Campaign lexicon, 2016: A tale of two candidates

Donald Trump takes part in a round-table discussion with farmers at a pumpkin patch in Boynton Beach, Florida, October 24, 2016. — Reuters pics
Donald Trump takes part in a round-table discussion with farmers at a pumpkin patch in Boynton Beach, Florida, October 24, 2016. — Reuters pics

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WASHINGTON, Oct 24 — On the campaign trail, they are studies in contrast.

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, peppers his freewheeling speeches with buzzwords that pack a punch; Hillary Clinton, the Democrat, takes the unexciting high road in her more rehearsed stump speeches.

Linguists say each candidate’s word choices are part of their larger brand strategies.

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is an affirmative slogan, which linguistics professor Linda Coleman of the University of Maryland said causes his audiences to consider it “a complete thought”.

“The rhythm — you can almost march to that,” she told AFP.

With Clinton’s “Stronger Together”, Coleman said, “you have to ask the question ‘what’s stronger together?’”

“You have to supply the ‘we’” implied by the expression.

Trump talk

Though Trump’s style of discourse has been criticised as disjointed and self-interrupting, it’s “anything but word salad”, said George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California-Berkeley.

“His words and his use of grammar are carefully chosen, and put together artfully, automatically and quickly.”

Martin Medhurst of Baylor University in Texas said Trump’s rhetoric reflects his overall campaign game plan.

“Trump is following a very specific and narrow election strategy, much more narrow than Clinton’s,” the expert on presidential speechmaking said.

“He’s got a certain set of terminology associated with that strategy that he’s going to repeat over and over again.”

For Coleman, Trump’s short soundbites speak to his background as a reality TV show star and “a self-promoter”.

“He has the skills in a way of an advertiser,” she said. “His phrases are short and thoughtful.”

Here are some classic Trumpisms:

‘A disaster’

One of Trump’s most used words is “disaster” — the Republican candidate applies it to everything from the Iran nuclear accord to Barack Obama’s health care plan to Clinton herself.

‘Believe me’

To the many fact-checkers who often call him out for contradictory or false statements in speeches, debates or on Twitter, the bombastic Republican candidate has a simple response: “Believe me”.

Trump’s persistent use of the phrase suggests to audiences that “he has the requisite experience for his belief to be true”, said Lakoff of Berkeley. 

‘America first’

Trump regularly deploys his “America first” slogan in an attempt to woo voters in the “Rust Belt” — a region spanning from the midwest to the northeast that is facing severe economic decline in the face of de-industrialisation.

The phrase also serves as a key tool in Trump’s foreign policy arsenal, when the candidate advocates withdrawing from Nato or disengaging from the Middle East.


Trump has doubled and tripled down on claims that the elections are “rigged” against him.

“The press has created a rigged system and poisoned the minds of the voters,” he said.

With his incessant reminders that a vast rigging conspiracy could be underway, Trump intends to “remind people of how they have lost status” and sway in electoral decisions, Medhurst says.

‘Crooked Hillary’

Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” epithet has become commonplace at rallies and on social media.

“Crooked Hillary colluded w/FBI and DoJ and media is covering up to protect her. It’s a #RiggedSystem! Our country deserves better!” Trump recently tweeted.

During their first presidential debate Clinton said she preferred to go by Madam Secretary, the title of her past post as the nation’s chief diplomat.

Hillary Clinton arrives at Manchester-Boston regional airport in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Hillary Clinton arrives at Manchester-Boston regional airport in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Clinton catchphrases

The Democratic candidate boasts fewer buzzwords than her rival, which linguistics expert Medhurst says is because “she has a much broader strategy and so she’s going to be using different kinds of language to describe different parts”.

“No one part is going to be memorable.”

‘Deal me in’

The potential first female president of the United States regularly repeats the phrase, “if you want to play the woman’s card, deal me in”.

After Trump suggested that Clinton’s gender, “the woman’s card”, was her only asset in the race, the candidate adopted the tagline — which references joining a card game — to cast herself as an obvious advocate for women while labelling her rival as their threat.

‘Love trumps hate’

Clinton has borrowed the equal rights slogan “love trumps hate” to cast her own platform as one of acceptance, while disparaging her rival’s as hostile in a play on the Republican candidate’s last name.

‘When they go low, we go high’

Clinton regularly uses the phrase “when they go low, we go high” to draw supporters appalled by the sometimes offensive language of Trump. She appropriated the words from First Lady Michelle Obama, who used the motto in a speech that electrified viewers at the Democratic National Convention. — AFP

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