Words Matter

January 21, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s the word cloud from Trump’s inaugural speech.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

America and American are no surprise. They appear frequently in many inaugurals. But they occupy a more prominent place in Trump’s speech. Compare Trump’s with the first inaugurals of Obama and George W. Bush.

Words take their meaning from context. It’s the valences of America – the words and ideas that the speaker connects it to – that convey the message.  “American carnage,” for example, was a phrase that grabbed the attention of many people. But it was just a variation of disaster, the term Trump preferred during the campaign. Carnage is more graphic, but it carries no special overtones. “America first” does.

This was not one of Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks said with little reflection. Trump even repeated the phrase. 
From this day forward, it’s going to be only
America first, America first.
Trump’s writers, possibly Trump too, worked carefully on the speech. They must have known that after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, “America first” became the watchword of those who did not want the US to join European nations in the war against Hitler.* So just in case anybody hadn’t already gotten the idea, Trump is saying that the US will not intervene in Europe if some strongman marches into neighboring countries to seize today’s version of the Sudetenland or Poland.

Putin probably loved this speech. Estonians, not so much.

“America First” was revived in recent years. It was similarly isolationist and similarly anti-Semitic – the most prominent member of the 1940 committee was Charles Lindbergh – and, no surprise, pro-Trump.

The other unusual word in the cloud is back. This echoes Trump’s campaign theme that he will return the US to some glorious past, mostly by restoring industrial jobs for men. (See this post of two weeks ago.)
We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams.
This economic nostalgia often combines with a social and moral nostalgia  – a longing for a time when norms, society, and identities were stable and predictable. As Archie Bunker sang each week at the “All in the Family” theme song “Those Were the Days,”                                       
And you knew who you were then.
Goils were goils, and men were men.
Back also echoes the “Take our country back” meme so popular among conservatives for these last eight years.  (See “Repo Men.”)

In sum, the word cloud shows, as many observers said, that the inaugural speech sounds very much like Trump’s campaign speeches. It has the same combative tone, and it runs on the same assumptions about American history: America used to be great, with abundant industrial jobs for men, few imported goods, and few documented immigrants, all of them documented. The world is a zero-sum game, and we were winning. Then They (liberals, globalists) took over the country. All aspects of American life became disasters. Foreign countries were beating us.  But now, I (Trump) will restore that glorious world.

Does this describe reality? Or is it, to use another term prominent in the word cloud, a dream?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you.
By the way, I don't often react (I think I did once already), but I'm always very interested by your posts. Being European in Europe, your blog gives me keys to understand what's going on in your country - very important as it'll of course impact ours.