As we all know, Donald Trump's tweets have become a potent force in our new era. On the one hand, a single tweet can cripple opponents, activate supporters, move markets, and subsume the news cycle. On the other, they're a window into Trump's wee-hours, unfiltered id. But when his tweets are full of half-truths, distortions, and often bold-faced lies, should journalists treat them as normal presidential utterances, or something else? Cognitive linguist George Lakoff believes that the press must understand how Trump uses language if we're to responsibly report on his tweets, not just magnify their misinformation. He talks with Brooke about the categories he's come up with for thinking about Trump tweets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone, with a taxonomy of Trump tweets. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff believes that the press must understand how Trump uses language if we're going to responsibly report on those tweets and not just magnify their misinformation. He’s come up with a few categories for thinking about Trump tweets, and the first is preemptive framing.
GEORGE LAKOFF: And the idea of preemptive framing is to frame an issue before other people get a chance to, to put the idea out there first, for example, quote, “The only reason the hacking of the poorly defended DNC is discussed is that the loss by the Dems was so big, they were totally embarrassed.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
GEORGE LAKOFF: And the idea is that the hacking of the DNC was the fault of the DNC.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Also the idea that the Dems lost so big when, in fact, it was one of the narrowest losses in history. So that’s all framed, so you have to go back and deconstruct the tweet before you can even address it.
GEORGE LAKOFF: Exactly. You have to understand what the framing is and what the framing is he’s trying to avoid. You know, he said, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote, if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
Right? No reason to think anybody voted illegally, but what he's doing is trying to reframe the popular vote.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's move on to another category you talk about, the diversion tweet.
GEORGE LAKOFF: The diversion tweet occurs when there's some major issue that's come up, and what he'll do is do things like attack Meryl Streep, you know, Meryl Streep, one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood. She is a Hillary flunky who lost big. The idea is to get people on TV talking about Meryl Streep, not talking about the real issues, in this case, conflict of interest and the Russian hacking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm!
GEORGE LAKOFF: Before that, he had done the attack on “Hamilton,” you know, “The cast and producers of ‘Hamilton,’ which I hear is highly overrated –
- should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think at that time the big issue was his $25 million settlement over the Trump University case.
GEORGE LAKOFF: So that all the people on New York radio and TV and so on are going to talk about “Hamilton,” instead of talking about the Trump University.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s move quickly onto your third category, the trial balloon?
GEORGE LAKOFF: Right, trial balloon. He says, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capacity until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” He’s going to see how people react to this, and then he'll know what to do in the future. People were confused, they talked about, you know, nuclear proliferation a little bit and then it went away.
And then the fourth category is deflection –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
GEORGE LAKOFF: - where you attack the messenger, so he attacked BuzzFeed, CNN, the BBC for putting out the discussion of the Russian leaks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Putting out the entire dossier is arguably premature.
GEORGE LAKOFF: It is premature, on the one hand. On the other hand, he's gonna be in office in a week.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So there was one from Wednesday this week that you say embodies all four of these categories, preemptive framing, diversion, trial balloon and deflection. I will read it. It is, “Intelligence agencies should not have allowed this fake news to leak into the public, one last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
GEORGE LAKOFF: First, preemptive framing, this is fake news, secondly, diversion, it's gonna be discussed whether or not it’s fake news or should have been leaked, rather than the content.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
GEORGE LAKOFF: There’s deflection, which is attacking the messengers, and then you get the trial balloon, will the intelligence agencies be stopped from doing this? Are they working like Nazi Germany?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Obviously, you don't think the media are handling these utterances very well. What do you suggest that we do?
GEORGE LAKOFF: The media is addicted to breaking news, so we have to give the tweet first. That’s the breaking news. Wrong, because that allows him to manipulate you as a reporter and manipulate the truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you're saying don't report on the tweet?
GEORGE LAKOFF: You begin by telling the truth and giving the evidence for that truth, then mention his tweet, point out that that contradicts the truth and then talk about what kind of tweet this is. You know, you say, this is a case of diversion. Here’s what he is diverting, quickly. Don't have a panel discussion about it, you know, [LAUGHS] just do it and go on. Keep going back to substance and the truth.
Also, what is the effect of his tweeting on the truth? He’s trying to say, usually, that this truth is a general truth. And that’s another thing that I should add to this list of the things he does, is to take a specific case and say that it's the general case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Give me an example.
GEORGE LAKOFF: There is a rape or a murder, a shooting by a Mexican, he says, they’re rapists and killers. He does that all the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you call that?
GEORGE LAKOFF: Salient exemplar.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So this sort of extrapolation from one example is the salient exemplar. I like that.
GEORGE LAKOFF: And let me give you one more little thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sure.
GEORGE LAKOFF: There’s a difference between direct and systemic causation. So the lawyer at his press conference, who is dealing with conflicts of interest, took up the question of emoluments. Suppose another government books rooms at Trump's hotel, is this a conflict of interest? What she said was, quote, “This is not what the Constitution says. Paying for a hotel room is not a gift or a present and it has nothing to do with an office. It is not an emolument.”
Now, in general, paying one night for a hotel room might not be. Somebody who’s dealing with the government, paying for a month of hotel rooms in a hotel that enriches Trump is an emolument. [LAUGHS] It’s indirect causation like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
GEORGE LAKOFF: You look at not just the particular of the frame but the way in which that frame functions as part of a system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So she says one night in a hotel room is the frame and, thereby, removes from the table any kind of enrichment you can get from people spending any amount of money in your hotel.
GEORGE LAKOFF: Exactly, and what allows this to happen is every language of the world in its grammar allows direct causation. No language of the world in its grammar has systemic causation. There’s a very good reason. Languages are learned by children, and little children learning languages don’t know about systemic causation. For example, if I say, I took a drink, you know, the assumption is I took a drink at a particular time, at a particular place. That is direct causation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then you say, I take a drink. There’s a tone there that suggests you didn't just take one but you take one regularly.
GEORGE LAKOFF: Right, that is systemic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So she used a particular simple grammar and thereby created a precedent for us to discount all hotel usages from there on out.
GEORGE LAKOFF: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: George, thank you very much.
GEORGE LAKOFF: Always a pleasure, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and author of several books, including Metaphors We Live By and Don’t Think of an Elephant, Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.