George Lakoff says this is how Trump uses words to con the public

reliable sources podcast george lakoff

President Donald Trump has "turned words into weapons" -- and journalists are providing additional ammunition.

That's according to Trump critic George Lakoff, a renowned linguist and professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. Lakoff wrote in a recent article for the Guardian that the president manipulates language to control the public narrative. The press, he said, functions as a sort of "marketing agency for [Trump's] ideas" by repeating his claims, even when trying to fact-check or debunk his statements.

"By faithfully transmitting Trump's words and ideas, the press helps him to attack, and thereby control, the press itself," he writes.

As the guest on this week's Reliable Sources podcast, Lakoff spoke to Brian Stelter about Trump's linguistic frames, what the press should do differently, and why journalists need to tackle Trump's words like a "truth sandwich."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Listen to the whole podcast here:

Trump's weaponization of words -- and being 'part of the problem'

STELTER: What does it mean that [Trump] weaponizes words?

LAKOFF: Remember, he's a salesman. He's been selling for 50 years. Right now what he's selling is himself, his worldview, and his policies. So how does he sell it? One technique is by creating compound words like "crooked Hillary" or "fake news." It says really that Hillary is inherently crooked, that the news is inherently fake. And that is something that serves his purposes. It allows him to essentially control the news.

STELTER: "Control the news." I want to get into that piece of it as well, because your column made me think about what I might be doing wrong, what others might be doing wrong, in terms of coverage of President Trump.

LAKOFF: He knows how to use language very effectively. And not only that, he has strategic tweets. His tweets fall into four categories. One, they can preemptively frame something, frame something before it's framed out there in the public. Secondly, it can divert attention away from something that's threatening to him. It can shift the blame, either to some other person or to the news media itself. And it can be a trial balloon, something really outrageous to see what the reaction is, and if there's no real reaction, he can do what he wants.

And he also knows how to use psychology. For example, there is a phenomenon in which some well-publicized event that is out there, like some particular terrorist attack or something like that, becomes a weaponized way of just categorizing all people. He knows how to do this. This is part of his sales technique.

And that allows him to control the media, provided that the media repeats what he says. One of the things that journalists are trained to do is to repeat and quote what public figures say. But when the public figures are distorting, lying, and trying to reframe things in an utterly false way, what the journalists are doing is helping them. They're helping to get 'em out there. And not only that -- if they deny it, if they go out and quote his words and then say, "This isn't true," what they've done is quoting his words. It's like when Nixon said, "I am not a crook," and everyone thought of him as a crook. The point is that denying a frame activates the frame.

STELTER: So when the president said on Wednesday that CNN and NBC, among other networks, are the greatest enemy, the "biggest enemy" of America, my denial on television, when I said, "This is disgusting," I was part of the problem?

LAKOFF: That's right. You're part of the problem. Right now, people in the media are doing great work, probably the best work I've ever seen in uncovering truths. But what's happened is they allow Trump to manipulate them. So... start with the truth that he's trying to hide. You make clear to that, and then you point out that the president is trying to hide this by lying. You might in... a few words or in a few seconds say a little bit about what the lie is. And go back to the truth.

STELTER: It's a truth sandwich.

LAKOFF: You've got it. A truth sandwich. Perfect way to image it.

STELTER: Do you see it getting any better? Do you see journalists learning from this?

LAKOFF: No, I don't. What I see is journalists doing what they were taught to do in journalism school. When I talk to beginning graduate students here [at Berkeley], I tell them about how every word is framed, that there are no neutral words, that you can't just say who, what, when, where. You have to look at how you're framing the entire event that you're talking about. And they say, "Wait a minute. That's the opposite of what we're told. We're told that language is neutral, it just fits the world, and so on." And I just say, "The cognitive science and neuroscience says it's not true."

The methods behind Trump's tweets

STELTER: There's a view of President Trump's tweets that he's just venting. He's just angry or he's moody or he's happy. Depending on his mood, he'll tweet out something and it's thoughtless, it's careless, it's just a tweet. You have a very different view. That this is thought out, that he's doing something very specifically to promote propaganda. Where does that come from? What's the evidence for that view?

LAKOFF: Look at the structure of it. Look at the structure of the content and you see it's just completely systematic.

STELTER: Meaning, he does this frequently. There's a pattern to either the diversionary tweets or the preemptive framing, et cetera.

LAKOFF: He has a worldview, what I've called a strict father moral worldview, of what's right and wrong and it has a moral hierarchy in terms of winning. And that says, go over history, look at who has won historically or who has lost historically, and the ones who won are morally better people. So what that says is the rich are better than the poor because they keep winning, that employers are better than employees, that the West is better than the non-Western world, America is better than other countries, men are better than women, whites better than nonwhites, straights better than gays, et cetera. I mean, it's a straight hierarchy right down from the top, from the idea that the ones who win deserve to win. This is a version of what happens in conservative ideas, where everything is a matter of individual responsibility, not social responsibility.

The L word

STELTER: You were making the point earlier that when we rush onto the air and report what the president just tweeted, even if we're trying to call it out or fact check it, we are repeating the claim, and in your view, doing damage. What about the use of the word "lie," when we say the president is "lying" or when journalists are reluctant to say it's a "lie." Where do you come down on that debate?

LAKOFF: I say use "lie" after you tell the truth. First tell the truth--

STELTER: But what about when we don't know whether he's lying or just misinformed, delusional or just having fun? There's a whole spectrum.

LAKOFF: Use "false statement."

Case study: North Korea

STELTER: [In the Guardian] you said, "This is a crisis. Certain rules don't apply in a crisis, especially the rule that the press must amplify the president's words, whatever they are."

LAKOFF: Exactly. Let's take [the] example of the North Korea situation. Kim Jong Un won, basically. Kim Jong Un got what he wanted and we got nothing. We didn't get anything about, you know, getting our inspectors in there or finding out about what he's doing or keeping him from developing more nuclear weapons. We're no safer than we were before. He is exactly as powerful, but even more powerful if we call off those military actions, you know, preparations with South Korea. I mean, then he gets really what he wants for nothing.

Now, if you say, you know, "Kim Jong Un beats Trump in negotiations" as your headline, and then you say why, right away -- you know, "We got nothing. He got everything. Here's what he wanted. Here's what he got. Trump lost. The worst deal Trump could ever have made" -- you know, as your lede, right, that is the truth. It's a bare truth. It's not said.

STELTER: Because it sounds so much like opinion.

LAKOFF: It sounds like it, but you don't have to write it as opinion. There are ways to write it as truth. You can use your language, you know? [Laughs] Journalists know how to use language perfectly well. Editors do. Use it to say the truth.


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