Why presidential language matters

When presidents sort groups of voters – and groups of nations – into categories they like and dislike, the results aren’t always pretty. It’s a tactic that can be wrong, and ineffective, say historians.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Trump listens during a meeting with lawmakers on immigration policy in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. Trump reportedly used profane language to disparage Haiti, as well as Central American and African nations, in a meeting with lawmakers about a proposed bipartisan deal on immigration on Jan. 11.

Presidents don’t normally talk like this.

“This,” of course, refers to President Trump’s words on Thursday during a discussion with lawmakers about a possible bipartisan immigration deal, during which he made incendiary and vulgar remarks about people from developing countries.

Chief executives do swear. They have yelled. Oval Office walls have heard rough and intemperate language.

That’s not the point, say historians. The worst aspect of Mr. Trump’s outburst, they say, may have been its divisiveness. When presidents sort groups of voters, and groups of nations, into categories they like and dislike, the results aren’t always pretty. It’s a tactic that can be wrong, and ineffective. On both domestic and foreign issues US chief executives often need all the allies they can get.

Most presidents feel a responsibility to reach out beyond their core constituencies, says Brian Balogh, a professor of history at the University of Virginia and co-host of the podcast, “BackStory.

“One of the most powerful weapons in achieving this end is language,” Dr. Balogh writes in response to a reporter’s email. “Using language that appeals broadly, and avoiding language that infuriates, demeans, incites, is crucial to achieving this end.”

Trump has operated differently from Day 1 of his presidency. He appears to believe (and his supporters say) that speaking his mind got him elected, so he’ll continue to do that, whatever the media say or his staff tells him.

When words matter more

The flip side of this may be that his fiercest critics get as upset – or more so – about what he says as about what he does. An example of this in the 2016 campaign may have been the “Access Hollywood” tape, says David O’Connell, a professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

The vulgar language and attitudes displayed on the tape angered many people more than the specific stories of women who then came forward to allege that Trump had sexually harassed or assaulted them, says Professor O’Connell. The same effect may be at work this week on immigration, with Trump’s dismissive references to particular countries producing more outrage than actual policy changes affecting immigrations from those places.

“The controversy reflects a shift in political society, where words now seem for a lot of people to matter more than actions, rather than the other way around,” says O’Connell.

At the moment it is not entirely clear what occurred during Trump’s meeting with a small group of lawmakers to discuss a proposed deal on immigration. Initial reports were that Trump erupted when he found that the deal, struck by a bipartisan group of senators, allocated some legal immigration slots to Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations.

Trump allegedly used a scatological slur to describe these countries, asked why the United States would want people from Haiti, and wondered why the US could not get more immigrants from nations such as Norway, whose prime minister visited Washington this week.

On Friday morning, after the controversy generated by the words had swirled for more than 12 hours, Trump tweeted a vague apology in which he denied saying anything derogatory about Haiti or Haitian immigrants, but said nothing about the rest of alleged discussion.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, who attended the meeting in question, repeated on Friday that the president did use a harsh scatological obscenity, and said that Trump said “things which were hate-filled, vile, and racist.”

It isn’t entirely unprecedented for a presidential administration to use coarse language in a meeting large enough to be semi-public, or even in a public forum. The interesting thing is that such a duty usually falls to the vice president, says Balogh. Consider the Nixon team: Vice President Spiro Agnew was the attack dog, railing in speeches against the media as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” President Nixon swore like a sailor in private, but in public he tried hard to use unifying rhetoric at a time of national social unrest.

In the Trump administration, it is the president who is the attack dog, while the vice president takes the high road, notes Balogh.

Speaking to the whole country

Swearing per se is not the issue. As noted, Nixon’s tapes were full of deleted expletives. Barack Obama used a cattle-related expletive to describe Mitt Romney in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. Harry Truman once questioned Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s parentage in explicit terms.

It is more about being careful to not needlessly divide Americans into categories and to at least make a rhetorical attempt to speak to the whole country, some say. That is all lumped together under the expectation that an occupant of the Oval Office will “act presidential,” says Patrick Miller, professor of political science at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, via email.

“In essence, we have often expected them to act better and more dignified than we do as ordinary citizens,” says Dr. Miller.

This is one of the many presidential norms that Trump does not worry about. His supporters see his tell-it-like-he-sees-it approach as refreshing authenticity. His critics see it as crass and worse. The immigration-related remarks are particularly troubling because they are so racially-tinged, say critics: Trump is rejecting citizens of poor black nations as inherently less valuable people than those of a richer white country.

“In this specific case, Trump’s comments, while crude, vulgar, and obscene, really should not come as a surprise in terms of their racist import,” says Brooks Simpson, a history professor at Arizona State University, via email.

In political terms, they may not be helpful, as well. While his base may see them as truth-telling, it is unlikely that anyone not already prone to back Trump would be swayed by such language. Meanwhile, swing state Florida is home to a large Haitian population. Trump has made some small gains during his presidency among African-American males, which could be at risk. Overall, college-educated voters tend to shun the uproar and circus-like atmosphere generated by the president's tweets and remarks.

In international terms, the words could matter as well. Haiti was one of the 35 nations that abstained during the United Nations Jerusalem vote several weeks ago, earning it an invitation to a party held by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley for countries that backed the US position. Norway? It voted contrary to what the White House wished.

“During the cold war, it was important [for US presidents] to play the role of being the leader, or the potential leader, of countries in the world who wanted a freer existence,” says Thomas De Luca, director of international studies at Fordham University in New York.

“It’s almost that right now we have the opposite,” says Professor De Luca. “There’s a willingness to say in public things that, intentionally or not, are deeply offensive to lots of people in the world.”

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