Adam Hodges on his book, When Words Trump Politics

Cover of When Words Trump Politics by Adam Hodges

Interview by Yeon-Ju Bae

Yeon-Ju Bae: Now that the Trump presidency ended, what can we still learn from the past years, during which responsibilities were denied and realities were distorted? As we discuss the ways in which responsibilities are distributed and performed in political discourse, what would be our responsibility as members of the broader society? What did it mean for you to examine Trumpian discourse and performance? Did you encounter any difficulties in doing so? What role do you hope your book would play in the post-Trump era and beyond?

Adam Hodges: I had been teaching overseas during the 2016 campaign and when the November election was called for Trump in the United States. A majority of my students were Muslims studying at our branch campus of an American university. They planned to visit the United States for part of their studies and now those plans were put into doubt – not only due to Trump’s promise of a “Muslim ban” and subsequent executive order that limited visas for passport holders of certain Muslim-majority countries, but they also had genuine doubts about how they would be received against the backdrop of the hateful rhetoric spread by a US president.

I felt that my responsibility, as someone who studies political discourse, was to shed light on Trump’s spurious language use. I think the impetus for much of my scholarly work is a desire to better understand what seems so antithetical to my own worldview. What is the appeal of someone like Trump who strikes me and others as a transparent grifter? What gives the invidious claims of a reality TV personality enough power to put him into the White House? In writing the essays that eventually went into the book, I was trying to make sense of this new regime of language while hoping my analyses might provide others with some tools to do the same.

On one level, I was writing for anthropologists and scholars interested in political discourse; but on another level, I wanted to speak to an educated non-academic audience – the type of reader that subscribes to The Atlantic or reads The New York Times. Linguistic anthropology and related disciplines have amassed a broad array of scholarship that is directly relevant to unpacking language use in our society at this moment in time. I believe sharing that knowledge and bringing it to bear on our wider public dialogue is important. I think all scholars hold a certain responsibility to not only seek greater understandings, but to share those understandings with others outside the discipline – classroom teaching and sharing our disciplinary insights with non-specialists pursuing a liberal arts education is one way to do that.

With the book, one pitfall I hoped to avoid was to analyze Trumpian politics without inadvertently feeding them, without simply stoking the outrage. I wanted to leave readers with understanding rather than outrage. I think framing the points in each essay around scholarly concepts helps with that, at least to an extent – so as to avoid being strictly polemical pieces about Trump. At the same time, the essays are also a form of political writing. My stance isn’t hidden behind a veil of supposed neutrality. I’m a scholar writing about my own society where I seek to critique the workings of power and abuses that I see.

Whether scholarly interventions into our collective understanding of the Trump phenomenon impart lasting lessons remains to be seen. I would like to believe, as your question presupposes, that we’ve moved into a “post-Trump era.” But I think in many ways, we’re not there yet. Trump’s power is necessarily reduced by virtue of no longer being president, but he still holds sway over the Republican party. I hope my book will play a role in providing a toolkit to disarm the spurious appeal of future right-wing populists, while its focus on Trump remains but a historical case study. But the political discourse in 2024 may feel more familiar than we’d like if he runs again; and, if he doesn’t, the discourse around the election will still be shaped and framed around the legacy we inherited from his time in office.

Yeon-Ju Bae: The referentialist language ideology comes into play at different points in the book, such as the way it underpins Jane Hill’s critique of the individualist understanding of racism that you discuss in chapter 8. On the other hand, on page 28, the referentialist language ideology and truth-telling subjects appear to be the basis for democracy, which Trump doesn’t fulfill by lacking factual integrity. I was wondering if you could elaborate on how Trump performs or deforms the referentialist language ideology in creating and staging his own reality.

Adam Hodges: As Sue Gal (2005) points out, “language ideologies are never only about language;” they also “provide insights into the working of ideologies more generally.” Similarly, Hill (2008) notes that “linguistic ideologies shape and constrain discourse, and thus shape and constrain the reproduction of other kinds of ideologies.” Language ideologies enter into discourse in a way that not only serves local interactional purposes, but they also mediate between those local interactional contexts and social structures writ large – a point elaborated on by Paul Kroskrity (2004) in his discussion of language ideologies. This is a crucial point: the idea that language ideologies can serve interested political positions and bolster other types of ideologies. In addition to applying this idea to the discussion of racism, I also touch on this in chapter 10 where I discuss how judges selectively choose and ignore different language ideologies to justify judicial philosophies.

In US public discourse about racism, as Hill details, a few different language ideologies work together to reproduce the dominant racial ideology. The referentialist ideology (Silverstein 1976), which holds that the function of language is primarily to convey information, contributes to the idea that meaning resides in words themselves, so that words are viewed as “containers” of information that are “sent” from one speaker to another, as discussed by Michael Reddy (1979) in his critique of the conduit metaphor. Referentialism can bolster the dominant racial ideology in instances where racist words are uttered; the words are seen as a vehicle of racist intensions, which becomes the focus of controversies that allow discussants to isolate racism in individuals who use the words. So referentialism is often accompanied by the language ideology of personalism (Rosaldo 1981), which locates meaning in the beliefs and intentions of the speaker. Personalism can bolster the dominant racial ideology by emphasizing that speakers who utter racist words hold the beliefs and intentions of a racist. Together, these language ideologies fold nicely into the dominant racial ideology by emphasizing that racism is a matter of, to quote Hill (2008), “individual beliefs, intentions, and actions.” In other words, these language ideologies are often harnessed in public discourse about racism to reproduce the dominant racial ideology that individualizes racism while erasing its system-wide patterns of operation within society.

As you note, the language ideology of referentialism also underpins the discourse about truth telling and how factual integrity, as you say, represents a normative ideal for democratic governance. We expect our political leaders to adhere to this ideal, at least in principle even if they stray in practice; and when they do stray in practice, we expect them to engage in subsequent acts of contrition or make excuses that nevertheless reinforce a referentialist foundation for their words. Most US presidents have more or less operated by these unwritten rules of democratic discourse, but then Trump came along to seemingly create and stage his own reality by somehow operating outside what Jane Hill (2000) has termed the “discourse of truth.”

At the end of chapter 2, which you cite in your question, I focus on how Trump’s disregard for factual integrity works to “typify” a worldview. By that, I mean he paints a compelling depiction of the world that resonates with the worldview of Trumpian conservativism. In this way, his statements come to be judged by his core supporters in terms of their ideological fidelity rather than their factual fidelity, by how well they reinforce what they already believe to be true about the world – by what conforms to that preconceived worldview – regardless of the empirical veracity of the claims.

So on one level, we could say that Trump’s factually challenged statements about everything from immigration to election results perform political work by drawing from referentialism to shift or affirm what his core supporters accept as true. But on another level, the showmanship, or as Hall, Goldstein, and Ingram (2016) discuss, the “entertainment value” of his performances allow his discourse to operate on a different, even if sometimes overlapping, level that revolves around performative acts designed to impress rather than deceive per se. Marco Jacquemet (2000) makes this point in his analysis of Trumpian discourse, discerning between “lying” (which, for the purpose of our discussion here, relies on the foundation of referentialism) and “bullshitting,” which, following Harry Frankfurt’s (2005) dissection of the concept, is done without any concern for truth. From this perspective, Trump as a “bullshit artist” (the phrase Jacquemet uses in the title of his article) deforms the referentialist language ideology, to use your phrasing in the question. I think your use of the word “deforms” is an apt description here, because it really disfigures or alters the referentialist foundation of democratic discourse that drives many Trump critics mad. As I discuss in chapter 6, much of the mainstream political press’s obsession with fact-checking rests on this referentialist foundation and went into overdrive after Trump’s election in an attempt to correct the factual record and uphold the normative democratic ideals that Trump violates.

In chapter 3, I take a different approach than Jacquemet and draw from Hill’s (2000) distinction between the “discourse of truth” and the “discourse of theater” to explore how Trump’s statements during the 2016 campaign were filtered through diverging interpretive frames. The “discourse of truth,” as mentioned earlier relies on referentialism and the correspondence theory of truth whereby a politician’s statements are evaluated in terms of how they correspond to an actual state of affairs in the world. If they correspond, they are seen as true. If not, they can be deemed “lies” if, drawing from the language ideology of personalism, the speaker intends to deceive. This is the interpretive lens through which the political press and many of Trump’s critics view his statements.

But the “discourse of theater,” as Hill elaborates, draws from the poetic function of language as opposed to the referential function, dramatically enacting a “message” in the sense of a familiar theme that resonates with voters – not so much because of its informative dimensions, but because of its emotional “penetration.” My point in that chapter is that these different interpretive lenses helped create an interesting mismatch between the way Trump’s statements were often given a pass (when viewed through the discourse of theater) while Clinton’s statements led to evaluations of her as somehow more dishonest and untrustworthy than Trump (when viewed through the discourse of truth).

Yeon-Ju Bae: I was intrigued by your usage of “alternative” as it was employed to refer to the Trumpian conspiracy narratives, because the word “alternative” seems to have been commonly raised by non-hegemonic less powerful groups against the normative. While Trump occupied the White House and had the administrative power, how could his viewpoint be yet regarded as illegitimate and alternative?

Adam Hodges: That’s a fascinating question. I admittedly didn’t think through all the connotations of the word “alternative,” as you’ve laid out here. My use of that word probably says more about my own standpoint and positionality in the society I’m writing about. The resistance to Trump’s election and subsequent actions as president mobilized a large swath of the electorate, including not just the usual liberal critics but also never-Trump conservatives. This created the widely held perspective that Trump’s presidency was anything but part of the normative powers that typically run the government. So, from that perspective, many of Trump’s actions, including his embrace of fringe figures, like Alex Jones, and harmful conspiracy theories, could be said to fall outside the normative constellation of presidential behaviors and comportment.  

It’s true, as you suggest, that Trump’s occupation of the White House elevated his symbolic power, providing momentum to the propagation of what would otherwise be considered peripheral or “alternative” narratives. To the extent that Trump’s position in the White House helped to legitimize the unconventional and shift it into the realm of the conventional; then I could see how the term “alternative” would be out of place. But I think any movement of norms during his presidency remained partial and incomplete. If anything, his role and response to the events of January 6th has even elevated his status – for those other than his core base of supporters – as someone seen as an illegitimate steward of the public trust. So I think we can recognize how the office of the presidency imbued Trump with a certain amount of power while also continuing to view his actions in propagating fringe ideas as standing outside the mainstream.

Now, I realize there are many ways his ideas represent the continuation of mainstream ways of thinking and governing. The prime example is his embrace of White supremacy. As discussed earlier, Trump’s views on race and racism are a continuation of the dominant racial ideology, which perpetuates a racialized social system that shapes how privileges are awarded or denied. The only difference is that Trump’s embrace of this ideology has been more overt and explicit than what came to be expected of politicians after the civil rights era. As Ian Haney-López (2014) discusses, contemporary political discourse about race is often implicitly conveyed through “dog whistles.” Although Trump does plenty of dog whistling, he has also helped elevate the popularity of White supremacist groups and a resurgence in overt acts of racial violence. Jonathan Rosa (2020) makes a powerful argument for the way we shouldn’t necessarily see Trump as a deviation from the normal.

Another way of approaching your question is to consider the way the word “alternative” fits into the myth that Trump and his team have cultivated for him as a supposed outsider. This theme is nothing new in US politics. Nearly every politician running for national office wants to claim the status of outsider, someone representative of the metaphorical heartland and common American, who goes to Washington to serve but remains outside the entrenched power interests of the elite establishment. Trump plays this part well with his brand of populism. Perhaps the use of the word “alternative” plays into this message, as well. I’ll let you decide.

Works Cited

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism without Racists. Rowman & Littlefield.

Coates, Ta-Nahisi. 2015. Between the World and Me. Random House.

Frankfurt, Harry. 2005. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press.

Gal, Susan. 2005. “Language Ideologies Compared: Metaphors of Public/Private.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15(1): 23-37.

Hall, Kira; Donna Meryl Goldstein; and Matthew Bruce Ingram. 2016. “The Hands of Donald Trump: Entertainment, Gesture, Spectacle.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(2): 71-100.

Haney López, Ian. 2014. Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Wrecked the Middle Class. Oxford University Press.

Hill, Jane. 2000. “‘Read My Article’: Ideological Complexity and the Overdetermination of Promising in American Presidential Politics.”  In Regimes of Language, Paul Kroskrity (ed.), 259-292. Santa Fe: School of American Research.

Hill, Jane H. 2008. The Everyday Language of White Racism. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Jacquemet, Marco. 2000. “45 as a Bullshit Artist: Straining for Charisma.” In Janet McIntosh and Norma Mendoza-Denton (eds.) Language in the Trump Era: Scandals and Emergencies, 124-136. Cambridge University Press.

Kroskrity, Paul. 2004. “Language Ideologies.”  In A. Duranti (ed.) A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology, 496-517. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Reddy, Michael. 1979. “The Conduit Metaphor: A Case of Frame Conflict in Our Language About Language.”  In Metaphor and Thought, Anthony Ortony (ed.), 164-201. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rosa, Jonathan. 2020. “Communicating Crisis: Getting Back to Whose Normal?” Talking Politics: Anthropologists and Linguists Analyze the 2020 Election. Public forum hosted by the University of Chicago, University of Colorado, and Society for Linguistic Anthropology.

Rosaldo, Michelle. 1981. “The Things We Do With Words: Ilongot Speech Acts and Speech Act Theory in Philosophy.”  Language in Society 11: 203-237.

Silverstein, Michael. 1976. “Shifters, Linguistic Categories, and Cultural Description.”  In Meaning in Anthropology, Keith Basso and Henry Selby (eds.), 11-55. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Smedley, Audrey. 2007, March 14-17. “The History of the Idea of Race…And Why It Matters.” Paper presented at the conference, “Race, Human Variation and Disease: Consensus and Frontiers,” sponsored by the American Anthropological Association. Warrenton, VA.