Glossary: Key memes, counterfactuals, dog whistles, canards, euphemisms, innuendoes, insinuations, fake outrages, and obsessions in The Wall Street Journal and other GOP language factories and fever swamps, May 20-26, 2018

civilizational struggle

rhetorical claim: Trump is conducting a civilizational struggle against the Deep State, waves of foreign invaders, elitist environmental activists, activists judges, trial lawyers, and redistributionists who would rob real Americans of their income. They criticize the validity and relevance of everything Trump does and says.

rhetorical effect: with no less than civilization at stake, every Trump policy and action becomes a blow for good against evil, and opposition becomes both subversive and futile. There is no room for individual freedom or civil society in an apocalyptic world. It is a Hobbesian universe of winner-take all. Everyone must take sides. This is where Trump’s betrayal narrative–always needing fresh scapegoats– merges with his messianic narrative–“only I can fix it”.


witch hunt

rhetorical claim: the entire Mueller probe is a witch hunt because there is no collusion and the only “obstruction” Trump has committed is fighting back against false charges.

rhetorical effect: the tweet is father to the deed: just calling it a witch hunt creates the perception that it is a witch hunt.  As explained by Virginia Heffernan:

When word and deed become one — when speaking is acting — we are often in the presence of what philosophers of language call “performative speech acts ,” as opposed to “constatives.” Part of what’s so disorienting about Trump is that he uses speech in a relentlessly performative way.

Constatives are utterances that describe the world, and are responsive to fact-checking. Performatives, by contrast, are a show, and when you utter them, you enact — rather than describe — something in the world. Performatives are a subset of speech acts such as orders, threats, promises, and warnings.

It’s pointless to fact-check an order. “Shut up,” for example, is neither true nor false


economic patriotism

rhetorical claim: MAGA translates into economic patriotism: putting American business interests first to check the unrestrained virus of globalist elites turning the world a single neo-liberal market.

rhetorical effect: sanctions and routinizes kleptocracy, nepotism, consumer fraud, and labor busting. The channeling of state resources to favorable businesses becomes routine, and the watering-down, non-enforcement or outright elimination of all regulatory laws somehow comes to be branded as “patriotic.” More idiotic than patriotic.


tax cut stimulus

rhetorical claim: the 2017 tax cuts have  created unprecedented economic prosperity for the American people, with an average of $3,200 going right into the pockets of the taxpayers.

rhetorical effect: this is a vast statistical lie, designed to cover over some inconvenient facts:

1. one-time bonuses–the political stunt many companies have pulled– are not nearly as long-lasting as permanent pay increases.

2. wage growth has been anemic since the tax cuts.

3. since the cuts, companies have spent record amounts of money buying back their own stock, and thus rewarding shareholders. They are not sharing the wealth with employees.

4. the tax cuts are creating larger deficits than expected, and these deficits are now being used as a pretext for cutting spending on the poor.

5.the tax cuts remain unpopular, and many Republicans have ceased campaigning on them.



rhetorical claim: Just a few days after a weekend Twitter meltdown that featured a call for the Department of Justice to investigate whether the FBI “infiltrated” his campaign for political purposes, President Trump on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning fired off another torrent of tweets about the same subject. He even decided on a nickname–Spygate–which he says could be one of the biggest political scandals of all time. He tweeted that it could be “bigger than Watergate!” , and blamed on the Deep State. Then it was the “all time biggest political scandal!” While fielding questions from reporters Tuesday afternoon, he said “it would make probably every political event ever look like small potatoes.”

rhetorical effect: More fake Trumpian situational outrage. Covers over the fact that there is no spying and that the use of an informant is standard DOJ operating policy. Not to mention the fact that the Deep State is a unicorn–it doesn’t actually exist, as explained by Gideon Rachman:

The Trump world’s accusations about a “deep state” plot to destroy the president are now increasing in volume, with the revelation that the FBI used an informant to probe connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. Mr Trump himself has greeted this news as further confirmation of an establishment plot to undermine him. But the fact that a theory is popular does not make it true. There is no evidence that the FBI, nor the “deep state”, was intent on destroying the Trump campaign. On the contrary, the FBI director, James Comey, did Mr Trump a favour by publicly re-opening an inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of official emails — while keeping quiet about FBI suspicions of links between the Russian state and the Trump campaign. The fact that an FBI informant was probing evidence of these links is not, as Mr Trump would have it, the “all time biggest political scandal”. It is exactly what an intelligence service should be doing.

The “deep state” controversy may be phony. But it is still significant. For it reveals the extent to which paranoid fantasy has now entered the mainstream of American political discourse — fanned by the president himself. The theory that there is a “deep state” behind the scenes manipulating politicians and controlling the course of events is traditionally most prevalent in countries that are poorer than the US, with lower levels of education and weaker democratic traditions.

In places like Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Thailand and Indonesia, the notion of a deep state is far from fanciful. All these countries have experienced military coups (sometimes repeatedly) when the armed forces moved against elected politicians. Those scarring experiences leave a legacy of fear about the connections between business, the military and the intelligence services. That kernel of justified suspicion often then creates a political culture, in countries such as Turkey, in which conspiracy theories are rife — something that is corrosive of the trust in institutions that is crucial to a functioning democracy. It should not need saying, but American political traditions are very different from those of Turkey or Pakistan. The US has no history of military coups. And America has an entrenched tradition of an independent civil service that obeys the law and the constitution.

The Trump administration’s problems come not from an insidious, undemocratic ‘Deep State’ but simply from the state — the large, complex hive of people and procedures that constitute the US federal government.


great-power competition

rhetorical claim: There is a crisis of European weakness. In a world increasingly defined by great-power competition, Europe is finding it increasingly hard to defend its preferred model of multilateral decision-making and soft-power diplomacy. As Mr. Trump decided to make his U-turn on Iran, he looked to other American allies: Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates.

rhetorical effect: justifies American bullying; weakens multi-lateral decision-making and soft-power diplomacy. Rather than “leading from behind,” America no longer cares about moral leadership, just about brute domination. The ‘Shining city on a hill” has become a fortress empire, something to be feared, not admired.


constitutional crisis

rhetorical claim: Democrats and their media allies are again shouting “constitutional crisis,” this time claiming President Trump has waded too far into the Russia investigation. The howls are a diversion from the actual crisis: the Justice Department’s unprecedented contempt for duly elected representatives, and the lasting harm it is doing to law enforcement and to the department’s relationship with Congress.

rhetorical effect: part of the pre-emptive strike against the Mueller probe; creating something out of nothing, and then calling this nothing a threat to the Constitution when the only threat to the Constitution is this mythic deep state conspiracy and attempt to undermine the criminal justice system.

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