Why Words Matter
Editor’s note: In light of President’s Trump’s comments about “tough guys” on the right, we thought it was a good idea to reprint this piece by Jacob T. Levy, originally published by the Niskanen Center in February 2018.
Just about a year into the Trump presidency, at a meeting with members of Congress to try to negotiate legislation on immigration, the president demanded to know “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” specifically African countries, rather than more immigrants from places like Norway. (He may have said “shithouse,” and may have included Haiti in the category; reports vary.) In the days of public bickering that followed, Trumpists accused the president’s critics of a “pearl-clutching” concern with bad language. Some liberals and progressives replied that the word was irrelevant; all that matters is the reprehensible substantive policy positions (ending family unification migration, slashing refugee admissions, and so on) and the racism of a blanket preference for Scandinavian over African immigrants.
This didn’t make any sense on its own. The scatological vulgarity of this comment from a famous germaphobe was part of its racism. He finds African countries disgusting, and finds people who come from them disgusting, and said so in a way that “poor and unhealthy countries” wouldn’t have captured. Swear words are swear words for a reason, and the urge to show that one is sophisticated and anti-puritanical sometimes leads to the false conclusion that they’re just words like any other, and don’t communicate anything special. They do, and it did.
This seems to be part of a broader developing idea: ignore the tweets. Ignore Trump’s inflammatory language. Ignore the words. What counts is the policy outcomes. People took Trump’s “American carnage” inaugural address seriously, but after an exhausting year, it’s tempting to find an excuse to stop listening.
Among too many conservatives and libertarians of the “But Gorsuch and tax cuts” variety, this is a way of saying “everything’s fine.” Among some on the left, such as Corey Robin, it’s a way of saying that Trump is a normal conservative, with all that entails for the moral status of other conservatives. Indeed, Robin sometimes draws comparisons to the policy disasters of the whole George W. Bush presidency (the Iraq War in particular) to suggest that Trump’s first year isn’t even particularly bad as far as Republican administrations go. And one-year-in retrospectives have often adopted the world-weary stance: Trump might talk like an authoritarian, but it doesn’t really matter because he hasn’t gotten his way. What he wants might be disastrous, but a year later we’re still in NAFTA and NATO, there haven’t been mass deportations, Hillary Clinton hasn’t been thrown in jail, the separation of powers is intact, and so on. Just ignore his words.
Political speech as political action
I have a hard time believing that anyone really thinks like this as a general proposition. Certainly conservatives who spent the postwar era reciting the mantra “ideas have consequences” didn’t think the words that carried political ideas were impotent. The longstanding view among conservatives was that Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech and Reagan’s call to “tear down this wall” were important events, words that helped to mobilize Western resistance to Communism and to provide moral clarity about the stakes of that resistance. More recently, conservatives over the last ten years seemed to attribute totemic powers to words like “radical Islamic terrorism”—or, for that matter, “Merry Christmas.”
Politics is persuasion as well as coercion. Immediate policy outcomes mainly have to do with coercion: who is taxed, regulated, expropriated, imprisoned, deported, conscripted, what wars are fought, who is kept out of the country by force of arms. This can’t be neglected, of course. The early theorists of “deliberative democracy” in the 1990s seemed to overestimate the importance of speech in politics, imagining a world in which high-minded parliamentary debate on the floor of the legislature regularly changes lawmakers’ minds and supersedes partisan positions, or in which voters engage in jury-like deliberations forever, never reaching a vote or the coercion that follows. But many others underestimate the importance and power of political speech, often under cover of seeming hard-headed and practical.
Indeed coercion and persuasion, power and speech, are always difficult to disentangle in politics. A political system depends in part on the voluntary cooperation of those subject to coercion, since violently physically controlling everyone all the time is infeasibly costly; and in part on the voluntary cooperation of those who carry out coercion, the armed agents of the state, including ordinary soldiers and police officers as well as those who organize and command them. People put up with being ruled, and those who carry out the ruling on others’ behalf put up with taking orders in light of their beliefs about legitimacy and political reasonableness, beliefs that depend on prior speech and persuasion. Norms rest on beliefs which rest on persuasion, and institutions rest on norms. The political theorist Hannah Arendt treated political speech as the core of her special sense of “action,” the chief way in which we shape and constitute our life together. There’s much I disagree with in her thought, but I find the surprise of identifying speech as “action” to be productive; it helps us see something important and true about political life.
Greg Sargent and I have both argued that one particular kind of Trump’s speech, his especially outrageous and transparent lies, are words that have shaped the world: demonstrations of power, attempts to undermine the existence of shared belief in truth and facts. In the rest of this essay I will look at some other ways in which Trump’s speech becomes part of political reality, as he and the media outlets that serve as his megaphone address the world, the US government, and the people.
Speaking to the world
Words are so central to international affairs that they get their own special professional and legal category: diplomacy. We hope that speech, if it does not draw countries closer together, will at least allow clear communication about interests, demands, and the possibility of war. With his words threatening to subordinate the collective self-defense commitment of NATO to his desire to get a better deal on shared defense spending, Trump undermined the most longstanding pillar of American foreign policy. His eventual grudging affirmation of Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty didn’t unring the bell. America’s closest allies now have to believe that its treaty commitments are up for grabs in each election, and have to plan accordingly.
Trump and his fellow “America First” nationalists genuinely don’t understand how much the United States benefits from the liberal international order, and misunderstand the cost and benefits of tough-guy unilateralism. Coercion is expensive, and the in the postwar West the US has often been able to get its way without violence, as the widely-trusted anchor state in an order with a lot of perceived legitimacy. This is true in security, where the US is able to shape the world order to an outsized degree, cheaply, because of its network of alliances. And it’s true in economics; the US benefits from the use of the dollar as a reserve currency, the international willingness to hold US debt, and the global system of trade that it created.
The generations of work that created the liberal international order can’t be undone in a year, but Trump has made an impressive start, antagonizing democratic allies (other than Israel), praising autocratic rivals (Russia) and the turn to autocracy in unstable allies (the Philippines), and conveying unmistakable contempt to countries in Latin America and Africa. For the last twenty years, China in particular has spent heavily to catch up to American influence in those regions; lacking the soft power of perceived legitimacy, it had to spend hard cash. That American advantage is rapidly getting flushed down the… well, you get it.
And Trump’s childish personalization of the continuing North Korea crisis remains a crucial case of speech that we had better not ignore, because we know the target audience is listening. Trump’s theory of North Korea is, roughly, “an angry crazy man has nuclear weapons, so let’s go out of our way to make him angrier and crazier,” and it remains a live possibility that this will get us to the obvious, awful conclusion. He undermines his own Secretary of State’s attempts at diplomacy; he conducts foreign policy by name-calling and tweeting. The withdrawal of Victor Cha’s nomination as Ambassador to South Korea on the grounds that he privately opposed a military strike on the North is evidence, for those who need it, that Trump’s words aren’t just bluster. Trump’s tweet that his “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” [sic, sic, sic] isn’t a set of mere words to ignore; they’re words that affect the world, and to all evidence convey a sincere willingness to start a disastrous war to prove his own manhood.
Speaking to the state
It has been widely reported that agencies from the State Department to the FBI have seen an exodus of longtime employees. The most experienced professional civil servants who make the bureaucratic state function haven’t been purged (as they have been under populist authoritarianism in less-institutionally-robust states like Turkey). But the constant contempt Trump and his circle have expressed for them—the drumbeat of “deep state” talk, the descriptions of careerists as “Obama holdovers” or “Obama appointees”, the repeated view that it’s fine for jobs to sit empty because l’état c’est Trump—takes its toll. I don’t just mean that career civil servants leave because they disagree with the stated policy preferences of the administration, though in some agencies (the EPA, the civil rights division of the Department of Justice) that might be the more important effect. They leave because they hear and understand that they’re not wanted. And of course, those most able to leave are those who are either most experienced (and able to retire) or most skilled (and able to move into the private sector).
The high-profile case of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe stands out here. He was singled out for Trump’s abuse on Twitter for months. He was pressed into a slightly early leave (or the FBI was pressed into putting him on leave) pending his planned retirement, not a disastrous outcome for him personally. But the signal that’s sent to the rest of the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the rest of the civil service is that the administration can, and will, bring them to heel. People who are spoken to that way hear the message. At the margin, many who can leave, will, if their commitment to impartial professional public service was one of their motivations for staying. And at the margin, new people like that won’t join.
During the State of the Union address Trump called on Congress to allow Cabinet officials to “remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people,” i.e., to fire civil servants on grounds of political disagreement, ending the century-old rule of a professional and apolitical civil service that stays on as political appointees come and go. This is of a piece with the months-long rhetorical assault on the so-called “deep state” by Trump and the Trumpist media. Maybe there will be no such legislation. But Trump saying it matters. House Speaker Paul Ryan echoing the call for a “purge” at the FBI matters. Fox News’ constant public delegitimation of the civil service matters. It matters in particular for the Russia investigation, of course. Trump means to push out anyone who isn’t on “his team,” in a way that the FBI and the Department of Justice are really not supposed to be, and that process is underway in front of our eyes. But it also matters more broadly for the character of the American state and bureaucracy. By discouraging professionals and encouraging politicization, Trump is already changing the civil service by his speech.
The great exception, the federal employees who hear the message that they are very highly valued, are immigration and border enforcers. (State and local police get the same kind of treatment, unlike the FBI.) In Trump’s first year, formal immigration policy changed much less than public rhetoric did, partly because a great deal of the policy is statutory, partly because Trump’s executive orders spent most of the year unenforced thanks to the courts. But immigration enforcement is a domain in which there’s a lot of discretion on the ground: who is kept out, who has to disclose how much information in order to get in (e.g. cell phone PINs, social media passwords), and, especially, what employers and neighborhoods are raided, who is rounded up, who is deported. Trump’s demonization of immigrants and celebration of ICE change policy de facto. Trump’s words have sent the message of “anything goes” to ICE and “you should be scared” to those who might be vulnerable to ICE. Both messages have been heard. ICE has become so aggressive in its tactics that a federal judge described it as “treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust, regimes where those who have long lived in a country may be taken without notice from streets, home, and work. And sent away.”
Speaking to the citizenry
Within the electorate, the speech of elites matters in a couple of different ways. A large part of the population begins with a tribal sense of what team they’re on, which side they support, but relatively little information about the substantive policy views associated with that. Thanks to Trump’s Twitter feed and Fox News (and the strange reciprocal relationship between them) the Republican and conservative rank and file now have an unusually direct, unusually constant source of information about the things that people like us are supposed to believe and support. I think that we can see the effect of this in the rapid and dramatic swings in reported Republican opinion on questions from free trade to Russia policy. Trump’s stump speeches and unhinged tweets, and Fox News’ amplification of them, are changing what Republican voters think it means to be a Republican. He doesn’t speak for them; how many of them had a view about “the deep state” two years ago? He speaks to them, and it matters.
One example is the attack on the mainstream news media–“fake news,” by which Trump means nothing more and nothing less than “news outlets that aren’t subservient to me.” There have always been media outlets of different political colorations, and there have always been elected officials who disliked and feared media outlets critical of them. The delegitimation of the basic enterprise of independent journalism is something else, and something new to the US. In their important new book How Democracies Die, the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point to the delegitimation of the independent press as one of the key warning signs of a genuine would-be autocrat. They note the parallel between Trump characterizing the media as the “enemy of the American people,” his expressed desire to “open up” libel laws, and his “fake news” campaign and the words that preceded action in democratic breakdowns elsewhere. We don’t know how far Trump will be able to go in his attempts to suppress the media, but we know that he’s persuaded millions of Republicans to let him try.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about why Republican elites who presumably know better (like Paul Ryan) seem to have become fully complicit in the administration’s attack on the Russia investigation, fully willing to help conceal, impede, and obstruct when they don’t themselves know what the investigation will find. (If you’re the target of an investigation, you roughly know what you’re guilty of and what you’re not. Paul Ryan has no earthly idea what Trump or his circle have done; why risk having someone else’s unknown crimes hung around your own neck?) The popular theory is that they got their tax cut, and they’re willing to pay any price for that. I think that’s wrong, and underestimates Congressional self-interest. I think the answer is, at least in part: over the last year Trump has successfully radicalized the Republican electorate, with his words, in their support of him personally. Congressional Republicans who, a year ago, were still at least trying to keep Trump at arm’s length don’t dare to anymore. Trump has successfully belittled, marginalized, and demonized his occasional critics among Senate Republicans, with his direct line to the Republican electorate (and, again, as always, its amplification in the Trumpist media). The absurd drumbeat to “release the [Nunes] memo,” by its very absurdity, reveals Trump’s current power over Congressional Republicans. A year ago, more of them would have objected to delegitimizing the FBI. But Trump has successfully communicated to his voters that being on their team means not being on the FBI’s team. He’s changed what being a Republican means.
And he’s trying to change what being an American means. The power of elite speech in a democracy is only partly that of giving partisan cues to one’s supporters. It’s also the power to channel and direct the dangerous but real desire for collective national direction and aspiration. Humans are tribal animals, and our tribal psychology is a political resource that can be directed to a lot of different ends. The alleged realism of those who want to ignore words will often point to some past president whose lofty rhetoric obscured ugly policies. Whether those presidents are named “Reagan and George W. Bush” or “JFK and Barack Obama” varies in the obvious way, but the deflationary accounts are similar; there are blunders, crimes, abuses, and atrocities enough to find in the record of every American president. But all those presidents put forward a public rhetorical face that was better than their worst acts. This inevitably drives political opponents crazy: they despise the hypocrisy and the halo that good speeches put on undeserving heads. I’ve had that reaction to, well, every previous president in my living memory, at one time or another. But there’s something important and valuable in the fact that they felt the need to talk about loftier ideal than they actually governed by. They kept the public aspirations of American political culture pointed toward Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.” In words, even if not in deeds, they championed a free and fair liberal democratic order, the protection of civil liberties, openness toward the world, rejection of racism at home, and defiance against tyranny abroad. And their words were part of the process of persuading each generation of Americans that those were constitutively American ideals.
Trump’s apologists are now reduced to saying that his speech has been worse than his actions so far, the reverse of this usual pattern. The effect is the reverse, too. When he tells us that there are “very fine people on both sides” as between the Klan and their critics, he turns the moral compass of American public discourse upside-down. He channels the desire for collective aspiration into an attempt to make us worse than we are. The norm against publicly legitimizing Klan-type explicit racism was built up over a long time, calling on white Americans to be better than they were, partly by convincing them that they were better. The norm is still strong enough that Trump grudgingly kind of walked back his comments after the Charlottesville protests last year. But a norm that was built up through speech, persuasion, and belief can be undermined the same way. Trump’s own racism, his embrace of white nationalist discourse, and his encouragement of the alt-right over the past two years have, through words, made a start on that transformation.
From “you’d be in jail” to “treasonous”
Much the same is true of his demonization of political opponents, from “lock her up!” chants on the campaign trail and telling Hillary Clinton that “you’d be in jail” if he were president to this week’s description of Democrats who didn’t applaud at his State of the Union address as “treasonous.” (Yes, he was smirking. No, that doesn’t make “treasonous” just a joke.) Clinton isn’t in jail, and Trump isn’t going to try to bring Nancy Pelosi up on charges. But all of this does long-term as well as short-term damage. In the short term, it lays the groundwork for interference with the Russia investigation, as Trump and the Trumpist media lead the Republican base to think “people like us think that Uranium One and Clinton’s emails are the real scandal,” pressuring Republicans in Congress to pretend to believe that too. In the long term, it tells a large portion of the country that it is patriotic and virtuous to reject political disagreement, to reject the basic legitimacy of the views of the majority of the electorate.
The business of prioritizing procedural norms, the rule of law, alternation in power, and electoral fairness is psychologically difficult. It’s counterintuitive to believe your cause is right and also to believe that it’s right for your side to lose roughly half the time. Being a good sport isn’t easy even in sports, and the stakes are much higher in politics. A lot of people, including a lot of elected officials, never really manage it. But stating the norms out loud—in the U.S., affirming that they are central to the American system—helps to balance out the authoritarian and populist temptation. Failing that, keeping one’s mouth shut (the way Mitch McConnell just smirks and shrugs when he changes Senate rules in order to make sure his side wins) has something to be said for it. But what populists and authoritarians do is to make a virtue out of the inclination to love our in-group and hate the out-group. As with his embrace of white nationalism, Trump’s equation of opposition with crime and treason isn’t just “norm erosion,” a phrase we have seen a lot of in the last year. It’s norm inversion, aligning the aspiration to do right with substantive political wrong.
“Ignore the tweets, ignore the language, ignore the words” is advice that affects a kind of sophistication: don’t get distracted by the circus, keep your eye on what’s going on behind the curtain. This is faux pragmatism, ignoring what is being communicated to other countries, to actors within the state, and to tens of millions of fellow citizens. It ignores how all those actors will respond to the speech, and how norms, institutions, and the environment for policy and coercion will be changed by those responses. Policy is a lagging indicator; ideas and the speech that expresses them pave the way. Trump has spent a year on the campaign trail and a year in office telling us where he intends to take us. Some people want to follow; some think the destination is, well, a pretty disgusting hole. But if you don’t want to follow, stopping up your ears with a hearty “la la la I can’t hear you I got a tax cut” is profoundly unrealistic.