Like many, I followed the U.S election in its endless entirety.
After it all, and in the midst of a post US-election defeat, the 45th President began sending messages asking for his base to maintain hope and continue to fund their campaign to contest the election.
What was chilling about this was the tone of them.
In this blog, I attempt to take a linguistic view, specifically a Critical Discourse Analyis of these messages sent to people who have not yet donated to the Trump Stop-The-Election fund.
Critical Discourse Analysis
A key starting point when exploring ideas and concepts about language and power is Critical Discourse Analysis, an approach that focuses on the way power is enacted.
A theory associated with Norman Fairclough and Ruth Wodak, they suggest that even texts which appear to be relatively neutral (which is not the case here) can actually be loaded with hidden ideological significance. Linguistic strategies are chosen to shape and influence the ways readers might think and feel about particular topics.
Fairclough devised a three-tiered model for the study of discourse, shown below. It illustrates the interconnectedness of discourse analysis: the text is explored within a wider context of production and interpretation.
Text (language choices, including lexis, grammar and cohesion)
- The discourse is shaped like a conversation, or rather a one-sided telling off.
- There is a semantic field of desperate need ‘I need you right now’, ‘I need to know I can count on you’, ‘I’m calling on you’ which later transitions to anger at the message being ignored. It really is something you’d receive from a desperate ex at 2am. Source: textsfromyourex
- Personal pronouns are used to reinforce the separation between the groups of donated and non-donated Trump supporters; ‘you’ve ignored all our emails asking you to join us in the DEFENDING THE ELECTION’, ‘why haven’t you?‘. While the Trump group had referred to itself as ‘we’, ‘we still have a long way to go’ which establishes the speaker as having the ‘distinguished’ honour of being part of this group.
- Proper nouns are used to list the people ignored ‘Team Trump, Eric, Lara, Don, the Vice President AND you’ve even ignored the President of the United States’, there is an emphasis on the President. The adverb ‘even’ used to show a sense of surprise.
- Modifiers ‘blatant’ & ‘corrupt’ have negative connotations which are used to discredit the opposition
- The Noun phrases ‘the VERY FIRST TIME’, ‘your FINAL NOTICE’, ‘in the last 48 hours’ give a sense of urgency, while ‘the blatant voter fraud’, ‘corrupt Democrat-run cities’ indicate the messages strong bias, and ‘my STRONGEST defenders’, carries a rather militant testosterone-filled image. While ‘TENS OF THOUSANDS of Patriots’ and ‘the American people’ appeals to recipient’s patriotism.
- Parallelism is used ‘when they come after me, they’re really coming after YOU’ to balance two ideas aimed to motivate its worshipping readers. This structure is completed by a ‘three-part-list, ‘….and everything you stand for’ which reinforces the first two points.
- Contractions are used ‘you’ve’, ‘haven’t’, which provides a colloquial tone. This is an indication of a lower register, one which we’ve come to expect from this administration which attempts to converge itself with the populous it is trying to entice.
- Antithesis is used through the opposing view of ‘rip power away’ and ‘putting together’ to draw a comparison between the two parties strategies.
- Graphologically, the use of capital letters is cohesive with Trump’s irate led messages found on Twitter, ‘YOU’ in caplocks is repeated three times which indicates a tone of telling off. He uses bold text in ‘Election Defence Task Force’ which is possibly used to give credibility to it and italics ‘why haven’t you?‘ to direct the message at the audience.
Discourse Practice (production, distribution and consumption in society)
In the past, political power certainly has had a distinct register, politicians exert power through their speeches and parliamentary debates, and institutions and individuals (like police officers) give direct orders through their language. Society accepts the existence of this type of power and that the language used is appropriate given the status of the individuals or institutions involved. It is thus a juxtaposition for the President of the United States to be producing written discourse that is more akin to a break-up text.
What is wrongful is the message’s coercion, whereby an unsubstantiated, soon-to-be removed power is using its remaining power to control others. Where power has been more effectively enact power through manufacture of consent, this is through a creation of forced guilt.
The message plays on the audience’s natural fears of losing. What makes the message so shareable amongst Democrats is that they are in a state of jubilance.
Social Practice (social and cultural practices such as power relations, ideological struggles)
Texts can be taken at face value, but examining social and discourse practices helps us recognise and engage with any underlying message. There are usually two different types of power that are attempted to be enacted:
Instrumental Power: a type of power that is explicit and often imposed by a higher authority. e.g No Smoking signs, No Mobile Phones in exam halls.
Influential Power: a type of power that is persuasive rather than imposing. e.g Win a pair of flights
These messages appear to use both. The instrumental power of the President and the imperative order that carries, while using the influential power of a persuasive message with an unconventional force attached to it. Given the cultural and historical context of the President’s role, it is likely that most of the target audience would share the writers’ standpoint and their judgement of what is the right thing to do, which is to follow the President’s orders. The fact he has gone about discrediting the office throughout his tenure demotes this message.
By appealing to patriotism, the message aims to make them feel proud of their country by persuading them that they will be patriotic if they endorse this ‘Stop the Election’ campaign. It tries to make readers feel guilty and that they must act. It focuses more on an assumed love of country or the President. In this case one should not pair the two together.
Each of these emails shows how Trump presents his own stance through a process of delegitimisation of the process of an election, whereby a victimised-self image is constructed through the negative presentation of the opposition. What is so dangerous is that in a democracy, those in power rule by consent, power is not enforced but agreed upon. Those who hold it must be seen to be legitimate. By claiming that he is ‘DEFENDING THE ELECTION’, it is really quite the opposite.
To sum up, when discussing political language writer George Orwell levied that ‘it is designed to make the lies sound truthful and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. Trump’s manipulation of his position has been evident throughout his tenure, these messages are an evidence of this continued explicit manipulation and wrongful coercion.