The President’s Rhetoric

Today, Politico has an article by Brent D. Griffiths entitled, “Trump kicks off Sunday with flurry of tweets.” Here is one of them:

Had a very good and interesting meeting at the White House with A.G. Sulzberger, Publisher of the New York Times. Spent much time talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, ‘Enemy of the People.’ Sad!

Of course, the president himself used that phrase, starting back in February of 2017, and his distancing himself from it is just the latest example of one of his maddening rhetorical quirks–“maddening” because it is wrong in a way that’s almost impossible to describe.

But let’s try, for the sake of our sanity.
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Being a language person, my instinct is to define it rhetorically–to give it a name–if only to pin it down and keep it from causing any more psychic chaos. Names make everything easier. As Lucy said to Charlie Brown, “If we can find out what you’re afraid of, we can label it.”

A good start for the labeling process is a 2011 article by psycholinguist Jessica Love, PhD. in the American Scholar, called “And I’m Like, Read This!” Love defines the use of “like” in popular speech as an example of the “quotative” case:

So what’s the deal with the quotative like? Is it just a lazier, slangier way of saying says? Linguists are like, No! The general consensus is that the quotative like encourages a speaker to embody the participants in a conversation. Thus, the speaker vocalizes the contents of participants’ utterances, but also her attitudes toward those utterances. She can dramatize multiple viewpoints, one after another, making it perfectly clear all the while which views she sympathizes with and which she does not.

Nice and creative.

Is that what Trump is doing: using the quotative? Well, not exactly. According to Love, “like” is used to “embody” a specific speaker, even oneself. Trump warps the quotative to apply to a nobody and to have that nobody quote something that Trump himself has said, thereby dissociating himself from his own utterances, in much the same way he blamed Hillary Clinton for “letting him” get away with not paying enough in taxes. And in the case of “Enemy of the People,” he is suggesting that the expression just sort of appeared naturally over time, “has morphed,” like a rain cloud.

So what’s going on here?

It’s hard to tell. The president is a product of TV and the news, and still inhabits that mind set, so maybe he sees everyone in the world as a media critic, commenting on his actions. An example of this phenomenon occurred last summer when, as Vice reported,

In what may or may not have been a joke, President Trump Monday claimed his White House announced the pardon of former Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff Joe Arpaio right as Hurricane Harvey was hitting Texas because he “assumed the ratings would be far higher than they were normally.”

It could be a red herring, or gaslighting. My inclination is to see it as sign of dissociative disorder, which the National Alliance on Mental Illness says is “characterized by an involuntary escape from reality characterized by a disconnection between thoughts, identity, consciousness and memory.”

Whatever its cause, Trump’s rhetorical quirk seems to be a subspecies of the “quotative” case, one that, as far as I can tell, has never before been seen in the wild. And just as naturalists claim naming rights for their discoveries–like Sparklemuffin and Skeletorus–I’m going to go ahead and christen this one the “projective” case.

And now I feel much better.

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