"Language in the Age of Trump"

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Dennis Baron, whose blog The Web of Language I follow, has been on a break for several months, so I was very glad to hear that he is back online. In a recent post, “Language in the Age of Fake News, Fox News, and Trump,” Baron provides an overview of a number of linguists and language experts (from Chomsky and Austin to Grice and Orwell) who provided principles for communication, such as Austin’s locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts or Grice’s cooperative principle. But, Baron says, these linguists “never watched Fox News,” which uses words not to communicate but rather to listen to meaningless and misleading nonsense so much that it numbs its viewers. “The Age of fake news, Fox News, and Trump™ is causing us to rethink everything we know about how language works,” Baron argues.


Baron may be right. Certainly teachers of writing are facing a huge uphill battle in helping students to, first, understand that there’s a problem worthy of their attention and, second, to provide them with strategies for analyzing and resisting fake news. But, I think we still know some things about how language works. More specifically, we are learning how Trump’s language works: many scholars and journalists have pointed out his small, simple vocabulary; his use of repetition to hammer points, whether true or not, home over and over again; his constant shifting of topics and subjects in order to throw listeners off base; and his willingness to stretch, bend, or ignore the truth.


In working on the 8th edition of Everything’s an Argument, I found myself thinking about Trump as I was revising a section on fallacies and fallacious thinking. In fact, I added a fallacy to this edition because Trump uses it so often. Paralipsis, sometimes also referred to as apophasis, occultatio, or praeteritio, occurs when writers or speakers say they will not mention something—but mention it by virtue of saying they won’t! In Ben Jonson’s Catiline, for example, one character says to another, “Thy incest with thy sister, I not name.” Or Socrates, on trial for his life, says that he will not mention his grieving widow and children, thus invoking them. Donald Trump has taken this rhetorical strategy to new heights, using it constantly throughout the campaign and into his presidency. About Marco Rubio, Trump said “I will not call him a lightweight, because I think that’s a derogatory term. So I will not call him a lightweight, OK?” He used the pattern repeatedly in attacking Hillary Clinton, saying in one of the debates that he had planned to mount a really “rough” set of charges against Clinton and her family but that “I just can’t do it. It’s inappropriate.” And when criticized by Megyn Kelly, he said, “I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo,” though he had just done so. In short, this strategy can be reduced to “I won’t say it. There, I just said it.”


Once pointed out to them, students will begin to see this strategy – and be able to name it and, perhaps, resist it. But, as Trump well knows, it’s a very powerful tool, one Trump uses over and over to discredit, criticize, and diminish those with whom he disagrees. For this reason, it seemed like the right time to include paralipsis in Everything’s an Argument and to bring students into the conversation about its use, and abuse.

Credit: Pixaby Image 2792230 by signuversum, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.