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Graphic: Trump’s Tweets Can Be Reduced To 4 Rhetorical Strategies

A taxonomy breaks down exactly how the president of the United States uses tweets to his advantage.

Graphic: Trump’s Tweets Can Be Reduced To 4 Rhetorical Strategies
[Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images]

Trump would like you to know that his nuclear bomb button is bigger than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s.

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This is a classic case of Trump using a “trial balloon”–a test to see how an audience will react to a provocation.

That’s according to a graphic, created by retired UC Berkeley professor of cognitive science and linguistics George Lakoff, which outlines four ways that the president uses his tweets to control the news cycle. First up? What Lakoff calls “preemptive framing”: getting your version of the story out first. Next is good old-fashioned diversion–changing the topic by, for instance, calling Meryl Streep overrated. Then there’s deflection, best described by Trump’s continued derision of the New York Times and CNN as “fake news,” particularly when either news organization reports anything negative about him. And the last way is the “trial balloon,” which Trump deployed spectacularly this week.

Lakoff writes on Twitter, “Each tweet gets his message retweeted so he dominates social media. Reporters, social media influencers, and many others fall for it hook, line, and sinker. Every time…They may think they’re negating or undermining him, but that’s not how human brains work. As a cognitive scientist, I can tell you: Repeating his messages only helps him.”

In another tweet, Lakoff points out what reporters in particular can do to avoid acting like a bullhorn for Trump’s messages. He recommends not responding to outrage with outrage, framing issues with facts, and calling out Trump’s attempts to divert.

And maybe don’t retweet him. “Think of Trump as a puppeteer, his tweets as the strings, and anyone who retweets/shares him as the puppet,” he writes. “Cut the damn strings!”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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