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The inflamed rhetoric of the Trump justification for bombing Syria

Photo: Trump at Mar-a-Lago via PBS

President Trump, outraged by the use of nerve gas on civilians, launched 59 cruise missiles at the airfield that Bashar al-Assad uses in Syria. Then he made a statement justifying the action. It’s a case study in Trumpspeak — does the pileup in intensifying adjectives and adverbs make a statement more persuasive, or more suspect?

In my book and here, I classify imprecise and meaningless adjective, adverbs, and similar words as weasel words. Political speech is full of them, especially when it’s trying to stir the emotions. And Donald Trump is a master at stirring up emotions.

The intensifier-laden Trump statement on bombing Syria

In Mar-a-Lago, Trump made a short speech explaining the bombing. Here’s how he starts out (weasel words in bold):

My fellow Americans, on Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of god should ever suffer such horror.

That’s 10 weasel words out of 64, for a weasel density of 16% — the highest in any passage I’ve ever analyzed. And on top of these modifiers, there are emotional phrases like “choked out the lives”, and “suffer such horror.” I understand the reasoning, but here, as in any other statement, if the number of weasel words exceeds 6%, the statement reads as bullshit. The more intensely you shriek, the harder it is to believe you. Are “cruelly murdered,” “very barbaric,” and “innocent civilians” and “beautiful babies” really more effective rhetorically than plain old “murdered,” “barbaric,” “civilians,” and “babies”?

Let’s take a look at how the paragraph would read shorn of all emotional and weasel words at all.

My fellow Americans, on Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapons attack, using a deadly nerve agent to kill men, women, children, and babies. No one should ever suffer an attack like this.

Without the intensifiers, it’s still shocking, but loses some its emotional resonance. Now look at how the statement reads if we restore just a few of these words in key places, and insert some actual numbers.

My fellow Americans, on Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a deadly nerve gas attack on innocent civilians, including men, women, children, and babies. The attack injured over 500 helpless people and killed at least 86, including 28 children. They suffered and died slowly.

No one should ever suffer such horror, even in war.

In my judgment, numbers and a few well-placed emotional words can have a more powerful impact than a pileup of weasel words. They retain the power to shock without undermining the speaker’s credibility.

Here’s the rest of the statement:

Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital national security of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.

There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council. Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically.

As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.

Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.

We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world. We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed. And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, that peace and harmony will in the end prevail.

Goodnight and god bless America and the entire world. Thank you.

This is a well-reasoned, clear, and straightforward statement that any other president might make when using military force. Except for the last two paragraphs about God’s wisdom and the souls of the victims, it is clear and factual: Trump ordered an airstrike on an airfield because stopping chemical weapons attacks is a national interest of the United States and other nations.

Now what?

The history of American military action in the last 20 years is a tale of actions taken in moments of passion, including the war in Afghanistan after 9-11 and the war in Iraq based on nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The consequences of those actions have been decades-long wars, the inflammation of jihadist hatred against the United States, and terrorist advances into power vacuums from the resulting chaos.

Trump’s action may deter Assad. It may also create a proxy war with Russia or generate openings for the Islamic state. “Babies died so we have to do something” is not a strategy.

What matters most is not what Trump and his military and diplomats did yesterday, but what they do next. Let us hope it is based on reason and forward-looking analysis, not outrage and political consideration.

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  1. most fascist operations -(is this a government yet?) need and use military adventures to solidify support. often the world supplies a cause. I expect this will boost trump’s popularity score back into the mid 40s.
    but as to weasel words, which can be used for a kind of poetic effect, I find redundancy another area to edit.
    I would add to yours: children/babies; prevent/deter; failed dramatically; slaughter/bloodshed; all kinds and types;
    it’s the kind of padding one would add to bring a school essay answer up to a required word count. in trump’s case these are often ad-libs to a prepared script……for a writing credit?
    the upside of trump…..you and so many others, teaching us how to be ‘good consumers’ of politics. thanks.

  2. The analysis does not go deep enough to enlighten us about the shift in values and the power games that are evident. The fact Trump uses a Pathos / emotional strategy is not surprising. The typical Trump supporters are avid followers of sensationalist news and social media which seeks to position whatever subject as an object of moral condemnation and the viewer as the righteous judge. Moral superiority is assumed by the Trump supporter and no self reflection or critical thinking is required because the “Ethos” / Credibility of the President is such high authority that, it is accepted without question like a devoted follower of a cult leader.
    The logic or (Logos) of the Trump intervention can be interpreted as strategic. Trumps decision to intervene in Syria comes at a time when his Republican colleagues has sought to restrict the passage of health Reforms and while meeting with President Xi Jinping and fighting off criticism about the connect between his campaign and Russia. The thirty minute warning given to Russia was clearly enough time to avoid significant loss of Russian and Syrian lives, indicating a level of restraint was applied and suggesting a clear line was being drawn about the boundaries within relationships before Trump will act in violent retaliation. Who was this message for? I’d suggest it might have been a message to all his protagonist opponents both within and external to his team.
    To simply label the communication as “Bullshit” or “weasel words” adopts a rhetorical argument that plays the same game as Trump has deployed. Moral indignation (Bullshit) and ridicule (Weasel) with an absence of deeper questioning of the geopolitical context in contrast to the domestic considerations adds nothing to the argument put forward that a the Consequences of the President actions will lead to “decades-long wars, the inflammation of jihadist hatred against the United States, and terrorist advances into power vacuums from the resulting chaos.”
    While the assessment of the President’s communication maybe blunt and correct at some level “Bullshit” and reflecting the Weasel that he clearly is, it is also mute on the issues of substance that underly the message being delivered. In contrast to his predecessor who made claims that Chemical weapons would change the US policy on intervention in Syria and then took no action when it was clear the Syrians had done so, Trump did not abrogate the responsability to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons to Russia and he took the opportunity to assert his position of power. The message Trump offers his supporters is consistent with the image of strength he tried to portray in the campaign and to his opponents he leaves little room for objection.
    The use of a religious theme (Topoi) in Trumps communication is also not accidental and surely appeals to the far right within the Republican Party who have recently been obstructionist. The action taken by Trump weakens the position of his opponents negotiation position because he has now assumed the higher moral ground. But is it really the higher moral ground? The potential consequences of a Trump Presidency are both an exciting opportunity to change the direction of global forces and a terrifying prospect of bringing some long-term geopolitical tensions to a more confrontational climax. Rather than hope for reason where there is none perhaps we should hope that collective wisdom will guide the passions of humanity towards more peaceful assertions of power than those at the end of a gun.

  3. I critique language; I’m no philosopher. On that basis, it seems like you’re a little wordy.

    1. Your critique of language is the support you offer for your conclusions. You call for “reason (logic), forward-looking analysis, not outrage and political consideration” yet offer little example of it and in fact imitate the very same rhetorical approach you correctly assess in Trump’s.
      Your intuition and assessment is spot on, but your execution of the approach you prescribe lacks the same rigour you expect. You can do better by simply taking your own advice.
      I’d encourage you to at least try because your posts are generally very interesting and an enjoyable read and perhaps that’s the same perspective many Trump supporters share about Trump.

  4. This is a philosophical comment rather than a comment on Trump’s poor language skills. I wonder how Trump justifies the use of force in Syria at the same he refuses to allow the victims of this tragedy come to the United States?