November 14, 2018

Dr Andy Curtis, former President of the TESOL International Association, unpicks the linguistic quirks of what he describes as “the most famous liar in the world today, the 45th President of the United States,” Donald Trump.


Not only is the 45th President of the USA the most famous liar in the world today, he is also, by far, the most prolific among world leaders. In November 2017, the New York Times listed well over 150 lies told by President Trump since he had taken office, in January 2017. In those days, that seemed like a lot, and each of those lies was meticulously documented and fact-checked using multiple sources, including Politifact, Factcheck.org, The Washington Post Fact Checker, and the Toronto Star. However, the presidential lying has grown exponentially this year. As Professor Paul Street wrote in October 2018, in an article titled, Trump’s Endless Mendacity and the Dawn of American Fascism: “The president lies as freely as he breathes.”

By May 2018, more than “3,000 untrue or misleading statements in 466 days in office” had been counted, which is the equivalent of six to seven such statements every single day. The Toronto Star also reported a figure of “3084 false things Donald Trump has said as U.S. president” between  January 20, 2017 and October 23, 2018. By then, the President had made so many false statements that the Toronto Star organized them alphabetically into well over one hundred categories from “Afghanistan”, “Barack Obama” and “Brent Kavanagh” to “Vladimir Putin” and “Xi Jinping”. According to Daniel Dale, the Washington Bureau Chief for the Toronto Star: “Historians say there has never been such a constant liar in the Oval Office.” By the end of October 2018, The Washington Post Fact Checker had logged the record-breaking number of “4,229 false or misleading claims in 558 days,” which constituted an increase of nearly 980 such claims in just two months, and an overall average of seven to eight such claims every single day. But earlier the President had averaged up to 16 such claims a day, in July and August of 2018. And if those numbers are not large enough, by early November 2018 Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-large, was reporting that: “Trump is averaging 30 false or misleading claims a day in the last seven weeks … On October 22, when he traveled to Houston to hold a rally for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R), Trump said 83 untrue things in a single day” [emphasis added]. Cillizza continued: “In the 649 days between his inauguration and October 30, Trump has made 6,420 claims that are partially or entirely false.” Such numbers should shock any intelligent person.

Failing is at the heart of trying. If anyone replies to any question about what they did or did not do by saying ‘I tried’, we all know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they failed.”

Given the sheer number of lies told by the 45th President of the USA, it should be no surprise that he lies about lying. For example, he was asked by a reporter for the ABC news network: “And finally I remember well – you remember well in the campaign, you made a promise. You said, ‘I will never lie to you.’ Can you tell me now, honestly, have you kept that promise at all times? Have you always been truthful?” To that question, the President replied: “Well I try. I do try. I think you try too. You say things about me that aren’t necessarily correct. I do try, and I always want to tell the truth. When I can, I tell the truth. And sometimes it turns out to be where something happens that’s different or there’s a change, but I always like to be truthful.”

IAFOR-Trump-prolific-liar

For the applied linguist and discourse analyst, an analysis of thousands of words could be written about those 61 words, said by one of the most powerful people on the planet. But – to make a very long story very much shorter – the use of “try” four times in the first 20 words or so, recalls what may be one of the most famous lines of the entire Star Wars franchise, when the 900-year-old master Yoda says: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” (from The Empire Strikes Back). Failing is at the heart of trying. If anyone replies to any question about what they did or did not do by saying “I tried”, we all know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they failed. They do not need to say anything else, such as: “I tried, but … .” If they had succeeded, they would have said “I did” or “Yes”, or anything other than “I tried”.

The repeated use of “do”, as in “I do try” puts the emphasis on the (failed) attempt, and distracts from the outcome, as does the use of “I think you try too. You say things about me that aren’t necessarily correct.” That is also an attempt at some kind of diffusion, the implication being: “We all try. We all lie. So, no big deal.” A nice touch is the reference to things that “aren’t necessarily correct”, which is an attempt to portray his lies as “mistakes” or “errors” of the kind that anyone could make. However, the President of the USA is not just anyone, and these are not  “mistakes” or “errors”, as the repeated use of words like “invasion” are deliberate. These lies are not what the President’s Neo-Nazi supporters might call “little white lies.” The lies of this president are endless, brazen and carefully calculated to do as much damage as possible to the processes of Democracy.

What Peace Linguistics can do is to make us more sensitive to the ways in which some of the most powerful people in the world use language to manipulate people, spreading fear and hate, based on myriad lies.”

OK, but what, if anything, can Linguistics do about this kind of problem? Although President Trump has shown that nobody – family, friends, colleagues – and nothing – the truth, facts, evidence – can stop him, Peace Linguistics (PL), which is an area within Applied Linguistics, can at least help us understand what is happening. Although PL has, in some ways, been around for a long time, it is still relatively unknown, even within the field of Linguistics. For example, the first PL course was not taught until 2017, the first PL special issue of an academic journal will not be published until later in 2018, and the first book on PL will not appear until the Summer of 2019 (to be published by the University of Michigan Press).

In that book, I define PL as: an area of Applied Linguistics, based on systematic analyses of the ways in which language is used to communicate and create conflict, and to communicate and create peace. Peace Linguistics is interdisciplinary, drawing on fields such as Peace Studies and Conflict Transformation, bringing those together with fields such as Sociolinguistics and Critical Discourse Analysis. What PL can do is to make us more sensitive to the ways in which some of the most powerful people in the world use language to manipulate people, spreading fear and hate, based on myriad lies.

The linguistically fascinating thing for researchers like me, who are obsessed with language, is its uses and abuses, and one of the ways in which the new Peace Linguistics is different from previous versions of PL, and from other areas of linguistics, is that PL goes deep. Take for example the single word “invasion”, which is the word President Trump used many times in the run-up to the mid-term elections in the USA, to describe large groups of immigrants and asylum seekers from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador heading towards the USA.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary website, regarding people looking up the meaning of “invasion” in their M-W online dictionary: “Lookups spiked 1,200% on November 7, 2018,” the day after the midterm elections in the USA. Much as I do like and make great use of online dictionaries, including M-W, the use of percentages like that can be misleading, and may even seem somewhat disingenuous, as a “spike” of 1,200% represents a 13-fold increase. Therefore, for example, if only two people looked up “invasion” in M-W online dictionary on November 6, then 26 people looked it up the next day, that would be 13-fold, 1,200% increase. So, not only do presidents lie, but so can numbers too. (And, of course, lying presidents can use misleading numbers to support their lies.)

Leaving aside the idea that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics” (attributed to the 1800s British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, 1804–1881): What do you think of when you hear the word “invasion”? For me, because I do a lot of work on the relationships between film, language and culture, one of the first things that come to my mind is the 1956 sci-fi movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In linguistics, we call this a cognitive connotation”, which is a fancy phrase referring to the thoughts and images that appear in your mind when you hear a certain word. Now, your cognitive connotations may not be as dramatic as mine, but whatever they are, they are powerful, and in the case of “invasion”, they are entirely negative. According to etymologists, the word “invasion” comes originally from the Late Latin word “invasionem”; from there it made its way to Old French, and by the mid-fifteenth century “invasioun” meant: “an assault, attack, act of entering a country or territory as an enemy.”

“The migrant caravan will not constitute an invasion, by any definition.”

And if all that were not negative enough, in its extended sense, “invasion” can be used to mean: “of diseases, ‘a harmful incursion of any kind;’ with reference to rights, etc., ‘infringement by intrusion, encroachment by entering into or taking away what belongs to another.'” One single word, with so many cognitive connotations – and every single one of them negative. This is what I meant when I wrote above that Peace Linguistics goes deep, in this case, showing how a single word said over and over again, in lie after lie – the migrant caravan will not constitute an invasion, by any definition – can be used to manipulate millions of people.

This is where it can get tricky – measuring the impact of these kinds of words used in these kinds of ways. Because we can not see into the minds of the many millions of American voters who went to the polls in the mid-term elections in the USA, we cannot know, with any provable degree of certainty, what thoughts and images appeared every time they heard their president say the word “invasion”. But what we do know is this: as of November 8, 2018, of the more than 113 million Americans who voted in the mid-term elections, more than 46 million voted for Republicans, the political party of President Trump. That appears to indicate than tens of millions of Americans are OK with a leader of their country being someone who has told thousands upon thousands of documented lies since he took office, less than two years ago. The entire population of the country where I live, Canada, is nearly ten million people fewer than that, that is, 37 million, and if those 46 million people were a country, that would be one of the largest countries in the world, in the top 30 of nearly 200.

Of course, the argument can be made that not all 46 million people are OK with a president who lies publicly and shamelessly on a scale and with a frequency never before recorded. However, as Time magazine reported, the day after the midterm elections, “President Trump turned the midterms into a referendum on himself.” Therefore, even if, by the most conservative estimate, “only” half of those 46 million are OK with the world’s most publicly prolific – some have said pathological” – liar, that would still be a deeply troubling population of more than 20 million American people. Worse still, they may not know or care or even be aware – due to low levels of education, limited capacities for critical thought, fear of “the other”, and the accompanying racism, to name just a few possibilities – just how much they are being manipulated by their leaders’ language of lies, including words like “invasion”.

Andy Curtis

About Andy Curtis

From 2007 to 2011, Dr Andy Curtis was the Director of the English Language Teaching Unit at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a professor in the Faculty of Education there. Prior to 2007, he was the Executive Director of the School of English at Queen’s University, Canada, and a professor at the School for International Training, USA. He is currently working with the Graduate School of Education at Anaheim University.

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