By Zuzanna Mietlińska
Between the freedom of expression and loaded language in a political debate, there is thin ice. One of the few influential politicians in the world that constantly balances on it – is Donald Trump. One can wonder – what are the examples of his linguistic „juggling acts”? Do they breach the freedom of expression he often advocates on?
Following his 2020 defeat in the presidential election, former president Donald Trump delivered an unforgettable speech on January 6th 2021, that triggered opposite reactions
On one hand, it was well-structured, well-defined and thus it had a direct effect on enthusiastic crowds gathered to listen and follow their leader. Perhaps because of its black-and-white definition of social divisions is the contemporary US – the core meaning of his speech and its societal consequences led to January 13th 2021 2nd impeachment trial of the president Donald Trump. The speech and its direct implications was seen as another outright attempt to overturn the 2020 election results. What followed the “incitement of insurrection” (which constituted the charge against Trump during the trial) was the widely broadcasted and often discussed – the January 6 United States Capitol Attack.
As a result, on January 8th 2021, Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter due to “the risk of further incitement of violence”. Through the ultimate deletion of the account, the former president of the United States lost his contemporary “preferred social media megaphone”, but not the millions of both online and offline followers. Trump often defends the infamous speech, and other ambiguous statements, by advocating his freedom of speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
It is true that the US President has the right to publish tweets, which can be seen as baffling or simply funny, like the famous covfefe entry, which sparked questions on its meaning:
Or when Trump shared his personal view on how to strengthen the bond with Russia, back in 2013, probably causing his policy advisers a simultaneous heart attack:
Or his simple answer to the world’s terrorism problem, which cannot be unmentioned in the face of the contemporary european tensions:
And last by not least, I find it crucial to mention his personal proclamation towards those who disagree with him:
But unlike these tweets, which are sometimes hard to differentiate between fake and true ones, the January 6th speech is to be taken seriously. One can have a good laugh when browsing Trump’s tweets, which seem to be harmless. The speech constituted a crucial point in contemporary politics of the US. Its possible, long-term repercussions, beside the political turmoil, are yet to be seen. They might concern the deepening lack of public trust in any kind of governmental authority, greater societal divisions, to name a few.
A researcher who took a closer look at this case is Dalia M. Hamad.. Her work raises some important questions – whether the above mentioned former president’s address can be classified as free speech or hate speech.
What is the logic behind the words that ultimately led to the political turmoil and the 2nd impeachment Trump ever faced?
The “I”, “We” & “You” theory
The analysis run by Hamed shows clearly that subjects “I”, “we” and “you” are the centre of our attention when close-reading Trump’s speech. All three of the pronouns are used deliberately and with a slightly different context. It is important to unveil their true meaning when reading or listening to the former president’s speech. Therefore, one can truly understand what Trump wanted to communicate literally and in-between-the-lines.
What is the true meaning of “I”?
In his hour-long speech on January 6th 2022, Trump used the pronoun “I” over 200 times. Intentionally. One must say, what he says was and is very effective, especially if we look at the effect he had on the crowd.
The pronoun “I” locates Trump as a central figure of his speech. One can associate this rhetorical locution with a general cult of personality but in this example, we rather talk of emphasising who the real-deal is. As researcher Hamed puts it:
“(…) he is the focal point around which information revolves (…)”.
Here are some examples of “I” rhetorics:
What also can be seen is his determination. He uses the “I’d” phrase to outline the broadest future and juxtapose him against possible enemies. The media, the Democrats, you name it. The “I’d” phrase is usually paired up with such verbs as “want” e.g.:
His outspoken relationship with the media is simple and dramatic. What he does is to victimise himself – he is the casualty of his biggest enemy – the media. Such words as “love”, “fight” & “confident” set the heather on fire, raise the crowds and show them the “way to go”. Then, he directs the crowds by saying:
“I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol”
And thus tempers flare.
What is the true meaning of “We”?
Trump understands the power over the surrounding crowds he has and uses it intentionally. As Hamed puts it, he’s a political “actor” surrounded by other “actors”, the crowds hear emotionally embedded language (e.g. “I love you”) and are ready for action. But Trump uses his power to pretend he’s “one of many” at first, and a true leader secondly. This gives the crowds the impression he’ll win the Presidential elections and rule over those who now demand it.
What is the true meaning of “You”?
By emphasising on “I”, “We” and “You”, in turn, Trump sets clear boundaries. Now, he speaks to the masses directly by encouraging them to take action. He uses exclamations and gives orders by using such phrases as “You have to” or “You must”. He later on juxtaposes “You” with “Them” – and with “Them” he means the media, the Democrats, and every individual that “is”, not “might be” against him and his supporters. No wonder what happened next.
The performance, what can be concluded, can be described as hate, not simply free, speech. It commands others to take the matter into their own hands by knowing what to do and who puts them off achieving their goal.
The rest is History. The crowds attacked the Capitol, and riots were taking place all across the US, from Washington D.C. to Vermont. This speech had some serious influence in political, sociological & legal terms. To diverge from political affiliations, it is important to emphasise its meaning and power.
All in all, it was a very effective and well-structured speech. Some English teachers might say “Well done” but then would not congratulate the speaker, basing on its very effect. And some may agree with them.
One politician can be seen as funny and harmless once online, and effectively brutal on the other hand, when speaking to the crowds. It can be speculated that Donald Trump knew exactly what he was saying and what is the effect it might cause. This trait of his is not only cynical, it is truly dangerous. The thin ice is breaking.
The January 6th speech was so powerful, it actually broke down the political status quo in the US for some time. It clearly balances between high & low language registers. That is, between a good, systematised speech and a simple, loaded language for the masses. It is truly fascinating.
Edited by Joanna Sowińska, artwork by Chira Tudoran