Why presidential language matters

Presidents don’t normally talk like this.

“This,” of course, refers to President Trump’s words on Thursday during a discussion with lawmakers about a possible bipartisan immigration deal, during which he made incendiary and vulgar remarks about people from developing countries.

Chief executives do swear. They have yelled. Oval Office walls have heard rough and intemperate language.

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That’s not the point, say historians. The worst aspect of Mr. Trump’s outburst, they say, may have been its divisiveness. When presidents sort groups of voters, and groups of nations, into categories they like and dislike, the results aren’t always pretty. It’s a tactic that can be wrong, and ineffective. On both domestic and foreign issues US chief executives often need all the allies they can get.

Most presidents feel a responsibility to reach out beyond their core constituencies, says Brian Balogh, a professor of history at the University of Virginia and co-host of the podcast, “BackStory.

“One of the most powerful weapons in achieving this end is language,” Dr. Balogh writes in response to a reporter’s email. “Using language that appeals broadly, and avoiding language that infuriates, demeans, incites, is crucial to achieving this end.”

Trump has operated differently from Day 1 of his presidency. He appears to believe (and his supporters say) that speaking his mind got him elected, so he’ll continue to do that, whatever the media say or his staff tells him.


The flip side of this may be that his fiercest critics get as upset – or more so – about what he says as about what he does. An example of this in the 2016 campaign may have been the “Access Hollywood” tape, says David O’Connell, a professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

The vulgar language and attitudes displayed on the tape angered many people more than the specific stories of women who then…

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