Words Matter 2.0: A Reflection on the Impact of President Trump’s Rhetoric

Words Matter 2.0: A Reflection on the Impact of President Trump’s Rhetoric

By Sadie Proud '21; Image by The Associated Press

Four years ago, following the 2016 presidential nomination, I wrote an article for my high school newspaper entitled “No.1 Lesson Learned From This Election: Words Matter.” I prayed alongside millions of Americans that then President-Elect Donald Trump would stick to his promise that it was “time to bind the wounds of division” and renounce his trademark misogynistic, insult-laden, racially-biting rhetoric. For a split second, I hoped that maybe, just maybe, the man whose two most notorious phrases were “you’re fired” and “grab ‘em by the pussy” might be able to elevate himself to the ranks of “four score and seven years ago,” “the only thing to fear is fear itself,” and “yes we can.” Then I watched in horror as he appointed Breitbart publisher Steve Bannon as his Chief Strategist, a man who built his entire livelihood by spewing White Supremacist propaganda and hate speech. In that moment, Donald J. Trump sent a message to the American people more powerful than any policy or promise–racism will be tolerated, the patriarchy will be upheld, and truth does not have a home in the White House.

Thomas Jefferson declared that “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” In his first 100 days in office, President Trump lied to or misled the American people 492 times. A little over four years later, on July 9, 2020, President Trump crossed the 20,000 mark in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News. His decision to politicize the pandemic, stigmatize mask wearing, and consciously misstate the severity of Covid-19 cost thousands of American lives and jeopardized the economy. Dogmatism is in direct conflict with democracy. But yet, millions of Americans stand behind him, repeating these falsehoods with unparalleled conviction. So now I ask, why do only certain words seem to matter?

In the age of fast news and Twitter, there is a cultural pressure to cite an opinion, even when it is not an informed one. Trump’s rhetoric shifted the value of speech from the content of the words to how loudly they are being said. The reduction of information to 280 characters and carefully-crafted algorithms allows us to absorb only a surface level knowledge and discourages individual thought. We choose political parties, teams, and organizations to align with and adopt their conclusions as our own. However, in an election year amidst a global health crisis, intensified racial tension, environmental disaster, and a hearing for a Supreme Court Justice nominee who wants to dismantle female reproductive rights, we do not have the luxury to stop thinking.

In 2016, I elected to believe that people voted for Trump not because of his abhorrent, smug diatribes, but despite them. The sluggish tapering off of Trump backing throughout the Republican party suggests that some 2016 voters may fall under this description. However, the unwavering support from the majority of his base demonstrates that my original hypothesis is not completely accurate. Although his campaign touts inclusivity, his acknowledgment of neo-Nazi’s as “very fine people,” remarks that his overwhelmingly-white rally crowd had “very good genes,” and recent failure to condemn white supremacy send an unparalleled message that racism, anti semitism, misogyny, and islamophobia are acceptable.

We are far beyond the point where support for President Trump can be excused as adjacent to his explicit bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia. Freedom of speech is the first amendment in our Constitution because the founding fathers knew that words matter. They have the power to unite, to inspire, to revolutionize. In 2016, I wrote that language serves as the currency of human interaction. Nice to meet you. I love you. I’m sorry. We the People. I have a dream. Grab ’em by the pussy. The promise of our democracy lies in the free exchange of ideas and our fundamental right to express them, but the promise of our humanity lies in our respect for their impact. The impact of Donald Trump’s words is hate. It is division. It is an unraveling of every liberty and justice so carefully fought for, first by the founding fathers and then by each minority they failed to include in their version of “We the People.” Every president, cabinet pick, Supreme Court nominee, and citizen has a claim on the constitutional right to their words, no matter how venomous or antagonistic they may be. However, we also have a right to our own narrative, one which rejects the claim that a leader can be viewed separate from his rhetoric.

MLK proclaimed that “History will have to record the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Fifty years later, we are faced again with a time when silence is not an option. On November 3, our vote becomes our voice. Until then, we must listen carefully, speak thoughtfully, and recognize that this election goes beyond policy or party. We are voting for the potential of our Constitution to be upheld and the promise of progress to be inclusive rather than privileged.

5 thoughts on “Words Matter 2.0: A Reflection on the Impact of President Trump’s Rhetoric

  1. A moving description of the impact of the President’s words. Your piece speaks to two different issues: people who support the President because of those words, and people who support(ed) him despite them. Your account seems to suggest that the second group has greatly shrunk while the first has greatly expanded. If so, what do you think the people who (used to) be in the second group should do now? And how should those who oppose the President’s words deal with the people in the first group? William Moore’s “A New Nationalist Consensus” of October 13 discusses some partial answers to those questions. What’s your take?

  2. This is very powerful to read! I agree with you that rhetoric matters, and it’s evidenced in a large number of our political disputes in this country. Freedom of speech would not be such a contentious issue if words didn’t matter. As to your question about why only certain words matter, that is much more puzzling. Is it selective hearing? Perhaps that the pieces that Trump says that are music to some racist, heteronormative, nationalist, Christian Americans’ ears, so the other pieces that clash with basic courtesy are forgotten? Or perhaps he plays into the secret “taboo” ideals of this swath of America? He “says all the things we aren’t supposed to, he’s not censoring us with that PC talk,” if something I’ve definitely heard proponents of Trump say.

  3. I think that under President Trump’s administration, conversations regarding free speech have grown, especially as hate crimes have grown at the same time. Anti-Semitism in America is on the rise as a result of free speech. Misogynistic, racist speech has become normalized, as the President refuses to denounce white supremacy and openly discusses violating women. Like you, I have spent a lot of time rationalizing people voting for Trump based on his policies, rather than his personality, though the last four years have been a real indicator that to get his policies, you have to accept his rhetoric, which is entirely unacceptable, in my view. The impact of speech is crucial to our country because we have free speech, but as we fight toward equality, we have to work towards defining free speech to prevent the rise in hate speech. I also think it is interesting to consider the talking point I have heard from many Republicans that “He stands for life and Conservative Christian values. Even if he says crude things, that doesn’t affect his ability to be a good president.” However, his personality cannot be differentiated from his politics because his words have begun to directly harm and impact many people, regardless of his policy positions. He may CLAIM he is not anti-Semitic or a white nationalist, but by opening up free speech to hate groups, he accepts those ideologies as part of his own. It is disgusting to see the way that fighting for equality has been demonized by President Trump and many conservatives and I hope we can return to a sense of decency in the next administration and that President Biden works to reverse the rhetoric around free speech that has unfortunately normalized hate.

  4. Thank you for such a powerful piece, Sadie! It was heartbreaking for me to wake up after election day in 2016 to find that Donald Trump won the election. Moreover, it was heartbreaking to find out that my first election as a voting citizen resulted in such a hateful, ugly outcome. The fact that so many Americans excused Trump’s words for one excuse or another revealed millions of Americans’ true colors. When speaking to my Trump-supporting extended family about why they supported him, they found his condescending, racist, sexist, “everything-ist” language amusing and truthful; they wanted a politician that wasn’t “sneaky” and commended him for saying exactly what was on his mind. So, I personally discovered that the people who supported Trump sought honesty over their definition of corrupt politicians, even if that “honesty” was at the expense of marginalized communities and other groups affected by Trump’s hateful language. Truly disturbing.

  5. Sadie, I think your article touches on an interesting junction of rhetoric and policy. Trump uses a specific rhetoric in order to gain followers-people who vote for him because of his words-and has a conservative policy position-in order to gain conservative voters. While of course there’s probably major overlap between these groups, I think that looking at it this way might help explain the reason why conservative voters who treasure family values voted for a man who is commonly quoted saying “grab ’em by the pussy.” I wonder if lately, with more and more Republican elected officials supporting Trump less and less, if Trump has lost any of the support of his conservative voter base to the more peripherally appealing moderate Biden.

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