The Role of Metaphors in Current Political Rhetoric

The ability to think metaphorically increases the likelihood that one can appreciate ideas in a new light, which, in turn, may lead to solutions that might not otherwise be anticipated. Aristotle considered metaphor a sign of genius, believing that the individual who had the capacity to perceive resemblances between two separate areas of existence and link them together was a person of special gifts. Darwin’s most fertile metaphor in his efforts to understand evolution, for example, was the branching tree. Friedrich Kekule described his understanding of the benzene molecule as a snake biting its own tail. Einstein, in articulating his theory of relativity, relied on an image of himself riding on a beam of light holding a mirror in front of him. An analysis and understanding of metaphors contribute to our knowledge of political rhetoric by enabling us to understand how world views are communicated persuasively in language.

Peter Ramus’s (1515–1572) calls for the pursuit of a language free from the excesses and ambiguities of figured language. As pertains to metaphor, he believed that thought follows the rules of logic and language; because of its vital role in thinking, must be plain and clear. From the Ramist perspective, metaphor has no place in serious discourse and, thus, the nature and tension between its two aspects is rendered moot. However, despite its antimetaphorical outlook, Ramism did not stifle either the flowering of Renaissance rhetoric or subsequent investigations of metaphor. Because the culture of early modern Europe was, in many respects, as, oratory and poetry were highly respected and widely practiced. Thus, Elizabethan and metaphysical metaphors, such as those invented by Shakespeare and Donne, tend to strike an organic balance among three elements: tradition, the age’s increasing emphasis on logic as a basis for artistic invention, and its discovery of a new model of subjectivity distinguished by a personal struggle for self-knowledge and self-determination.1

In general, metaphor in political discourse has previously been described to bear the following functions: supporting political positioning and ideology, creating a ‘myth’, increasing emotional effects, and establishing the speaker as a desirable candidate. Since it is now a widely known fact that people’s voting decisions are frequently linked to mental heuristics, or shortcuts, where an individual attends to only one aspect of a problem while ignoring others, aptly used metaphors may help a politician to have the public focus only on those shades of the issue that are favorable for him or her. According to Mio, one of the major aims of metaphors is to connect the logical (logos) with the emotional (pathos). If a politician embeds metaphors into his or her discourse, they are seeking to frame problems and advocate for a certain course of solutions.

Donald Trump’s chaotic use of metaphor is a crucial part of his appeal. Conceptual metaphor theory holds that metaphorical statements, such as “Costs are rising,” involve structuring one concept in terms of another; in this case, costs are conceptualized in terms of physical verticality. In this way, metaphor is not just language; it is a way of thinking and it is linked to emotions and grounded in bodily experience. Conceptual metaphors in political discourse help to both direct and constrain the audience’s understanding by drawing on certain metaphorical themes. Thus, when Trump, says “Middle-income Americans and businesses will experience profound relief” (metaphor: taxes are pain), he understands that it would resonate with the group of citizens tired of paying high taxes. In this case, as well as in the metaphor immigrants are animals, Trump diverts attention from other issues and hyperbolizes the frames of suffering and fear.2

Metaphors can’t change reality; only shed light on it. When people use metaphors to take liberties with reality, their words can be misleading at best and mendacious at worst. According to Van Dijk, this is how manipulation in discourse works: since short-term memory is mostly involved in interpreting the meaning of clauses, sentences, and texts when listening to or reading a message, one can easily influence the order of this processing by selecting a bigger font or reiterating certain ideas many times. Trump’s constant reference to the same domains ensures that his listeners pick up these metaphors as central. While short-term memory is involved in deciphering the meaning of a text, long-term memory plays a role in the formation of attitudes and opinions. Thus, if people hear that immigrants are animals many times, they are likely to build this ideological model in their mind.

Like similes and analogies, a metaphor is a figure of speech used for rhetorical effect. A word or a phrase takes on an implied meaning that is not literally true or applicable. If you say that you have cold feet, you are not literally saying that your feet are cold. You’re implying that you are nervous or apprehensive about something. When a metaphor has been used repetitively, especially over an extended period of time, it can lose its connection to the original imagery that it was meant to evoke. This is a dead metaphor. The word or phrase is now so commonly used that its metaphorical meaning can be fully understood without knowing the earlier connotation. One of the most striking elements in Trump’s speeches is his frequent use of so-called “dead” metaphors, or metaphors that have lost their meaning over time because they’re so common, said Andrew Hines, a philosophy fellow at SOAS University of London.

But what many commentators who call Trump “the drunken uncle” miss is that Trump himself is a master of metaphor. Anyone seeking to understand his appeal would be wise to consider his uncanny, intuitive ability to craft compelling comparisons. Trump’s figurative language isn’t sophisticated or original, but it’s clever. And that’s precisely what makes it so effective. The fact that his metaphors and similes are stark, common and even a bit stilted makes them more powerful because they’re comparisons that average Americans can understand. Metaphors lend themselves to both consistency and creativity and are easily enhanced by the power of repetition. Through the dual metaphors of the CEO presidency and building a wall, the humanity of immigrants is lost entirely and the racial dimensions of that discourse are masked by business terminology. Donald Trump rarely uses live metaphors, but when he does, they literally make headlines, as the mainstream media twist and turn in their attempts to define what he is actually saying.

Francis Bacon (1551-1626) was concerned with the superficiality of distinctions drawn in everyday language, and consequently the capacity of words to embroil men in the discussion of the meaningless. Because these errors are innate, they cannot be completely eliminated, but only recognized and compensated for. Some of Bacon’s examples are: Recognize our senses are inherently dull and easily deceivable. (Which is why Bacon prescribes instruments and strict investigative methods to correct them.) Our tendency to discern (or even impose) more order in phenomena than is actually there. As Bacon points out, we are apt to find similitude where there is actually singularity, regularity where there is actually randomness, etc. Our tendency is towards “wishful thinking.” According to Bacon, we have a natural inclination to accept, believe, and even prove what we would prefer to be true. Our tendency is to rush to conclusions and make premature judgments (instead of gradually and painstakingly accumulating evidence).

Metaphors can create anxiety: Trump launched his political career by embracing a brand-new conspiracy theory twisted around two American taproots – fear and loathing of foreigners and of nonwhites. ’Defund the police’ is a metaphor, however, Republicans have seized on it characterizing it as radical plan to disband police forces across America. Defund the police does not mean abolish policing, rather it means reallocating or redirecting funding away from the police department to other government agencies funded by the local municipality. This shifting of funding to areas – such as social services is done in order to improve things such as mental health, addiction, and homelessness – is a better use of taxpayer money. Confusion over the fact that ‘defund the police’ is a metaphor is harming the process. People who accept conspiracy theories tend to rely on intuition over analytical thinking and are very susceptible to symbols and metaphors.

What makes metaphors so powerful? Metaphors get your audience to think about your ideas in a different way. Metaphors play a key role in orienting the public perception of populism based on shared modes of understanding social and political life. Populist rhetoric transforms the facts of social issues into divisive symbols and metaphors. Metaphor will always play a role in political rhetoric because, as James Geary writes, “Once metaphor has us in its grasp, it never lets us go, and we can never forget it.” Mainstream media needs to get out of denial – they gain less and less by accusing populist leaders of “twisting the truth”. How something is said may be as important as what is said. Kenneth Burke, an American literary theorist observes, “The most characteristic concern of rhetoric [is] the manipulation of men’s beliefs for political ends …”. We need to recognize and understand the power of metaphors in framing political issues.

1 Metaphor. The Renaissance.

2 Kateryna Pilyarchuk and Alexander Onysko. (January 2018) Conceptual Metaphors in Donald Trump’s Political Speeches: Framing his Topics and (Self-)Constructing hisPersona’s_Political_Speeches_Framing_his_Topics_and_Self-Constructing_his_Persona

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