Snowflakes and alternative facts: language of the Trump presidency (so far)
Politics provides fertile ground for the emergence of neologisms, and the appropriation of old words for new purposes. And while he’s only a few months into his four-year term, the presidency of Donald J Trump has already produced an eclectic bundle of language – and a great deal of controversy. So let’s explore some of the words that have emerged during the first months of his presidential career.
The Trump presidency has intensified the war of words between those people who voted for the billionaire businessman and those who oppose his policies. One term that is often lobbed at liberals, particularly online, is snowflake, used as an accusation of fragility and over-sensitivity.
The usage stems from the conception of snowflakes as unique, delicate and precious – all qualities that young, liberal and idealistic people are sometimes accused of having. People who became adults in the 2010s are derisively classed (by some) as Generation Snowflake, prone to offense-taking and less able to accept opposing views.
The term may have gained popularity on university campuses, where good intentions to prevent harassment were considered by some to have gone too far – effectively silencing views that don’t conform to ‘acceptable’ standards. Critics of young idealists point to the trend of providing trigger warnings in advance of comments that might offend, as well as the habit of no platforming speakers who hold unpalatable views. No platforming means to deny people or groups opportunities to speak and share their views. These examples are held up as evidence that young people have become so fearful of offence that they have become intolerant of opinions that diverge from their own.
Author Chuck Palahniuk has been credited with giving the world this meaning of snowflake in his 1996 novel Fight Club, in the line, “You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake”. This line inspired a meme, which in turn inspired the current term of abuse.
Until 24 February 2017, gaggle was, for most British people, nothing more than the collective noun for geese. White House press secretary Sean Spicer gave the word a new lease of life when he hand-picked a group of journalists to attend an off-camera briefing. This decision became controversial because the press secretary is alleged to have excluded some mainstream journalists, seemingly favouring ‘friendly’ media outlets that are more likely to provide favourable and less critical coverage.
In journalistic terms, a gaggle is defined as an alternative to a press conference which is on the record, but off-camera. While these less formal media gatherings are common, Sean Spicer made headlines because his decision to exclude certain journalists is unusual.
Using gaggle to describe a group of geese is much less fresh; its origins date back to Middle English. It may be derived from the sound that geese make.
During the 2016 US election, both candidates deployed teams of people to campaign on their behalf and speak in their place. These surrogates toured the nation’s TV studios, giving voice to their candidate’s views. Trump’s surrogates seemed particularly busy, in part because of his habit of tweeting controversial comments; his surrogates and campaign manager were frequently called upon to explain his proclamations on live TV.
Surrogate comes from the Latin surrogatus: ‘to elect as a substitute’.
One of President Trump’s greatest headaches so far has come from the allegations that his attorney general Jeff Sessions lied under oath about meeting Russian diplomats.
While Sessions denied that his meeting was conducted in his role as a Trump surrogate, he was forced to recuse himself from the related investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election. This simply means that he will not be involved in that case to avoid the perception that he could manipulate the investigation to avoid implicating himself.
Recuse, related to refuse, means to reject a judge from any case in which they have a conflict of interest or bias. Recuse has origins in the Latin recusare, meaning to refuse.
When Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, uttered the phrase “alternative facts” in her support of press secretary Sean Spicer’s false statements about the attendance at Trump’s inauguration, she could not have known that her comments, widely derided as Orwellian, would cause sales of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to rise by 9,500%.
In her defence, Conway has since explained that her comment was an accidental conflation of “additional facts and alternative information”.
President Trump has been accused of lying to reporters in order to get favourable press coverage. Senior administration officials admitted that his comments were deliberate, and part of a misdirection play. This seems to be a relatively new use for this term, which usually denotes an American football tactic intended to deceive the opposition so they run in the wrong direction. In this case, the administration appears to be admitting to using deception to create the media response they want.
If the first few months are any indication, the rest of Trump’s term as president is likely to keep lexicographers busy.