Metaphor is a central part of how national narratives are constructed. If, as cognitive linguist George Lakoff suggests, we view the United States (US) as a family and the world as a community, then public diplomacy professionals are like family counselors and town criers rolled into one. US public diplomacy (PD) professionals are dedicated to the important task of informing and influencing foreign publics about American values, culture, and policy goals and objectives. In our current moment, however, this task is at perhaps its most challenging.
Wikimedia Commons | President Donald Trump evokes the Nation as a Family metaphor common to American political rhetoric.
In recent years, diplomats have seen, among other startling developments, a proliferation of media sources and communication tools, the rise of anti-globalist movements, and the election of Donald Trump. How can these professionals continue to strengthen “the relationship between the people and Government of the US and citizens of the rest of the world” under a globally unpopular president who defies norms, shirks protocol, and governs through tweets?
Using Lakoff’s body of work on metaphor as a guide, PD professionals can find a way to positively convey the US and President Trump himself to the global community. Metaphors work by framing abstract or complex ideas in terms of concrete and relatable concepts. They are understood by the individual experience or quality they evoke. For example, while international relations (IR) realists might view the world as a chess game, IR liberals view it as a marketplace.
The current Administration poses a challenge for diplomats in its external unpredictability and internal inconsistencies. However, Lakoff’s metaphor model and analysis reveal that core to President Trump’s messaging and policymaking is the American Conservative concept of the Nation as a family led by a strict parent. The following is a list of metaphors that stem from the Conservative strict parent concept.
1. Moral Strength: The strict parent must teach morality to their dependents. The concept of moral strength centers on self-discipline and dominance over “evil.”
What Trump says: In an April 2018 speech on Syrian military strikes, President Trump said, “The evil and the despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children thrashing in pain and gasping for air.” Within the moral strength metaphor, President Trump is taking action against evil and demonstrating self-discipline.
What you can say: “The US is dedicated to promoting a world in which all citizens feel protected and secure.”
2. Moral Authority: The strict parent must project the values it teaches dependents: morality, self-discipline, and strength.
What Trump says: At the 2016 Republican National convention, then-candidate Trump said, “I will work with, and appoint, the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the country to get the job done. In this race for the White House, I am the Law And Order candidate.” By framing himself as the law and order candidate, Trump claims his moral authority as a leader.
What you can say: “President Trump serves his role as Chief Executive by working to ensure the safety of US citizens.”
3. Moral Self-Interest: The strict parent family emphasizes personal responsibility and interest in one’s own well-being. Within this framework, if everyone seeks their own well-being, well-being will be maximized for all.
What Trump says: During a 2016 campaign rally in Arizona, then-candidate Trump argued, “Let me tell you who [the US immigration system] doesn’t serve: it doesn’t serve you, the American people. When politicians talk about immigration reform, they usually mean the following: amnesty, open borders, and lower wages. Immigration reform should mean something else entirely: it should mean improvements to our laws and policies to make life better for American citizens.”
What you can say: “The Trump Administration emphasizes personal responsibility and economic opportunity for all US citizens.”
4. Moral Order: The strict parent teaches respect for authority figures and hierarchy. Failure to obey this teaching results in immorality. In US Conservatism, this hierarchy typically follows the traditions of Western Christianity.
What Trump says: In the 2018 State of the Union Address, President Trump evoked the nation as a family metaphor directly when illustrating his concept or moral order, “In America, we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of the American life. Our motto is “in God we trust.” And we celebrate our police, our military, and our amazing veterans as heroes who deserve our total and unwavering support.”
What you can say: “The US is home to a diverse group of individuals all committed to higher values and objectives, including justice and freedom.”
5. Moral Health: The strict parent may compare immorality to a contagious disease. To avoid raising immoral children, strict parents closely monitor the types of people and information their children are exposed to.
What Trump says: While attending a 2018 law enforcement roundtable, President Trump discussed “removing” members of the MS-13 gang from the US, making comments such as, “MS-13 recruits through our broken immigration system, violating our borders. And it just comes right through — whenever they want to come through, they come through.” This presents the gang as an invasive disease, poised to overtake American “health.”
What you can say: “The Trump Administration is committed to maintaining the ideals that form the foundation of US democracy, including the concept of ‘domestic tranquility’ outlined in our constitution.”
Although President Trump often rocks the diplomatic boat with inconsistencies and improvisation, he mostly adheres to the metaphors that have long governed American Conservatism. Diplomats should focus on the metaphorical thread that connects President Trump’s messaging rather than the unconventional way in which he might project it. Doing so will make explaining Trump’s behavior and comments much simpler for diplomats working in a variety of cultures and contexts.
Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.