Do the president’s words matter?
In Donald Trump’s first year in office, there has been a surprisingly widespread effort to argue that they do not. Liberals and moderates occasionally insist that the media and the public should shift their attention from the president’s vulgar statements to the real policy work happening at federal agencies. Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have repeatedly ignored and dismissed Trump’s most shocking comments; criticized the media for paying attention to his tweets; feigned forgetfulness of his vulgarities; and even made jokes about all that ignoring, dismissing, and forgetting.
The upshot seems to be: Ignore the words, heed the substance.
But Trump’s words are his substance. “Politics is persuasion as well as coercion,” the political scientist Jacob Levy wrote last week, rightly arguing that Trump has “changed what being a Republican means.” He has done so not through legislative coercion—indeed, he barely seems to understand the basics of American government—but through persuasive insistence. On issues as diverse as the alleged dangers of immigration and the nature of truth, Trump’s words have the power to cleave public opinion, turning nonpolitical issues into partisan maelstroms and turning partisan attitudes on their head. Trump’s rhetoric doesn’t produce the legislative artifacts that journalists typically use to analyze presidential power—it hasn’t translated to many actual laws passed. But the country is only just beginning to understand the scope of Trump’s lexical influence.
Let’s start with the obvious examples. Years ago (even months ago) it would have been absurd to imagine “law and order” Republicans souring on the FBI; or that the party of Reagan and Bush would turn on the NFL, America’s most orgiastically patriotic sport.
But that’s precisely what’s happened. In 2014, about 60 percent of both Republicans and Democrats said the FBI was doing an "excellent" or "good" job. Last year, their views forked: Republican approval of the agency fell by about 10 points, while Democratic opinion improved by a similar margin. The same thing happened with football: Less than 20 percent of Republicans said they had unfavorable views of the NFL in the summer of 2017. But their disapproval had more than tripled by October, after Trump blasted players for kneeling to protest police violence during the national anthem. One analysis determined that, following the anthem protests, the NFL—a $13 billion industry that is the linchpin of the massive pay-TV ecosystem—became one of the most polarizing brands in the country.
Trump’s words don’t just reshape Republican attitudes. Just as often they empower and radicalize his critics. One could say that, despite his fondness for gilded touches, Trump evinces not a Midas touch, but a Moses touch—an extraordinary talent for planting a stake in the ground and dividing the landscape before him.
This Moses effect is most evident when it comes to Russia and immigration. In mid-2016, 20 percent of both Republicans and Democrats considered Russia an “ally” or “friendly.” One year later, Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats to say the same. Immigration had for years been a marginal political topic, especially when compared with issues like jobs and terrorism. But Trump effectively recast immigration as a question of American identity and national security. The construction of a wall along the Mexican border, once a fringey scheme, became the centerpiece of the GOP presidential candidate’s agenda. Today, three-quarters of Trump supporters say that “building the wall” should be the highest priority of his presidency. And yet, because Democrats have become more pro-immigrant under Trump, a record-high share of Americans now say "immigrants strengthen the country.” Essentially, Trump has popularized the liberal position on immigration while radicalizing the right’s.
It's tempting to downplay the power of Trump's words by saying their influence is “merely” shifting public opinion. But that's not quite right. First, there’s nothing subtle about Republican voters clutching nativism, the far-right right clutching Nazism, or Democratic voters radicalizing in defiance of the president. The devoted rank-and-file play an outsized role in state primaries. Trump’s “mere” words could starve his party of moderate legislators, while encouraging Democratic candidates to embrace more liberal positions to distinguish themselves as distinctly anti-Trump. Second, Trump’s rhetorical posture has some real policy implications. Though he hasn’t yet signed any major legislation on immigration, his harsh stance on undocumented workers empowered the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to increase arrests by 40 percent in his first year, often to shocking effect. And his constant disparagement of experts who refuse to parrot his policies has sucked the talent out of several government agencies, notably the State Department.
Finally, Trump’s refusal to accept critical information as true—from his denial of Russian interference in the 2016 election to the “alternative facts” about his inauguration size—has demolished the right’s faith and trust in a free press. Three-quarters of the GOP now say that news organizations make up anti-Trump stories. Even worse, a January study found that nearly half of Republicans believe that accurate stories that “cast a politician or political group in a negative light” are “always” fake news. Trump, along with Fox News, has given his supporters the license to self-deport from reality.
Trump’s obsession with building and broadcasting an alternative ledger of facts has made epistemology the fundamental crisis of his term. In its first month, the administration invented or mainstreamed a new vocabulary of mendacity—e.g., fake news, alternative facts—and within 10 months, Trump made more than 1,500 false or misleading claims, according to The Washington Post. That’s roughly six lies, exaggerations, or omissions per day. Trump and Fox News have together formed an axis of epistemic insanity, encouraging base voters who crave conspiracy theories and dismiss all negative news stories. No legislation, no executive order, and no official speech has caused this shift. It is the president’s words, delivered often via Twitter and amplified on Fox News, that have exploded the very notion of a shared political truth.
Republican legislators will continue to insist that the president’s indecorous words don’t matter. This is a convenient argument. Trump has outsourced the work of his presidency to other Republicans, who are happy to accept the responsibility of running the country: Budget and economic policy has gone to Mick Mulvaney and Paul Ryan; immigration and criminal-justice policy to John Kelly, Jeff Sessions, and Stephen Miller. The insistence that Trump’s words don’t matter isn’t incidental to the GOP’s broader strategy. It is the strategy—to quarantine Trump’s most noxious rhetoric and proceed apace with traditional Republican governance.
It’s rich for Republicans to all of a sudden feign such ambivalence about the power of words. As Jacob Levy notes in his essay, Fox News devotes about approximately one-sixth of the year to demonizing a harmless phrase, “happy holidays,” and Republicans have long attached talismanic power to the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” The idea that a president’s words don’t matter is a deeply ahistorical position. And that’s particularly true for the GOP, whose three previous presidents distinguished themselves through phraseology: “morning in America,” “city on a hill,” “tear down this wall,” “new world order,” “thousand points of light,” “axis of evil,” “bigotry of low expectations.”
Perhaps Republicans don’t treat Trump as a typical Republican president because, in a very real sense, Trump is not really the president. Instead, he has become a kind of nationalist identity guru for the new American right. On Monday, an anonymous White House source all but acknowledged this strategy, telling Axios that the president would spend 2018 seeking “unexpected cultural flashpoints,” like the NFL’s kneeling controversy. The White House sees Trump’s principle talent as the ability to activate cultural resentment among his supporters, encouraging them to redefine their identity and values around a nativist anger. And Republicans benefit doubly: The president plays the part he knows best—hype man for the nativist base—and voters come away energized.
Politics is downstream from persuasion, and law is downstream from language. Trump has failed to perform the role of a diligent executive, reserving much of his day for television, personal calls, and cultural encyclicals on Twitter. But it would be a mistake to conflate Trump’s indolence for ineffectiveness. No matter how often journalists and politicians dismiss Trump’s words, the words matter.