“Every word has consequences, every silence too.” Jean Paul Satre’s famous epithet was a popular feature of news headlines when a wave of bombs were sent to high profile Liberals at the end of October 2018, including George Soros, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as to CNN’s offices in New York. Reports of a mass shooting in a Synagogue in Pittsburgh two days later seemed to confirm hate-fuelled violence as a defining characteristic of Donald Trump’s presidency, with dangerous linguistic abstractions reproducing themselves in reality.
This conviction has been strengthened over the past two years as Trump’s tweets and calls-to-action have become increasingly incendiary. When the president describes right wing extremists as “very fine people,” encourages supporters to “knock the crap” out of protestors and endorses attacks on the press by his party’s congressional representatives it seems reasonable to draw a correlation between political rhetoric and the mainstreaming of violent extremism.
Demonstrating the effects of the president’s provocations is obviously important. But to truly understand Trump’s actions and hold him to account for the substance of his language we must conduct a closer analysis of his style, else we risk bypassing an important factor in the chain of causality: dissonance.
Dissonance and the language of politics.
Simply defined, dissonance means a lack of agreement or harmony between people or things. In music, dissonance is produced via the organisation of sounds in ways that are jarring; in poetry by rearranging text in order to disrupt and create tension; and in language, by engineering a clash between words, feelings and content.
Political rhetoric employs these linguistic qualities to inspire people to align their beliefs in line with a particular stance or ideological perspective. According to social psychologist Leon Festinger, human beings strive for internal psychological consistency. When discrepancies arise between what a person perceives and their internal belief system they tend to become psychologically uncomfortable. This compels them to reduce the resulting ‘cognitive dissonance’ by adding new parts to the story or actively avoiding contradictory information.
Trump is an expert in using rhetoric to exploit this tendency, for example, through his use of superlatives and absolutisms like “amazing,” “tremendous” and “big league.” These terms jar with our sense of reality and proportion, and when deployed as expressions of fact they serve to skew the line between objective truth and subjective opinion. Resolving this conflict requires us to make a choice: either we reject Trump’s claims as inconsistent with our understanding of what is accurate, or we find methods of justifying them in order to deal with the dissonance they create. These methods include misperception (altering the meaning that is associated with a claim), rejection (denying it completely), and refutation (advancing an alternative intended meaning).
This process of rationalising information that contradicts our established ideas and empirical understanding is practiced prolifically by Trump on Twitter. His favoured social media platform enables him to respond with repeated, consistent assertions such as “I have the absolute right to PARDON myself,” and diversions like “There is so much GUILT by Democrats/Clinton, and now the facts are pouring out. DO SOMETHING!” which deny any conflict between claim and truth.
The cumulative effect is one of subversion, with semantics destabilised and democratic authority undermined. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s Counsellor, exemplified this psychology when she coined the term “alternative facts” soon after his election. In attempting to persuade the world that the White House’s claims to truth can be squared with the reality of its lies, Conway denied the existence of dissonance whilst simultaneously deploying it to destabilise objectivity.
The challenge this creates is twofold. First, modes of communication which allow for compromise have been delegitimised. The erasure of complex meaning has induced a preference for a world conceived through binary categories and contrast, so that, for example, people and countries are portrayed as “strong” or “weak,” “winners” or “losers,” but nothing in between.
Second, an increasingly fundamentalist culture of political discussion is emerging. In this context, accusations and inferences are transformed all too easily into calls-to-action, especially when belief systems appear to be under threat.
Take, for example, Trump’s suggestion that the “second amendment” on the right to bear arms might provide a good method of silencing his rivals. To suggest that firearms should be used to shut down pluralistic debate whilst smearing opponents as “corrupt,” “crooked” and “enemies of the people” is both wholly undemocratic and extremely dangerous, proscribing dissent and denying any empathy for others in the process. Those others then come to represent an existential threat, with their narratives requiring wholesale destruction. Suddenly, the second amendment suggestion seems less of a joke and more of a prophecy. Hypothetical objects of contempt become real subjects of attack.
Expertly deployed by those on the alt-and far right, dissonant language is detaching us from the ethical implications of expression, enabling dehumanization, and justifying the use of force in service to political aims. It has become a widespread mechanism for engineering social discord.
Reversing the rhetorical tide.
Understanding the mechanisms through which Trump perpetrates linguistic violence is one thing. Knowing how best to counter them is quite another. In a CNN interview on October 2018, Hillary Clinton declared that Democrats “need to be tougher” if they’re to have any hope of winning Congress in the upcoming mid-term elections or defeating Trump in 2020. But what does it mean to be “tougher?”
If it means recasting Trump’s language in the blue tones of the Democratic Party then I’m sceptical. Trump’s method of sowing discord works because the structure of his language supports the impact of dissonance. His hyperbole is a mechanism for self-aggrandisement, underscoring his claim to be America’s “best” deal maker; whilst his binary language creates a false choice between protecting the integrity of America and surrendering to “illegals.” When they’re repeated enough times, the evidence that discounts these claims becomes irrelevant, and impression and meaning coalesce to create a speech that is “truthful” in so far as truth has been redefined.
Democrats face a more imperfect marriage between language and ideas. Hypothetically, the same rules could be used to amplify a Bernie Sanders-esque politics of democratic socialism. But even if the party’s members and leaders could be persuaded to resolve the ideological splits that face the party and coalesce around a common language, the US electoral system remains a significant barrier to progress. Republican gerrymandering and the peculiarities of the Electoral College render a small number of swing states crucial to electoral success, and it’s uncertain whether a rhetorical move to the left will appeal to this key segment of voters.
There’s also the risk of slipping into a discourse of identity that can have isolating or polarising effects. The American left should resist modes of communication that pit identities against one another, disregard shared histories, and problematise consensus building. Instead, they should focus on using some of Trump’s more sophisticated linguistic tricks in order to conduct a parallel redefinition of the American value system.
Democrats should harness repetition, charged adjectives and colloquialisms when they discuss the challenges of the future, framing national and global politics as a balancing act that only Democratic leaders have the integrity and dynamism to perform effectively. They should also focus on the erosion of traditional values such as kindness and charity. In this way, Democrats can reclaim the left as a force for compassion and equanimity, tapping into visceral concerns about cultural erosion, social isolation and loss of dignity. By deploying a rhetoric that forcefully and unequivocally advocates for a belief system based on principle and liberal justice, Democrats can communicate a powerful alternative to Trumpism whilst deploying some of his most effective linguistic tactics.
It’s necessary to pay attention to the connections between Trump's words and ensuing events, but if all our focus is on these effects we may serve to provide him with the publicity he desires without identifying the underlying causes at play. We'd do better to examine how Trump applies language to claim subservience to his mode of thinking, feeling and believing. In doing so we might gain more insight into Trump's supporters and the symbiotic relationship between “truthful hyperbole” and incitement to violence, as well as illuminating how Democrats can employ dissonance to advocate their own alternative path to victory.