This week we learned in the news that Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, may be leaving by the end of the year. His departure would be one in a long series of Trump advisors resigning or being forced out of office in the past two years, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, EPA director Scott Pruitt, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and many more. I have noticed that there is a wide variety of metaphors used to describe the process of removing advisors from a presidential cabinet.
Before we get to the metaphors, first a word about the word cabinet itself. At first glance it may appear to be a metaphor as well. However, it is an example of polysemy (puh-LISS-uh-me), i.e., a word having different meanings that change over time. The original meaning of cabinet was what we normally think of as a kitchen cabinet, a small box for containing valuables. Later the meaning changed to a small private room. Then the people who met in that room became known as a cabinet council. Later the phrase was shortened to simply cabinet. Thus we now refer to the president’s trusted group of advisors as the cabinet.
Sound strange? A more familiar example of this is the room board. We know the word as referring to a plank of wood. We all know the expression as living in a house and paying room and board. The board refers to the table on which the renters ate their meals. This is an example of synecdoche (sih-NECK-duh-key) in which a part of something refers to the whole. Moreover, the word board was stretched even further to refer to a group of experts in a company, university or non-profit organization, as in a board of trustees. The table where the experts met came to refer to the group of people who met there.
Back to the metaphors, we find that the process of people being hired and then fired in Donald Trump’s cabinet are described in terms a colorful variety of metaphors. Of course, changes in a president’s cabinet are not unusual. All presidents have had advisors come and go. However, President Trump has had an unusually large number of cabinet members resign or be fired. The metaphors listed below are all “ripped from the headlines.” The source of each quotation is provided, linked to the word “example” at the beginning of each quotation. Italics are mine.
First of all, there are several metaphors used to describe the confusion that occurs when cabinet members are fired. One way to describe the confusion is the say that is in flux, a word originally from Latin indicating the flow of water, as in an influx of tourists in a seaside community during the summer. More commonly, the word flux refers to the rapid changes in a process. The abstract concept of movement in a process is often compared to the physical movement of objects. The confusing process may also be described as if it is a deck of cards being shuffled, or mixed back and forth. Similarly, we may describe the process as being a shakeup, as if we are shaking small objects in a container, or a drink in a cocktail shaker. This hiring and firing process is also commonly described as a turnover, as if people are turning objects upside down and then right side up again, or baking an apple turnover. Finally, we may also find examples of this process referred to as a revolving door, as if people are going in and out of a doorway into a large building.
Example: “President Donald Trump’s Cabinet is in flux again.”
Example: “On March 13, Trump fired his first secretary of state Rex Tillerson, shuffling the Cabinet again.”
Example: “The president has been discussing multiple Cabinet shakeup options with his advisers.”
Example: “In the president’s first two years in office, his Cabinet has seen far greater turnover than those of presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama over the same time period, according to a Cabinet tracker by the Brookings Institution.”
Example: “The Trump Administration’s Revolving Door”
We also find many examples of metaphors being used for the actual process of leaving. In some instances, we see neutral metaphors such as stepping down or exiting, as if a person is simply stepping down off a platform or exiting from a room. However, we also find other more active metaphors being used, suggesting the use of physical force to move the person. For example, perhaps the most common metaphor to describe a person leaving a position is that he or she is out. The word out is a common container metaphor, as if a person had been inside a box, and then he or she was forced to move out of the container. More forceful metaphors include examples such as being pushed out or ousted, the latter being derived from an old French word meaning to forcibly remove someone from a location. Less politely, we find that a cabinet member can be dumped, as if he or she is an unwanted item going into the trash. In another sense of removal, we also find the word purge, which is also derived from a French word meaning to “clean” or “purify.” Finally, we find an interesting box metaphor of someone being on the ropes before being fired, as if the person is a boxer about to lose an important fight in the ring. In the example of mixed metaphors listed below, a person is being pushed out after being on the ropes while the administration is going through a shuffle of cabinet members.
Example: “CNN reported Friday morning that Kelly could be stepping down in a matter of days, but Trump did not pause long enough to take questions from reporters, though he teased he would make another big personnel announcement Saturday at the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia.”
Example: “Behind the scenes: Trump announces John Kelly’s exit”
Example: “Jeff Sessions out as attorney general”
Example: “John Kelly, hired to restore order for President Donald Trump, is out as chief of staff.”
Example: “After two years of already high turnover, the president is expected to push out or accept the resignations of several more department chiefs by January.”
Example: “The larger GOP margin in the Senate is especially important because Trump might now have the votes to confirm a new attorney general. Before the election, Republicans had warned Trump not to replace Sessions when they did not have the votes—a deficit that was due to the political blowback that would come if the president tried to oust Sessions in a transparent bid to curtail the Mueller investigation.”
Example: “After Sessions, who will Trump dump next?”
Example: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have been the first Trump Cabinet-level member purged in the wake of the midterm elections — but he is unlikely to be the last.”
Example: “Several Trump Cabinet officials and senior aides are on the ropes and could be pushed out by the end of the year in a dramatic shuffle that could reshape the character of his administration — but create new political headaches for the president.”
As readers of this blog already know, almost any political process can be described in terms of metaphors. The examples listed here offer more evidence that we think in metaphors and that we commonly describe abstract process in terms of metaphors based on ordinary physical actions such as shaking, turning or moving something in and out of containers. I am always amazed how many examples of these types of metaphors I can find. Let me know if you have any comments or questions. Thanks for reading!