One of the most effective ways for politicians and their acolytes in the media to influence the public is to use precise words and phrases to consciously or subconsciously affect voters’ thinking. Sometimes, these words or phrases are euphemisms. Other times, they are intended to misdirect. Still others, they are simply misleading. This tactic has gone on to some degree for a long time, but it has occurred with much more regularity and sophistication since the proliferation of cable news and the Internet. The Trump era has been a particularly ripe time for leaders and talking heads to engage in these linguistic sleights of hand. Let’s consider a few examples:
1. “Entitlement reform”: This one is a twofer. Let’s start with the word “entitlement” itself. It is no secret that one of the Republican goals for 2018 is to cut “entitlements,” a loaded word because it has a viscerally negative connotation. When used in the “right” way, there is an implicit suggestion that the word “entitlements” is synonymous with “unjustified and unfair entitlements.” In other words, the implicit question is, “What makes you feel so ‘entitled’”? The primary “entitlements” in our budget, namely the big three of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, take up more than half of our federal budget.
Republicans, especially those who are deficit hawks (putting aside that there were no Republican deficit hawks during the recent run-up to the new tax laws and the recent budget compromise) would love nothing more than to reduce the deficit by cutting back on these expenditures. However, neither Republicans nor President Trump would be caught dead proclaiming their vigorous support for “entitlement cuts”. Even those who are not political junkies and who are not constantly tuned into cable news know full well that “entitlement cuts” translates into lower Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security disbursements (meaning that using the literally correct terminology of “Medicare cuts” or “Social Security cuts” is even more out of the question.
Therefore, being no idiots, Republicans instead use the term “reform.” Even though, in reality, they are using the word “reform” as a synonym for “cut”, the word “reform” is a brilliant euphemism because it sounds like something wonderful. After all, if you are proposing to “reform” something, doesn’t that just sound like you are “improving” it? Whether or not Americans will be fooled by the “entitlement reform” euphemism is another story.
2. “Accomplishments”: Another word Trump supporters use frequently is “accomplishments”, as in, look at the long list of Trump’s “accomplishments” in 2017. The word “accomplishment”, used by itself, has only one possible connotation, a positive one. There can be no ambiguity about the fact that everyone loves accomplishments. The subtext for the proclamations about Trump’s accomplishments in 2017 is obviously that, since he accomplished so much in that year, how could any American even think of not voting for his agenda (read: GOP candidates) in the 2018 midterms or for Trump himself in 2020?
The problem is that the changes that Trump “effectuated” (to use a more neutral term) can only be considered “accomplishments” if you are in favor of those actions. However, most Democrats would consider the alleged “accomplishments” as actions which harm America, not which help America. For example, of the Democrats expressing an opinion on the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, less than one-third of them supported the appointment. The same logic and a similar Democrat response holds with the repeal of numerous environmental regulations and the pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (which The New York Times called Obama’s “signature trade achievement”). When the Paris Climate Accord, a move which was supported by only 9% of Democrats. In other words, these actions are only “accomplishments” if you are a conservative and support all of Trump’s moves these issues.
We can place the word “winning” in the same general category as “accomplishments”. We often heard it said, especially after the failure of Trump’s efforts to repeal Obamacare, and before the enactment of the new tax laws, that Trump and the Republicans needed a “win”. In a benign sense, it could be argued that this word simply meant a “win for America,” the kind of “win” that has no “losers”. However, in the same way that the word “accomplishments” depends totally on which side of the road someone stands on, the word “win” did not refer to a “win for America,” but instead was being used in its traditional sporting sense to refer to a “win for Trump and the Republicans over the Democrats.” In other words, Trump and the Republicans needed a “win” that meant a defeat of the Democrats, rather than the enactment of a law that was beneficial for the entire country.
3. “Chain migration”: This term deals with the policy of allowing relatives of young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children to also come to this country. While those who support this policy (read primarily: Democrats) refer to this concept as family reunification migration, a phrase that implies a worthy and unobjectionable goal in line with traditional American values. Republicans, however, prefer the more sinister-sounding “chain migration.” They argue that it is inappropriate for family members to be able to benefit from the actions of those who came here illegally in the first place, especially when they are outside of the nuclear family. Some on the left have charged that the term chain migration, which sounds quite like “chained migration,” suggests that, like slaves, these relatives are being brought here against their will. People using the term also disregard the precise familial connection with the illegal immigrant who is already here. In other words, “chained migration” intentionally avoids “family” because some Republicans don’t want to be perceived as favoring a policy that could be construed as anti-family.
4. “America voted for Trump”. Virtually any time conservative commentators discuss Trumpian campaign promises and why those promises should become law, one of the reasons they give is that “America voted for” those promises to be fulfilled. A classic example would be the wall across our southern border (to be paid for of course by Mexico!). Others would be a temporary ban on Muslims attempting to enter the United States, a tariffs on goods made in China and Mexico, a full repeal of Obamacare, and a renegotiation of the Iran deal. No doubt their thinking is, if “America voted for Trump”, and these were the specific promises that Trump made on the campaign trail, then isn’t this evidence that “America” writ large supports these policies and promises?
That might be persuasive reasoning on its face, but there’s just one small problem: “America” did not vote for Trump. America actually voted for Hilary Clinton. She won the popular vote by roughly 3,000,000 votes. It is true that Trump became president fair and square by winning more than the required 270 electoral votes as per the electoral college system. But it is highly misleading to imply that an Electoral College victory means that more than half of all Americans who voted wanted Donald Trump to win. However, if you are a Republican arguing for enactment of Trump’s policies and promises, it sounds much more persuasive to suggest that more than half of American voters favored those policies and promises rather than to argue that they should become law because Trump won the electoral college.
5. “Dreamers”: Of course, Democrats use loaded words or phrases to advance their agenda, too. The “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA) program involves undocumented immigrants whose parents brought them to America as children. The left refers to these people as “dreamers.” That is a beautiful word (even though it is largely forgotten that the word is an acronym for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, first introduced in 2001, but never enacted into law). “Dreamers” conjures up images of those who aspire to be the best they can be, to accomplish great things in life, and to make America a better place as the result of their presence here. In other words, they “dream” of great things—they aspire to the American Dream. The impression one gets from those who want to protect the dreamers as a whole is that they are class valedictorians and first responders; they cure diseases and want to serve in the military. How could anyone possibly be “against” such strivers, such dreamers, especially because, as the argument goes, they had no control over their parents’ decision to bring them to this country and this is the only country where they have ever really lived?
Even while not pushing back very hard against the use of the term “dreamers” to cover all people who came to this country under the above circumstances, some on the right counter that a great number of “dreamers” do not live up to the word. They argue that most of them are ordinary immigrants: they tend to work in lower skilled jobs and tend to be less educated on average than Americans. Some studies show that dreamers, after receiving their legal permits, were dropping out of high school at a rate almost four times higher than Americans citizens. Some Republicans argument that, therefore, the success stories – not to mention the images conjured by the word “dreamer”- misrepresent the reality of what many DACA recipients are: low-income workers competing with Americans for low-skilled jobs.
6. “Voter fraud”/ “Voter Suppression”: People on both sides of the political spectrum attempt to use this particular terminology in their favor. The right charges that voter fraud is rampant in America. As stated by the conservative Heritage Foundation, “Voter fraud is real and hundreds of convictions have been made and documented.” [https://www.heritage.org/election-integrity/heritage-explains/voter-fraud]. If it is true that voter fraud permeates our national and state elections, then the obvious solution is to make it much harder for all of the alleged “fraudulent voters” to cast their ballots. This effort can be accomplished such by requiring voter ID (typically drivers licenses), and in some states (like Texas) a gun registration card. Under this theory, the act of making it harder for people to vote is nothing more than an exercise in making sure that the votes of all of the “legitimate voters” are not stolen or diluted. Therefore, how can one oppose efforts to combat voter fraud?
Democrats, of course, have their own term for the policies that would result from voter fraud if Republicans had their way: “voter suppression.” They charge that voter fraud is nonexistent and that the sole purpose of the proposed “voter suppression” laws is to keep millions of Americans (read: Democratic voters, especially those who are on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale and people of color more broadly) who are fully eligible to vote from actually casting their votes because they lack formal ID due to cost. Democrats would argue that Republicans know this full well and are simply using the term “voter fraud” to identify an issue which does not exist and to create laws to prevent that phantom problem from recurring.
In sum, if you want to sway voters, it always helps if you choose your terminology with extreme care, so as to convey the impression and the images that you want to convey, whether those are misleading or not.
Peter E. Meltzer, attorney and author of four books, including “The Thinker’s Thesaurus: Sophisticated Synonyms for Common Words,” published by Norton.