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.

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, Oct 19-31, 2017

witch hunt

rhetorical claim: “The Dems are using this terrible (and bad for our country) Witch Hunt for evil politics,” tweeted Trump, “but the R’s are now fighting back like never before.”

Note how a federal investigation of Russian influence on American democracy has become “the Dems.” Note also that it is not the president and his lawyers fighting this investigation but the “R’s.” Trump is conditioning Republicans and conservatives to view his upcoming legal defense entirely through the lens of partisanship. With the broad cooperation of conservative media, there is every reason to think he might succeed.

rhetorical effect: best described by Michael Gerson:

Note how a federal investigation of Russian influence on American democracy has become “the Dems.” Note also that it is not the president and his lawyers fighting this investigation but the “R’s.” Trump is conditioning Republicans and conservatives to view his upcoming legal defense entirely through the lens of partisanship. With the broad cooperation of conservative media, there is every reason to think he might succeed….

Do Republicans and conservatives really want to be remembered as a bodyguard of enablers for this man? For this cause? Few enter the fray of political ideas, or make the considerable sacrifices of entering public life, to defend corruption and the abuse of power. That is now the calling of the Republican partisan, and the downward path of dishonor.


criminalization of policy differences

rhetorical claim: the anti-Trump forces are crowing for his impeachment based on their policy differences with him. Just as they have criminalized free speech on campus, they are now trying to criminalize any policies that differ from their ow. In other words, their utopia is an authoritarian state based on political correctness.

rhetorical effect: makes it so that no policies are inherently wiser or juster or more efficient, but just ‘”different.” Makes it so that all criticism is oppositional, and all critiics are enemies. Removes any evidence-based argumentation from policy debates, reducing everything to a matter of opinion. As best explained by David Frum, referring to Trump’s discrediting of the media:

modern strongmen seek merely to discredit journalism as an institution, by denying that such a thing as independent judgment can exist. All reporting serves an agenda. There is no truth, only competing attempts to grab power.


health care freedom

rhetorical claim: according to Phil Gramm, the collectivist nightmare of Obamacare shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with a person’s health care freedom:

A money-for-freedom compromise would at last provide an opportunity to debate health-care freedom, something the public was denied by the great ObamaCare lie. If Democrats refuse to allow ObamaCare’s losers to escape in return for funding for the program’s beneficiaries, it will be Democrats who let the program collapse. Throughout the debate they will be forced to argue against the very health-care freedom they falsely promised when they adopted ObamaCare

rhetorical effect: gives people the “freedom” to sign up for skinny policies that will prove more or less useless in the face of any serious medical crisis. The market always gives people the right to get screwed. Also legitimizes the absurd idea that insurance is totally an individual choice, though the whole idea of a risk pool is a collective one.


nuclear racketeering

rhetorical claim: The real Russia scandal: Sec. of State Hillary Clinton’s approval of a deal to transfer control of 20% of U.S. uranium deposits to a Russian company was a quid pro quo exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation. Clinton should be charged for treason for allowing the Russians to corner the uranium market

rhetorical effect: just like the e-mail and Benghazi charges, these will persist forever despite being patently false (see here for all the reasons the claim is false.) Part of the comprehensive GOP strategy of misdirection and confusion, this meme shifts the Russian collusion/meddling narrative focus from Trump to Clinton–it’s Hillary who colluded, not Donald! As masterfully explained by Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman:

What’s happening now is an audacious effort on the part of Republicans to convince everyone that not only did Trump and his campaign not work with Russia, in fact it was Hillary Clinton who did so, and Vladimir Putin (whose hatred of Clinton burns with the fire of a thousand suns) actually wanted her to win and tried to help her.

If you’ve been conscious for the last year and a half, that surely strikes you as deranged, something no one could be dumb enough to believe. But Republicans have run this play many times before, and by the time they’re done, half the public will believe it.

It has three essential components. The first is the cranking up of the conservative calliope: all of the right’s information sources, from Fox News to conservative talk radio to web sites like Breitbart and Drudge, immediately begin shouting about the same story and repeating the same line. Then to keep it going and force mainstream media to cover it, they create an official “investigation” that will provide a steady stream of tantalizing leaks and events that can become the occasion of news coverage, even if it all ends up proving nothing. Then the whole narrative gets validated by top-level Republicans whose words are news in and of themselves.

All of these components are now in motion. Fox and the other outlets are doing hour after hour of discussion about what they are calling the “Russia dossier,” an opposition research document prepared for Democrats that gathered together facts and rumors about Trump’s dealings in Russia (I explained why their line on this document is so bogus here). Now that story is being joined to absurd charges about the sale of a uranium mining company, with all kinds of dark allegations of corruption.


the real Russia scandal

rhetorical claim: In the Russia dossier scandal, since Steele had Russian sources and was working for the Clinton campaign, that proves it was she and not Donald Trump who colluded with a foreign power. Furthermore, the fact that the FBI treated Steele’s information seriously means it too was in on the collusion; that implicates James Comey along with Robert Mueller, because they know each other. Therefore, Mueller must resign to “prevent further political turmoil over that conflict of interest.”

rhetorical effect:  As a masterful piece of misleading disinformation,  this charge is an excuse for Congressional committees to stop investigating Trump’s Russia ties. As Digby Diehl points out in Salon,

There are a dozen flaws in this argument but the most important is the one set forth by Robert Litt, former general counsel to the office of the director of national intelligence under the Obama administration:

The dossier itself played absolutely no role in the coordinated intelligence assessment that Russia interfered in our election. That assessment, which was released in unclassified form in January but which contained much more detail in the classified version that has been briefed to Congress, was based entirely on other sources and analysis.

Other than that, they have an airtight case.



rhetorical claim: see “nuclear racketeering,” above.

rhetorical effect:  euphemizes misdirection and with-hunt into an innocent-sounding investigation. In a truly Rovian misdirection, this tactic actually means the end of the investigation of Trump-Russia collusion. Normalizes deception.


Hecklers’ Veto

rhetorical claim: the ACLA supports free speech unless it comes to speech they don’t like. In that case, they support hecklers who shout down unpalatable, politically incorrect speakers,

The increasing use of the heckler’s veto is distressing considering that the judiciary has been overruling the heckler’s veto since the Civil Rights Movement, when black protestors were frequently arrested for peacefully occupying segregated areas because their acts unnerved and unsettled onlookers. The Court addressed this practice in Brown v. Louisiana (1966), ruling that the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights may not be curtailed merely because “their critics might react with disorder or violence.”

The heckler’s veto is rooted in the misguided belief that an argument can be defeated by forcefully shutting up its proponents. On the college campuses of a free society, a viewpoint gains acceptance in the “marketplace of ideas” by the persuasive power of the arguments in support of it, not the physical might of its advocates. Rather than using force to silence a speaker, the answer to speech with which one disagrees is more speech, not violence or censorship.

rhetorical effect: permits racist and xenophobic speech to dominate the public discourse by removing all moral and ethical guidelines for speech decency and accuracy. Normalizes spite and bigotry. As Tim Wu argues,

Some might argue, based on the sophomoric premise that “more speech is always better,” that the current state of chaos is what the First Amendment intended. But no defensible free-speech tradition accepts harassment and threats as speech, treats foreign propaganda campaigns as legitimate debate or thinks that social-media bots ought to enjoy constitutional protection. A robust and unfiltered debate is one thing; corruption of debate itself is another. We have entered a far more dangerous place for the republic; its defense requires stronger protections for what we once called the public sphere.


saving our heritage

rhetorical claim: electing Ed Gillespie Virginia governor is critical to maintaining America’s “great statues and heritage” according to President Trump.

rhetorical effect: The usual master-meme of race-bating. Trump has repeatedly cast Democrat Ralph Northam as soft on immigration and crime, and Gillespie has heavily trafficked in these same attacks, with dishonest ads featuring scary, tattooed, brown-skinned gang members. In the state that was recently the site of white supremacist violence and murder, Gillespie has said Confederate statues should remain. All this is designed to energize Virginia Trump voters.


 tax cuts for American workers

rhetorical claim: corporate tax cuts would largely benefit workers, who would see giant increases in salaries and productivity. They would be a job engine as well. The only way to beat class-war politics is to make the case that reform and rate cuts will yield faster growth, higher wages, more jobs and broadly shared prosperity. The politics of envy, the heart of the liberal response to tax cuts, falsely claim that tax cuts only help the wealthy.

rhetorical effect: best explained by Paul Krugman:

Realistically, then, the benefits from cutting corporate taxes would overwhelmingly flow into after-tax profits rather than wages, especially in the first few years and probably for a decade or more. And this in turn means that the main beneficiaries would be stockholders, not workers.

So who are these stockholders, exactly? You can guess part of the answer: We’re talking mainly about the very affluent. Even if we count indirect holdings in retirement accounts and mutual funds, the richest 10 percent of U.S. residents account for about 80 percent of American-owned stocks, and the richest 1 percent own about 40 percent. So we’re talking, as always when it comes to Republican plans, about tax cuts heavily tilted toward the wealthy.