LINGUIST List 32.2415

Sat Jul 17 2021

Review: Sociolinguistics: McIntosh, Mendoza-Denton (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 12-Feb-2021
From: Elizabeth Craig <>
Subject: Language in the Trump Era
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Janet McIntosh
EDITOR: Norma Mendoza-Denton
TITLE: Language in the Trump Era
SUBTITLE: Scandals and Emergencies
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Elizabeth (Betsy) Craig, University of Georgia


This volume constitutes a timely analysis of how Donald Trump’s distinctive political discourse has brought about a flood of emotionally charged and polarizing issues in the political landscape over the past five years in America. No doubt his singular idiolect helped bring him to power and has permeated American culture with a proliferation of catchy phrases, such as “fake news” (a phrase actually originating with Hillary Clinton) and “believe me.” In her detailed introduction to the entire text, Janet McIntosh references Trump’s discourse style, which she calls “blustering” and deems a “linguistic emergency” because, in her view, his proclamations have been so full of declaratives simply contradictory to reality. She believes that in the political arena we can no longer “expect words to pin down meaning,” but rather to stir emotion: the Trumpian monologue values language most for its “reality-generating properties,” and repetition is key. She submits Twitter as the perfect platform for Trump because of its text limit in combination with his lack of ability to substantiate or elaborate on any of his claims. He ultimately “conveys attitude more than content.”

This text serves as a collection of what a group of (for the most part) sociocultural anthropologists (and the students of one) have to say about the peculiarity of Trump’s linguistic tokens, which have led to a series of events of catastrophic consequence, indeed as a credible threat to democracy itself, hence, the subtitle of this volume. McIntosh begins by explaining that the social phenomenon of Trumpism was somewhat inevitable given 1) the reaction from the right against the growing PC culture of the left, 2) the lingering anger inspired by having elected our first African-American President, and 3) the exponential growth in access to digital technology, especially in the arena of popular media, to aid in the dispersal of an imagined reality. She sets the historical stage for how Trump was not only possible, but probable, to emerge from the modern-day perceived minority status of white, male Americans, having felt increasingly victimized by women, feminists, people of color, and, in particular, by Muslim and Latin American citizens and immigrants.

The text is divided into four thematic units on divisiveness, performance/lying, interaction, and patriotism, respectively, with a brief introduction to each provided by one of the two editors. Transcriptions appear in some chapters, where the dialogue is particularly enlightening of a particular speech event. Some graphs, pictures, and charts are interspersed, for example, to illustrate the frequency of a particular phrase over time in Google searches, to visually depict some of Trump’s communicative gestures, and to clarify the alignment of his discursive strategies with other (Latin American) political figures. An index of key terms, events, and persons mentioned in the text is appended for those interested in finding discussions of specific topics such as “collusion” or “Nazi Germany.” References and copious notes appear at the end of each chapter.

Part I. Dividing the American Public

Norma Mendoza-Denton (University of California, Los Angeles) provides an introduction to this section focused on how Trump’s speech exposes him as possibly the most divisive U.S. President in history. She observes that Trump’s habitual use of the definite article in designating groups of people (“the gays,” “the blacks,” etc.) serves to alienate the members of those groups and to place himself distinctly outside of them as a white, heterosexual male; this process is labeled “othering.”

James Slotta (University of Texas, Austin) discusses the significance of Trump’s apparent incoherence to the fragmentation of U.S. culture. While Trump’s speech may seem at times inscrutable to his deterrents, Slotta maintains that his random strings of noun phrases and lack of complex syntax serve as code to his fans, who feel he speaks directly to them with his more implied, underlying intentions (a prosodic wink, if you will). Slotta believes that his rather informal speaking style lends credence to his persona as “authentic, relatable, and trustworthy” for his fans.

Jack Sidnell (University of Toronto), an authority on conversation analysis, delves into Trump’s propensity for three-word catchphrases as highlighted here with “Get ‘em out!” when referring to his detractors and protestors at various speeches. Sidnell links Trump’s apparent sea change in attitude (from initially tolerating his hecklers in the interest of free speech to calling for their immediate removal from rally audiences) to the Black Lives Matter incident in Seattle of August, 2015, where Bernie Sanders allowed fellow demonstrators to commandeer his microphone. This particular refrain started early in the presidential campaign when Trump sensed that Sanders was his strongest rival and wanted to make sure that he was viewed, in contrast to Sanders, as a pillar of masculinity. This common “battle cry” was eventually expanded to refer to Trump’s stance on all immigrants, whether legal or not, and his intentions to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Sidnell also notes his excessive use of first-person, plural pronouns (‘we, us, our, ours’) as he rallied his minions.

Janet McIntosh (Brandeis University) compares Trump fans to drill sergeants, who belittle their cadets with shouting and name-calling, when he uses labels like ‘crybabies’ and ‘snowflakes’ as insults toward the empathic left. She sees such behavior as a reaction against the growth of PC culture on the left and portrays such language use as “social action” that serves to establish a powerful stance, not allowing for response, and to ridicule the target (the radical left) as overly sensitive and unworthy of engagement.

Part II. Performance and Falsehood

Mendoza-Denton introduces this section on Trump’s characteristic exaggeration and showmanship; he views his every speech/tweet as a display meant to evoke emotion with little regard for its veracity. His “ever-increasing tenuous relationship to truth” yields a parlance full of superlatives and exaggeration as Trump uses hyperbole extensively to entertain through a combination of nicknaming and mimicking; she demonstrates how Trump understands and exploits the American obsession with performance.

Donna Goldstein, Kira Hall (both from University of Colorado, Boulder), and Matthew Ingram (Dakota State University) focus on Trump’s “mocking gestural imitations of vulnerable groups,” such as the disabled. These authors claim that Trump’s entertaining body language is a facet of his personality that makes him appealing to everyone: his gestures equal comedy, their vulgarity contributing to the shock value. He is not viewed as a politician essentially, but as a more real, more honest, more “one-of-us” kind of guy. They conclude that his comedic reenactments bring not only his proponents back for more.

Marco Jacquemet (University of San Francisco) contends that Trump has little interest in conveying factual information; according to Jacquemet, he is much more interested in simply garnering attention and boosting his image. Dubbed the ultimate “bullshit artist,” Trump, in his propensity for making false claims, is singularly focused on managing his image rather than on disseminating information. Jacquemet invokes Grice’s four maxims of the Cooperative Principle of discourse (to be informative, truthful, relevant, and clear) through which to analyze Trump’s flouting of these conversational expectations. By focusing on his style rather than on any regard for facts, Jacquemet claims, Trump draws in his audience, who perceive him to be authentic and without fault, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Adam Hodges (University of Colorado, Boulder) examines three instances of Trump’s exploitation of “plausible deniability,” a common practice among politicians, but one which this President uses to the extreme: asking/implying that former FBI Director James Comey “go easy” on Michael Flynn, commenting favorably on the participants (“both sides”) in the supremacist riots in Charlottesville, and denying Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. According to Hodge, he disavows his own past statements with decontextualized interpretations to focus on the literal, innocent meaning, while denying their obvious underlying implications. Hodges characterizes Trump’s rhetoric as a propensity for gaslighting, because he insists that what he meant to convey by past falsehoods was innocuous.

Part III. The Interactive Making of the Trumpian World

Janet McIntosh asserts that going along with the President, whether through silence or lack of criticism, constitutes collusion. She submits that “reality,” be it true or false, is a co-constructed concept; the making of meaning is a joint process among interlocutors. The chapters in this section elaborate on that cooperative creation of facts.

Deborah Cameron (University of Oxford) explores the sociolinguistic concept of “banter,” which is how Trump dismissed his subjugation of women in his “Grab ‘em by the pussy” comment to Billy Bush in 2005 as recorded on the Access Hollywood tape. She demonstrates how merely laughing at another’s joke is collusion and recognizes it as a pervasive form of male boasting about female conquest, which, as such, does not even have to be true. On the tape, Trump conveys his strong sense of gender hierarchy through both male bonding and intra-male dominance. Cameron views such talk as interactive performance, just like a big-fish story, exemplifying male relationships. She contends that the revelation of this vulgar recording turned into a positive rather than a negative for Trump because more people then came to view him as genuine; she posits authenticity as a large component of the Trump brand and a key reason why he was able to defeat Hillary Clinton, who represented the status quo of conventional, highly experienced, yet untrustworthy politicians.

Bruce Mannheim (University of Michigan) agrees that the exposure of the Access Hollywood tape actually served to advance Trump’s appeal as it exemplifies a very common social routine: the signaling of acquiescence through laughing at an off-color joke told by an alpha-male. He demonstrates how Trump’s vulgar reference to violence toward an intimate female body part both served the pack mentality and situated Trump firmly at the top of it.

Carol Cohn (University of Massachusetts, Boston) likens Trump’s description of his “nuclear button” as bigger and better than Kim Jung-un’s to penis-measuring; he obviously “views the prospect of nuclear war as a kind of phallic competition.” She focuses her discussion on the prevalent use of sexual metaphor in descriptions of military weaponry through phrases such as “cocked and loaded.” Such linguistic framing in the abstract serves to construct mental representations of particular phenomena. She shows how national security invokes gendered discourse and thereby primes our thoughts into categories of masculine (good)/feminine (bad) with regard to the consequences of nuclear holocaust.

Brion van Over (Manchester Community College) refers to Trump as the “Evaluator in Chief” as he describes a typical conference-table routine that occurred in February of 2017 with a group of his African-American supporters. After each participant introduces themselves, Trump renders an appraisal of their performance based solely on how each has benefitted and shown loyalty to him in the past. As his evaluations after each self-introduction are delivered, van Over contends that the participants are being informed as to what they should include in their own introductions: exactly how and for how long they have served Trump. In his own way, Trump makes each of their introductions more about himself, whereas such meetings are traditionally intended for supporters to describe their needs to the President.

Sylvia Sierra (Syracuse University) and Natasha Shrikant (University of Colorado, Boulder) again address this strategic gathering of Trump’s African-American supporters to deflect the notion that he is an anti-minority racist. According to Sierra and Shrikant, the entire scene smacks of an insincere presentation of alignment with African Americans in order to better his own image. The authors contend that this meeting was called for damage control, solely to make Trump appear that he had significant support from the Black community. He primarily used the opportunity to rail against “fake news” in an effort to induce feelings of comradery among the group. While such “listening sessions” with a President had previously been used to hear about the concerns of the participants and how the person in power proposed to help them, Trump, they claim, manages to make it all about himself and invites the attendees to commiserate about misrepresentations in the media, particularly on the part of CNN. The authors submit that Trump’s allusions to his victimization in the news are an effort to establish a perceived affinity with this gathering of a historically maligned minority. By “adopting the identity of political victim,” they claim, the most powerful white man in the world succeeds in ignoring racial inequality altogether and in garnering sympathy and support from this gathering of conservative, black “movers-and-shakers,” whose issues are completely sidestepped.

Part IV. Language, White Nationalism and International Responses to Trump

McIntosh introduces this final section as about the white, authoritarian racism and xenophobia implicit in Trumpspeak. Trump frequently uses Mock Spanish to assert his symbolic dominance over that group of speakers, the fastest growing demographic in the country. McIntosh offers these chapters to demonstrate how Trump’s use of language reveals his underlying beliefs that all Mexicans are criminals or rapists, all Muslims are terrorists, and all sub-Saharan Africans are from “shithole” countries.

H. Samy Alim (University of California, Los Angeles) and Geneva Smitherman (Michigan State University) focus on a key incident, in which Trump refers to a border guard having “perfect English,” as a prime example of “raciolinguistic exceptionalism.” Simply noting the absence of a stereotypical trait in a person of color, they observe, advances the notion of white supremacy, just like remarking on Barack Obama’s articulate speech, which is unexpected because of stereotypes about Black English, a rich and legitimate variety in its own right. Such linguistic ethnocentrism assumes that there is one (superior) standard variety of American English to which all should ascribe. Alim and Smitherman assert that by pointing out someone’s ethnicity in this way, the President revealed his covert racism, while ironically believing that he was demonstrating just the opposite.

Otto Santa Anna (University of California, Los Angeles) and a group of his students, Marco Juárez, Magaly Reséndez, John Hernández, Oscar Gáytan, Kimberly Cerón, Celeste Gómez, and Roberto Solíz, discuss how “the powerless'' are primed to fear immigrants through Trump’s frequent references to a perceived rampant “invasion” taking place at our southern border. They compare Trump’s anti-immigrant discourse to that of the Nazis in their campaign to rid Germany of all Jews. In turn, the authors explain how Trump uses metaphors to advance his cause: nation as border (wall), immigration as flood, Mexico as enemy, immigrant as criminal/animal, white America as victim, and himself as hero.

Norma Mendoza-Denton explores how Trump aligns himself with the ethnonationalism of Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil and ironically a member of a minority group that Trump persistently disparages: Latinx. Here, Trump is also compared to two other “populist messianic autocrats” of Latin America in his ultimate desire to be viewed as the epitome of masculine authority. He is shown not to hide his fondness for dictators: Putin, Erdogan, Kim, Bolsonaro, etc., as each of their political narratives embodies their shared worldview of authoritarianism.

Quentin Williams (University of the Western Cape) describes how Trump was outed for besmirching sub-Saharan Africa as consisting of nothing but “shithole” countries, thereby implying its people are little more than detritus. Williams provides examples of Trump’s color-blind racism through the linguistic vehicles of denial, equivocation, and racial projection.

Aomar Boum (University of California, Los Angeles) explains Trump’s dichotomy of Muslim enemies, on the one hand, and rich Arab friends, on the other. Trump bisects the Arab world into either wealthy friends or terrorists/refugees, displaying an ignorance of history. His interest in the Arab world is portrayed as purely from a business standpoint; Boum asserts that economic benefits and the competition for oil in the region are what Trump cares about. He provides a quantitative account of Trump’s mention of specific Arab countries in his tweets in order to break down the patterning of comments regarding particular Middle Eastern dignitaries and countries.


This text is written for anyone interested in socio-political discourse of the 21st century, but especially for the more general reader who may be confused about how Trump did it, how his linguistic quirks could have led him to become the most powerful man in the world despite all of the apparent incongruities. In an in-depth analysis from various perspectives, the authors pick apart exactly why Trump’s popularity is strongest among the demographic of uneducated, rural, white males, who, it is claimed, may feel threatened by the growth of any other segment of the population; his platform is portrayed as a somewhat inevitable backlash against educated, urban liberals. The authors zero in on how language can be used not only to convey information, but to “reshape social relations.” They describe in assorted ways how Trump was able to convince a substantial portion of the U.S. population to support him. His uniquely quotidian jargon (for a politician) attracts a certain demographic in large numbers. This work constitutes a meticulous analysis of the social milieu that preceded Trump and made him possible. As repeatedly emphasized, a good deal of his popularity is due to America’s addiction to celebrity, which he achieves through the use of populist language: he says what people want to hear with little regard for follow through. As some authors conclude, there is a great deal of fear and anger emanating from the shrinking dominance of white, male, (pseudo-)Christian rule in this country.

All of the chapters cohere well under each theme. However, in two instances we read about the same phenomenon twice, such as in the two discussions of the Access Hollywood tape and the two on the gathering of some of Trump’s African-American supporters. I regard this text as more a sociological commentary (about American society and Trump's effect on it) than linguistic analysis, especially the second half of the book on collusion and white nationalism. In fact, most of the 20 contributors are professors of anthropology; only 4 of those are actual linguists, and some dwell in the field of communications. I believe a more apt title would be “The Polarization of America in Trump’s Wake.” I appreciate that the authors are from a wide spectrum of universities both in the U.S. and abroad coming to the same conclusions about how Trump became so popular and why Trump had to occur now.

The book also serves as a meticulous examination of truth and this politician’s highly limited relationship to it as demonstrated in his speech acts. I believe there is some as yet unexploited opportunity here to both quantify and qualify the language of deceit, using Trump as the quintessential example of deception through manipulation, albeit subconscious. Because so much of Trump’s linguistic repertoire consists in the mere repetition of vacuous over-generalizations, the reader/linguist may be interested in a more quantitative analysis of his speech from the field of corpus linguistics, which can be found in another recent volume edited by Schneider and Matthias (2020) and referenced below. In a shorter work also listed below, Peter Oborne, an expert on political lying, with Tom Roberts demonstrates how Trump’s use of Twitter helped him win the Presidency and “how this fusion of entertainment and cunningly crafted propaganda…destabilized the world's most powerful democracy.”


Oborne, Peter & Tom Roberts. 2017. How Trump thinks: His tweets and the birth of a new political language. London: Head of Zeus.

Schneider, Ulrike & Matthias Eitelmann (eds.). 2020. Linguistic inquiries into Donald Trump’s language: From ‘fake news’ to ‘tremendous success.’ London: Bloomsbury Academic.


Elizabeth Craig is a freelance editor and linguist-at-large with extensive experience in teaching academic writing at institutions of higher education in the U.S. and abroad. She holds a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language from Georgia State University and a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Georgia. Dr. Craig is particularly interested in how corpus linguistics sheds light on word and part-of-speech frequencies to distinguish various registers and topical domains.

Page Updated: 17-Jul-2021