: “I like them. And I hear their speeches. And they don’t talk jobs and they don’t talk China. When was the last time you heard China is killing us? They’re devaluing their currency to a level that you wouldn’t believe. It makes it impossible for our companies to compete, impossible. They’re killing us.”
Example: “Free trade can be wonderful if you have smart people, but we have people that are stupid. We have people that aren’t smart. And we have people that are controlled by special interests. And it’s just not going to work.”
Example: “Hey, I’m not saying they’re stupid. I like China. I sell apartments for — I just sold an apartment for $15 million to somebody from China. Am I supposed to dislike them? I own a big chunk of the Bank of America Building at 1290 Avenue of the Americas, that I got from China in a war. Very valuable.”
Example: TRUMP: “Sadly, the American dream is dead.”
AUDIENCE MEMBER: “Bring it back.”
Another aspect of streetball is taking the ball away, common in either basketball of football, as in a steal or a fumble. In poor areas of town, such as where I grew up, often only one person on the block could afford a nice basketball or football, so we had to make sure that person was playing in the game or else we could not play at all. In rare cases, the person owning the ball, having lost a game or felt cheated, could say, “I’m going home and taking my ball with me!” thus ending the game. Not surprisingly, taking the ball away has many emotional feelings attached to the action. Donald Trump talks about countries taking away our jobs, our money or our military equipment. Ironically, in each case, as far as I know, our government or our corporations have given away those resources instead of someone else actually taking them. Nonetheless, Trump routinely blames other people for these losses. In one example, he even uses a street fighting phrase of saying that no one will push us around. He also talks about taking or bringing the jobs back as if he is taking a basketball back during a game.
Example: “Iran is going to take over the Middle East, Iran and somebody else will get the oil, and it turned out that Iran is now taking over Iraq. Think of it. Iran is taking over Iraq, and they’re taking it over big league.”
Example: “Last week, I read 2,300 Humvees — these are big vehicles — were left behind for the enemy. 2,000? You would say maybe two, maybe four? 2,300 sophisticated vehicles, they ran, and the enemy took them.”
Example: “That’s right. A lot of people up there can’t get jobs. They can’t get jobs, because there are no jobs, because China has our jobs and Mexico has our jobs. They all have jobs.”
Example: “We need a leader that can bring back our jobs, can bring back our manufacturing, can bring back our military, can take care of our vets. Our vets have been abandoned.”
Example: “We need — we need somebody — we need somebody that literally will take this country and make it great again. We can do that.”
Example: “I’ll bring back our jobs from China, from Mexico, from Japan, from so many places. I’ll bring back our jobs, and I’ll bring back our money.”
Example: “And guess what? No problem. They’re going to build in Mexico. They’re going to take away thousands of jobs. It’s very bad for us.”
Example: “I will find — within our military, I will find the General Patton or I will find General MacArthur, I will find the right guy. I will find the guy that’s going to take that military and make it really work. Nobody, nobody will be pushing us around.”
Finally, Donald Trump uses more obvious sports metaphors. He talks about winners and losers, and alludes to people who lose card games or gambling who end up with nothing. He also uses the metaphor of being a football cheerleader to describe someone who is a champion of important causes. Most often, he uses the baseball metaphor of being in the big leagues, meaning professional baseball teams instead of minor league teams. He uses this metaphor to imply that something is happening on a large scale, or that he is a professional while other politicians are in the minor leagues. At the same time, he continues to use hyperbole such as describing results as a disaster, something being destructive, or the entire country going down the drain.
Example: “Iran is going to take over the Middle East, Iran and somebody else will get the oil, and it turned out that Iran is now taking over Iraq. Think of it. Iran is taking over Iraq, and they’re taking it over big league.”
Example: “And we have nothing. We can’t even go there. We have nothing. And every time we give Iraq equipment, the first time a bullet goes off in the air, they leave it.”
Example: “But Obamacare kicks in in 2016. Really big league. It is going to be amazingly destructive. Doctors are quitting. I have a friend who’s a doctor, and he said to me the other day, ‘Donald, I never saw anything like it. I have more accountants than I have nurses. It’s a disaster. My patients are beside themselves. They had a plan that was good. They have no plan now.’”
Example: “And we also need a cheerleader. You know, when President Obama was elected, I said, “Well, the one thing, I think he’ll do well. I think he’ll be a great cheerleader for the country. I think he’d be a great spirit.” He was vibrant. He was young. I really thought that he would be a great cheerleader. He’s not a leader. That’s true. You’re right about that. But he wasn’t a cheerleader. He’s actually a negative force. He’s been a negative force. He wasn’t a cheerleader; he was the opposite.”
Example: “We have all the cards, but we don’t know how to use them. We don’t even know that we have the cards, because our leaders don’t understand the game. We could turn off that spigot by charging them tax until they behave properly.”
Example: “But he used to say, ‘Donald, don’t go into Manhattan. That’s the big leagues. We don’t know anything about that. Don’t do it.’”
Example: “We have losers. We have losers. We have people that don’t have it. We have people that are morally corrupt. We have people that are selling this country down the drain.”
Clearly Donald Trump has tapped into the anger of many Americans towards their government and what they perceive as the lack of effective policies. More specifically it seems that Trump is appealing to middle-class and lower socioeconomic groups of Americans who feel the government has not been fair to them. Growing up in a lower middle class neighborhood myself, I can attest to the common sentiment in those areas that somehow the game of life is rigged against them, and that the rich people in the United States have gotten rich on the backs of the poor, which, historically, is actually true. It is quite ironic, then, that a billionaire such as Donald Trump is seen as the savior to the working class citizens of the United States.
To continue my streetball metaphor further, we can liken American society to a streetball game. The players like the game to go on peacefully just as it is, with everyone playing by the rules. However, in Trump’s ideology, Mexican immigrants have been breaking up their games for years, and China is constantly taking away the ball (well, the ball was probably made in China anyway…). Donald Trump acts as if he can keep the streetball game going without interference from anyone else. He is going to beat or kill anyone who tries to push them around, because he can play in the big leagues. Even though he is great at trash talking, we shall see if he can walk the walk, not just talk the talk.