Roar writer Cristiana Sandeva on the language used by President Trump to discuss the issue of race in the US during the first Presidential Debate of 2020.
Constantly stealing each other’s last words, moderated but not mitigated by Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Trump and Biden went over fifteen topics to convince voters to choose either of the two as the next President of the United States. One of the most salient topics that was brought up halfway through the show was “the issue of race” – or, as Rep. Ocasio-Cortez subsequently suggested, “the issue of racism”.
Let’s begin with how things started.
It had been 50 minutes since the Trump-Biden dispute began. Wallace announced the next point to be discussed within the programme’s agenda, the aforementioned “issue of race”.
After Trump self-proclaimed himself the US president to have done most for Black Americans since Abraham Lincoln, Wallace turned to a visibly stunned Biden, bringing up the Charlottesville protest – the event that set Biden out to run for President in the 2020 race.
Should you have forgotten what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11 and 12, 2017, here is a brief refresher: An alt-right rally called “Unite the Right” took place to protest the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general, from Charlottesville. During the 2017 protest, a self-identified white supremacist named James Alex Fields Jr crashed his car into anti-right protesters, killing one person and injuring nineteen more.
Now, bearing in mind President Trump’s claim of being the best thing to happen to Black Americans since Abraham Lincoln, let’s recall his exact words after the Charlottesville rally: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
“On many sides” – iterated twice. How many sides, and which ones?
There are usually two major sides when a protest and its corresponding counter-protest occur. Were Trump’s statement intended to be all-encompassing, saying “on both sides” would have been just enough. “On many sides” is dispersive, vague, and confusing. Those three features, blended together, leave Trump’s quote up to interpretation.
This is a frequent characteristic of Trump’s statements – he uses simple and relatable terminology and keeps things blurry. His statements never appear to be deep or intricate, allowing his vagueness to appear as a heedless lack of intellect. To avoid creating bias, I will avoid labelling him politically at the moment. Linguistically, I would define him as accommodatingly assertive.
It is apt to evoke another recent episode which took place amidst this year’s lockdown and Black Lives Matter protests. Credit goes to Biden here for reminding Wallace, Trump and the audience about it during the debate: “When Floyd was killed, there was a peaceful protest in front of the White House. He [Trump] used the military to throw tear gas at protesters and then walked to a church with a Bible; and then the bishop of that very church said that was a disgrace”.
Modern mass-media outlets sometimes have their perks, and in this case, one of them was to televise and spread this event around the globe at the very moment it happened. No one, not even Trump himself, could deny that things happened as Biden described. In fact, Trump’s defence mechanism when this was brought up was neither denial nor explanation – it was attack.
“Biden did a crime bill in 1994 where he calls African Americans super-predators”; “I have the support of law enforcement in many states”; “Democrats have got you [Biden] so wrapped up their fingers that you are even afraid to say the words law and order”. Attack as a defence mechanism is the second feature which I find to be typical of Trump when analysing his linguistics.
Trump operates with two key features in mind: accommodating assertiveness and attack. Bear that in mind, as this is still growing to its climax.
Wallace went on to ask Biden whether justice can be equally applied in America, especially after what happened to Breonna Taylor and the policemen responsible for her shooting not being charged with murder. Biden directly and publicly reckoned, then and there, the presence of “systemic injustice in this country, in education, in work and in law enforcement”.
It is worth observing here that Biden could have sounded more worried and encouraging when answering this question. He does not position himself as a fiercely anti-racist frontline campaigner, which he may not be. What he does appear to be is an individual open to dialogue, and to change. Without being a dramatically progressive Democrat, he seems, at least, to be tolerant and (politically) correct.
Stating that, as President, he would “work this out, because violence is never appropriate” when addressing racism is not the most innovative statement of all time, but it directly reckons with the existence of racism and violence in our time. Biden sees and denounces the issue, even though he does not provide direct solutions to the issue. Compare this to Trump’s unwillingness to publicly address the issue in the first place.
Moving on to that very unwillingness: As Wallace reminded us during the debate, Trump’s administration has decided to end racial sensitivity training in the United States. When asked why, Trump answered: “We were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to teach very bad ideas, and frankly, very sick ideas. And really, they were teaching people to hate our country”. Here, Trump’s linguistic pattern is once again aggressive and assertive.
During the debate, President Trump was asked directly if he was willing to openly condemn White Supremacists and White Proud Boys. The Proud Boys are classified as a “white supremacist extremism” group by the Colorado Information Analysis Center (CIAC). Trump’s exact words were: “Proud Boys – stand back and stand by! But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what: somebody’s gotta do something about Antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing problem.”
This last statement contains both linguistic features observed thus far in their prime: accommodating assertiveness followed by a direct attack against the left.
I would encourage readers to focus on the lexical significance of the phrase: “stand back and stand by”. This sentence is interpretable in innumerable ways.
Grammatically, “stand back” would be synonymous with “withdraw”, while “stand by” could be equalled to “support”, or “waiting in the wings”. Trump’s stance on white supremacy was not the open condemnation he was asked to provide. At the same time, it was not an open stance of favouritism towards it. The words “stand back and stand by” reveal as much confusion as they do clarity.
While an analysis of Trump’s interventions during his four years in the White House may lead towards the fairly logical deduction that he is a racist, or at least supports those who openly label themselves as such, the same may not be obviously claimable when considering his “stand back and stand by” statement and other verbal outings. However, this should not come as a surprise to readers and the debate’s viewers. Trump has repeatedly shown to be skilled at dodging questions, at always answering sincerely yet vaguely. What is at stake during this particular moment in history is not what Trump is saying, but what voters will assert.
Trump’s strongman timbre is a matter of fact. Whether it will keep echoing through media outlets for another four years is now in the hands and pens of American citizens.
Biden’s soft tone and at times demure behaviour might be his winning or losing card. His go-to sentence – “don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative” – might earn him a country’s trust, but it might also cast him in a shade of bluntness.
A lot is at stake, and how racism will be addressed in the years to come will directly depend on the outcome of this election.
Further articles written in collaboration with the Boston Political Review can be found on our website.