Tremendous Disaster

For Donald Trump, much of the world breaks down into two categories: Things that are tremendous, and things that are disasters. In total, he used these two words 65 times over the course of his three debates with Hillary Clinton.1 By comparison, Clinton said “disaster” once, and never called anything tremendous.2  Political writers have spent a lot of time trying to hash out the tenets of Trumpism (“Surely it’s not just the racism and sexism”), so it can’t hurt to try and see the world according to the terminology preferred by the man himself.

Let’s begin with the more straightforward category, the disasters. I went through all three debates and did my best to figure out what exactly he found disastrous. Table 1 shows the results, organized first by things that were mentioned more than once, and then by the order in which they were mentioned. For future convenience (you’ll see), I have also numbered the disasters, in that column on the left.

Table 1

Row Thing Mentions as a disaster Debate
1 Obamacare 5 2,3
2 NAFTA 4 2,3
3 Clinton as a senator 3 2
4 Clinton’s tax plan 2 2,3
5 Libya (specifically Clinton’s role) 2 1,2
6 the Iraq War 2 1,2
7 our inner cities 2 2,3
8 Aleppo 2 2,3
9 a government investment in solar energy 1 1
10 our energy policies 1 1
11 Clinton’s regulations 1 1
12 the way the U.S. left Iraq 1 1
13 a theoretical single-payer plan 1 2
14 “almost everything she’s done in foreign policy” 1 2
15 education in the inner city 1 2
16 jobs 1 2
17 Clinton’s plan to give amnesty 1 3
18 Clinton’s trade plan 1 3
19 Clinton’s open borders plan 1 3

Most of these are fairly comprehensible, if not exactly accurate or defensible. He’s hammering a policy unpopular with his base, one of the only famous deals in one of his only core policy areas (trade), and Clinton in general. At times he arguably overreaches, as with Disaster 14. He also likes to describe hypothetical disasters, as in Disasters 4, 11, 13, and 17-19, which refer to his understanding (to put it generously) of Clinton’s proposals; none of these things are actual disasters, because they haven’t happened (and, like 17 and 19, are not always real proposals), but he emphatically believes that they would be disasters, if they existed. This arguably describes his relationship to “the inner city” as well: I would be surprised if he were thinking of any actual places when he used that term, but then again, what could possibly be more frightening—more disastrous—than whatever inner city lives in Trump’s imagination? Still, overall this is a pretty coherent realm of political belief—these are more or less the things any Republican candidate would criticize, if not always this aggressively.

Now here are the things Trump described as tremendous, laid out the same way:

Table 2

Row Thing Mentions Debate
1 the hate in Clinton’s heart 3 2
2 the impact of stop and frisk on NYC 2 1
3 our budget deficits 2 2
4 our economic machine 2 3
5 his tax reductions 1 1
6 new jobs (from his tax cuts) 1 1
7 jobs created by the wealthy 1 1
8 the job the wealthy will do creating jobs 1 1
9 his own income 1 1
10 our country’s problems 1 1
11 the money saved building his post office hotel 1 1
12 the success of his club in Palm Beach 1 1
13 the “service” we’re providing our military allies 1 1
14 the stamina needed to be President 1 1
15 Clinton’s commercials about him 1 1
16 our country’s potential 1 2
17 his respect for women 1 2
18 the numbers of taxes he pays 1 2
19 the success we could have if we did a sneak-attack on Mosul 1 2
20 how he’s doing on the small donations 1 2
21 the wealth under our feet (from natural gas) 1 2
22 the number of people offended by Justice Ginsburg’s statements about Trump 1 3
23 the respect of the people he’d nominate as judges 1 3
24 gun violence in Chicago 1 3
25 the numbers of nuclear warheads in Russia 1 3
26 the money Clinton takes (“from certain countries that treat certain groups of people so horribly”) 1 3
27 the jobs he’ll create 1 3

The first thing you’ll notice is just that this is a much longer list—which is even more surprising when you consider that Trump actually says the word “disaster” more often than the word “tremendous” (33 and 32 times, respectively). The difference is that while the disasters are reasonably coherent, allowing the word to collect around a few key areas, the tremendous things are all over the place. Even those top few items typically reflect instances where Trump happened to say the word a few times in quick succession—the three mentions of Tremendous 1  (T1) occurred within the same few sentences, and include basically a stutter (“She’s got tremendous — she’s got tremendous hatred”). In fact, I’d say that everything in the top four is essentially an instance of meaningless repetition:

  • “But stop-and- frisk had a tremendous impact on the safety of New York City. Tremendous beyond belief.”
  • “They’ll pay off our tremendous budget deficits, which are tremendous.”
  • “Because we have a tremendous machine. We will have created a tremendous economic machine once again.”

When you hear a word as idiosyncratic and exaggerated as “tremendous”, you might expect it to play a part in Trump’s standard hyperbole, like in the first bullet point. “Tremendous beyond belief”is just the kind of absurd overreaching that he loves; it fits nicely with another of his rhetorical tics, the claim that various things are “like we’ve never seen”. But I think the other two examples may be more telling, in the sense that they are incoherent nonsense. “Our tremendous budget deficits, which are tremendous”—this is not the statement of a man who knows how high the budget deficit should be, or has been, or is right now. This is not even the statement of a man who can think of a second adjective on the fly.

On that front, the beginning of the third bullet point is incredible: “Because we have a tremendous machine”.3 Trump, as if becoming cognizant of this statement only after it leaves his mouth, quickly amends this tremendous machine we have to a tremendous economic machine that we will have. But why did he say it in the first place? After all, he never said “machine” at any prior point in any of the debates, and it is not exactly a germane or meaningful word here. In fact, the only time the word came up at all in the debates was earlier on the night of this weird sentence, when Clinton mentioned that Trump called Machado “an eating machine”. But I think that’s just it: He’s saying “machine” more or less out of nowhere because someone else said “machine” earlier on.

As David Roberts has pointed out, it’s important to understand that Trump doesn’t really use language to communicate existing ideas that he has; instead, he simply “riffs until he finds the word strings that get cheers and shouts.” I think Trump has a stock set of words that come tumbling out almost at random, albeit often centered on some broad theme (trade, or hombres); Trump then becomes aware of these words at the same time we do, and begins to try and wrestle them into some sort of coherence by cobbling them together using some of his other words, or perhaps simply repeating the same ones (“our tremendous budget deficits, which are tremendous.”) It makes sense that he would mix his own language with random words and phrases from others (like the time Clinton said, “If Trump was talking, he’d probably say something like ‘repeal and replace'”, and then Trump finished his very next turn with the phrase “So I think we’ve got to repeal and replace”). It’s all just stuff he’s hearing.4

This explains some of the difficulty of parsing the list of tremendous things. For one, they’re so repetitive that they accidentally become recursive. After saying that his tax cuts will create tremendous jobs (T6), Trump later argues: “Well, I’m really calling for major jobs, because the wealthy are going create tremendous jobs. They’re going to expand their companies. They’re going to do a tremendous job.” (T7-8) Here are the word “tremendous” and the word “job” used not only to describe the thing that will be created (“tremendous jobs”) but the quality of the creation (the wealthy will do a “tremendous job” creating “tremendous jobs”). And tremendousness may have a positive connotation, but it’s also just an intensifier, so in T10 our country’s problems are tremendous, but in T16 our country’s potential is tremendous. Trump is pretty frequently tremendous (T9, T11, T12, T20), but so are Russian nuclear armament (T25) and gun violence in Chicago (T24). And as this last one shows, the tremendous can intersect with the disastrous—after all, Chicago has an inner city.

So what does this tell us about Trumpism? I think, like every other deep dive, it doesn’t give us any new clarity about his political commitments, because those have been flagrantly obvious from the outset of his political career—xenophobia, sexism, nationalism, and self-aggrandizement. But I think digging into his language even just a little reveals something we tend to gloss over too easily: Trump is a profoundly stupid man. This is not his most problematic feature; the bigotry, narcissism, short temper, and mean spiritedness are much more alarming. But he also does not know how to produce coherent sentences or express his ideas with more than two overlapping, imprecise, hyperbolic, occasionally self-contradictory terms. Smart, well-informed people can generally do that. You don’t need a tremendous intellect to be able to string together a few dozen meaningful sentences; you just can’t be a disaster.

 


Notes
1. I got these counts by looking up transcripts and performing simple word searches. I include the word “tremendously” in the count for “tremendous”. I did all of the counting/searching in this post by hand, so it might be a little off here and there, especially because Trump’s language is often pretty difficult to parse.  

2. She said, “When President Obama came into office, he inherited the worst economic disaster since the great depression.” 

3. Reading this, I was reminded of a strange anecdote I once read about a woman whose corpus callosum had been severed. When this happens, the right and left halves of the brain can’t communicate with each other. A doctor showed her left eye a picture of a nude woman, and she laughed, even though she said she couldn’t see anything; the issue is that the half of the brain that can see out of the left eye was no longer connected to the half that produces language, so she couldn’t express what she had seen. The doctor asked her why she had laughed, and her answer was, “Oh doctor, you have some machine!” I’ve always remembered that sentence, because it’s so strange, a snap response from a brain in which the function of language has literally been severed from certain kinds of perception and self-knowledge. I’ve never heard anything like it, until now. 

4. This might also explain the only other use of the word “machine” during the debates—later in the same turn, Trump said, “But that being said, we will create an economic machine the likes of which we haven’t seen in many decades.” Now that he himself has said “machine” a couple of times, this appears to him to be a term people use to describe the economy. Once uttered, his own words simply enter the universe of stuff he has heard and can now repeat.  

Advertisements

Trump’s Favorite Joke

Recently I came across a trail of bizarre, hilarious campaign rhetoric from Donald Trump that leads right to two of the core questions about his whole political presence. These questions are as fascinating as they are profoundly disturbing:

  1. Does he actually mean the things that he says?
  2. Does he know the answer to question one?

I’m afraid that I have not reached a conclusive answer to either question; as a society, we may never get there. But this is a pretty illuminating glimpse beneath the hood.

It all started with this Tweet, which I saw on Friday (June 17):

Click through and you’ll see a transcript of a speech Trump gave in Texas. Like most Trump transcripts, it gives you plenty to think about, but the highlight is this:

But we’re gonna start winning again. We’re gonna win so much, you people are gonna get sick of it. You’re gonna come up and they’re gonna call me up from Texas. “Mr. Trump, sir, you have thousands and thousands of calls from Texas. They’re all your friends. They heard you speak one night. Mr. Trump! They’re very upset. President Trump, they’re very upset.”
[APPLAUSE]
They’re gonna walk in and they’re gonna say – go ahead, what the hell –
[“TRUMP!” CHANTS]
They’re gonna walk in. They’re gonna say, “President Trump! Thousands and thousands of calls from Texas – they are so upset with you, Mr. President. They can’t stand the amount with which you’re winning by.

He goes on in this vein for a long time, detailing the many ways he will win (“on trade”, “at the border”, “with your military”, “on health care”, “with Common Core”, and by having “saved the Second Amendment 100%!”).1 The imaginary Texas public keeps begging him to stop, and he refuses.

Of course, this is bizarre stuff. On the one hand, he develops this id-driven, parodic version of a platform consisting of simply listing policy areas, announcing that he will win at them, and moving on. On the other, far more confusing hand, he goes to great lengths to describe the people pleading with him to stop winning so much. This is a man who, again, is running for actual President of a country, so the amazement in that Tweet seems warranted. But oddly enough, Trump’s routine rang a bell for me.

This might be because Trump has done this before. People who are plugged in to conservative media may know this already, but this idea that the American people will beg Trump to stop winning is one of his favorite bits. A little research shows him using very similar rhetoric at an NRA rally in Louisville on May 20, in Billings, Montana on May 16, in Syracuse on April 16, in South Carolina on February 19, at Liberty University on January 18, and in Reno on January 10. My favorite write-up is probably this one by Jack Moore in GQ (describing a speech in Albany on April 12). Like me and other liberal elitists, he mistakenly interprets what he’s seeing as a one-time meltdown, where a Trump voter would likely recognize it as the reliable, beloved bit of rhetorical gold that its constant reuse shows it to be.  But Moore also goes on to say (correctly I think ):

But if it’s possible, the weirdest part of the rant wasn’t the fact that the TrumpBot4500’s wiring short circuited leading him to just repeat the words “win” and “winning” so many times that they began to lose all meaning. No, the weirdest part of the rant was the picture it painted of a world, where Trump is President and he makes America win so much that the American people actually beg him to stop winning.

I guess what I’m really noticing here is that simply offering a straightforward description of this speech act is fascinating.2

But the use on the campaign trail wasn’t what I was remembering. With some modest additional research, I suddenly remembered that Trump did nearly the exact same thing in a sketch on Saturday Night Live (here’s a Hulu link if that works for you).

Winning

For most of the sketch, various characters just tell Trump how well things are going; Putin has backed down, the economy is in great shape, etc. It’s not great comedy: The actors seem uncomfortable, the audience isn’t laughing much, and, as we’re about to see, the whole thing feels way too much like Trump’s actual campaign rhetoric, because at around 2:55 Taran Killam’s character enters and says:

“We have got a big problem. It’s the American people, sir. They’re just sick of winning! They’re winning so much! It’s just too great, sir.”

As he did in Texas, Trump insists that people are just going to have to accept the winning. The sketch ends with a direct address to the camera in which he insists that his actual Presidency will be even better.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think Trump completely stole this whole idea from Saturday Night Live. He hosted on November 7, 2015, and he was talking about people begging him to stop winning at least as far back as September, 2015. As far as I can tell, this is the first time it goes on at this length, or where various policy areas are mentioned as areas where he has won without any specifics (if anything, SNL has more policy detail than the bit in his Texas speech). So it is certainly possible that some of his favorite campaign lines were actually written by comedy writers who were making fun of him.

Still, we don’t necessarily need to ask whether a man running for President of the United States has based a key part of his campaign speeches on a lightly plagiarized version of a comedy sketch.3 The important thing, the part that no one can argue, is that a key part of his campaign speeches appeared in a comedy sketch, where it was a joke; and furthermore, he clearly knows about this, because he was there, helping make fun of it.

The rational explanation for the appearance of this routine in so many of Trump’s later speeches is that he’s joking; it’s hyperbole for comedic effect, just something to amuse the crowd. I want this to be true, because he might be the President someday. But I can’t quite believe it.

For one thing, the crowd doesn’t treat it like a joke. If you listen to that speech in Texas, they aren’t really laughing; they’re cheering. For another, there are way too many platform-style talking points in these moments, things that you’re not supposed to turn into a big joke. His constituents don’t think it’s funny to say that you’ve eliminated Common Core or “saved the Second Amendment 100%”. Those are genuine policy goals that they take seriously. Politicians don’t make jokes about that stuff—you didn’t see Obama working the crowd by saying, “You’ll all say, Mr. President, how’d you get us out of Iraq so fast?” The basic reason you don’t do that is that it’s only a joke if you obviously won’t achieve those goals—it’s not a joke to just list stuff you think will happen. So does he really expect to get rid of Common Core, or is this something like the idea of people begging him to stop winning—funny only because it’s clearly absurd?

This brings us back to the two questions at the top of the post. For question one, we would seem to have an obvious answer, at least in this one little corner of Trump’s speeches. Does he mean what he says? Surely not, since: 1) These things are flagrantly absurd, and 2) He appeared in a show making fun of these things as obvious jokes.

Yet we also know that 1) He keeps mixing this obvious joke with his actual policy, 2) The crowds cheer rather than laughing. And all of this is made only more confusing by the fact that the reality appears to be warping to fit the TV comedy show—the bit just keeps getting longer and more absurd, to the point that in Texas Trump was performing lines for both himself and his fictional exhausted public.

I think we also have to add one last consideration: Do we have any evidence, from any point in his history, that Trump ever didn’t think he was going to win? However you define winning, doesn’t it seem like he genuinely believes (this may be his most genuine belief) that he is going to triumph? This is where we get back to Question 2. What does Trump think he’s doing up there on stage? He was in the sketch, but does he know it’s a joke? Did some part of him doubt it was truly a joke even when he was on the show? Is he able to hold both beliefs at once, simultaneously knowing that he’s repeating a joke, and truly believing that everything he’s describing will come true in real life?

In the end, I don’t think we can ever know. Is he joking, lying, or just wrong? The answer requires a journey into the mind of Trump. It’s a journey only he can make; but I’m not sure even he knows if he ever has.


1. Also like most Trump transcripts, this one contains a lot of phrases that sound like bad machine translations. On Common Core, for instance, he says, “You’re gonna end it and bring education local”, and again, that other one is “they can’t believe you’ve saved the Second Amendment 100%!”

2. Marlow, in Heart of Darkness: “There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination–you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.”

3. I haven’t seen him credit the SNL writers/cast in his speeches, for what I take to be obvious reasons, but I don’t want to accuse him of anything—maybe he has (this would be kind of incredible).

The President Was Here

This post uses Most Distinctive Words to analyze what we talk about when we talk about Presidents.*

WikiPresidentia

I begin with the Wikipedia pages for each U.S. President. I downloaded these in January and then got distracted with work, so they’re a few months out of date, but still relatively fresh compared to most of the texts I work on. I wasn’t too strict about what I took; basically I started at the top of the article and stopped when I felt the article was over. Just having this much gives you access to an underrated form of quantitative textual analysis: checking how long things are. Here are the word counts for each President’s article:

President Word Count
LBJ 18485
JFK 17098
Ike 16458
FDR 16334
Lincoln 15765
Reagan 15374
Wilson 15234
Harding 15220
Grant 15107
Teddy 14868
Nixon 14366
W 14200
Washington 13809
Andrew Johnson 13674
McKinley 12988
Ford 12764
Jackson 12007
Carter 11958
Tyler 11944
Truman 11905
Jefferson 11643
Garfield 11555
Pierce 11537
Clinton 11497
Obama 11437
Hoover 11420
Madison 11008
Adams 10836
George H.W. Bush 10832
Cleveland 10060
Taft 9512
Coolidge 9239
Arthur 9162
JQA 8917
Hayes 8906
Ben Harrison 8423
Buchanan 7035
Van Buren 6966
Monroe 6801
WHH 6714
Taylor 6194
Polk 6096
Fillmore 4774

To me this variation appears to have barely any rhyme or reason. LBJ is a solid contender for the top spot; his Presidency is very tough to rank, because it includes both an incredible domestic agenda (Civil Rights Act, Medicare) and arguably the worst foreign policy agenda (Vietnam). But if you take the “absolute value” of everything he did, there’s no denying he’s one of the most consequential Presidents. Fillmore is also a decent contender for last place, with less than a fourth of LBJ’s word count; I think he’s probably high in the running for “most forgotten President”.** But in between, things quickly get strange. Eisenhower ahead of 4-termer FDR? John Tyler ahead of Thomas Jefferson? Harding ahead of Teddy Roosevelt? Monroe near the bottom?

The big lesson here is that these pages are pretty weird artifacts. Their authors will have stylistic tics (maybe Tyler got a verbose guy, and Monroe got an Imagiste), and editorial decisions might displace whole sections into other articles. For example, in Jefferson’s article, the Louisiana Purchase gets about 250 words, but there’s also a standalone article about the Louisiana Purchase that’s about 5,000 words long—i.e., more worthy of discussion than the entire administration and life of Millard Fillmore, according to random Wikipedia editors.

Most Distinctive Words

Still, even with these idiosyncrasies, we ought to be able to extract something interesting from the language of these articles. For instance, which Presidents’ write-ups have the most to do with slavery, or war? What are the most remarked-upon aspects of, say, Teddy’s life, or the founding fathers, or the Gilded Age? What words, if any, set apart the discourse surrounding an icon like Lincoln from that around a tremendous moral failure like Andrew Jackson?

To explore these questions I turned to Most Distinctive Words (MDWs). This is basically a measure of the words that appear more frequently in a given text than we would expect, based on their frequency in some comparison corpus. In my case, that means checking which words appear disproportionately often in one guy’s article, compared to what we’d see if the words were distributed evenly across all articles.*** So, for instance, we might expect to see “atomic” appear distinctively often for Truman, since he dropped more atom bombs than anyone else—and, in fact, “atomic” is a distinctive word for him (though “bombing” gets you Reagan and LBJ as well).

A few notes about the MDWs you’ll see in the rest of this post: To make life easier, I converted everything to lowercase (that way “train” and “Train” aren’t different words, just because one appears at the beginning of a sentence). I also removed stop words (things like “the” and “of”, which are so frequent that they can skew things, and also are often boring), numbers, and symbols. Finally, I took out the ordinarily used names of Presidents (so, “andrew”, “jackson”, and “jacksons”, the latter to catch possessives), because otherwise they dominate the data, since they are naturally very distinctive of their articles.

The System Works

When you check the MDWs for a particular guy, you usually find a pretty nice encapsulation of his Presidency’s Greatest Hits. Here are the top few for Lincoln:†

Lincoln MDWs
slavery
union
illinois
emancipation
confederate
kentucky
proclamation
douglas
war
mcclellan
land
booth
salem
springfield
free
slave
gettysburg
republicanism

You start with his two signature issues, pick up his home states, roll through his political acts and opponents, and even capture his assassin and, three cells later, one after the other, the reason he was killed. Another good example is Andrew Jackson:

Andrew Jackson MDWs
carolina
creek
rachel
tennessee
hermitage
indian
indians
orleans
south
calhoun
lands
removal
bank
banks
seminole
tribes

You’ve got his famous battle (“orleans”), his refusal to understand finance (“banks”), and his penchant for genocide—rendered all the more striking when you realize that “creek” refers to the Creek tribe (now called Muscogee), who lost a brutal war against Jackson and years later were also victims of the Indian Removal Act.

Since the MDWs work pretty often, it’s pretty striking when they depart from expectations. For some guys, this means a focus on the pre-Presidency—Madison’s top word is “constitution”, Reagan’s are littered with California and Hollywood terms, and Eisenhower’s focus on war terminology for eight straight words until they arrive at “interstate”, before jumping back to “ii”. Ulysses S. Grant is similar—unsurprising, since his own memoir barely mentions that he was President.

In another case that surprised me a little, the focus is on the post-Presidency:

William Howard Taft MDWs
court
justice
chief
v
supreme
opinion

Taft was the only President who ever went on to become a Supreme Court justice. That’s distinguishing in either sense of the word, and a nice legacy for a guy whose is probably best known to the public for being too fat to get out of a bathtub. (The article I have says that the evidence for this actually happening is unclear, but gives two sources for the distressingly ambiguous sentence “However, he once did overflow a bathtub.” I’m surprised and a little disappointed to say this whole sequence has been removed from the current version of the article.)

Another guy who surprised me was JFK. The word “assassination” is just 12th on his list; but on reflection, this may have something to do with the 8,000 word separate article on it, not to be confused with the 19,000 wordJohn F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories” article, which is longer than any Presidential article.††

Rules of Distinction

One feature of MDWs is that they privilege proper nouns. This makes sense when you consider just how specific (i.e., distinct) proper nouns are: all sorts of kids have dogs, but only Oblio has Arrow. This means there are a few things that define you if you get a Wikipedia page:

  • Your home. A President’s home state usually appears in his top few MDWs. If a guy has two home states, they both appear: Lincoln gets Illinois and Kentucky, Obama gets Illinois and Hawaii (and, even higher, Chicago). This isn’t a universal rule (JFK doesn’t have “massachusetts”), but it’s quite common.
  • Your wife. George has Martha, John has Abigail, Abe has Mary, Rutherford has Lucy, Herbert has Lou, Dwight has Mamie, Dick has Pat, Ron has Nancy, Bill has Hillary. You’re known by the person you love. But, there’s also:
  • You enemy. The first word for Washington is “british”; “confederate” makes the top five for Lincoln and Grant; Polk has his “mexico” and Truman his “korea”. Booth, Guiteau, Czolgosz, and Oswald make their expected lists. LBJ has not just “vietnam” but “goldwater”. And look back at the Jackson list above: creek, indian, indians, calhoun, bank, banks, seminole, tribes—that’s eight enemies in just 16 words (and another, “orleans”, is the site of a battle). For everyone, but especially for bloodthirsty maniacs, distinction is conferred by who and what we choose to fight.

Eras, In So Many Words

Another cool option with these MDWs is approaching from the other direction. Once we have them, we can pick a word and see who it encompasses. For instance, take the word “gold”. This turns out to be an MDW for Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Cleveland, Harrison, and McKinley—in other words, every President but one (Arthur) from 1868-1901. This is probably a function of the currency debates that dominated that era (the last three guys also have “silver” as an MDW), but it’s also a nice, very literal way to capture the Gilded Age.

Or take another definitive American word: “slave”. That word and “slaves” appear as MDWs for Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Jackson—six of the first seven Presidents, and all of the ones who owned slaves themselves. (JQA, like his father, didn’t own any slaves, and the two words appear in his article in the context of his fierce opposition to slavery; for the rest of them, the words are there mainly because they owned slaves.) After this crew, those two words largely disappear, with the exceptions of Fillmore (he had “moderate anti-slavery views”, according to the article) and Lincoln (for obvious reasons).

But the issue does not disappear. The words “slavery” or “antislavery” appear as MDWs for JQA, Jackson, Van Buren, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan, before coming to a close with Lincoln. That’s everyone between the Founding Fathers and the close of the Civil War with the exceptions of William Henry Harrison (who served one month) and John Tyler (who was in office, but didn’t exactly serve at all). Many of these Presidents were slave-owners themselves, but we see a shift away from personal ownership as the focus (with a few overlap cases), and toward the rise of a political cause—from slaves to slavery. It’s a striking lexical marker of the transition from one paradigm to another, maybe somehow indicating the point at which Wikipedia writers and readers feel that Presidents were “of their time” instead of responsible for it.

A Final Mystery

I want to end with something I noticed but can’t quite explain. The word “president” actually appears as an MDW in several cases. Here they are:

word frequency p value President
president 101 0.000131294 Tyler
president 102 0.001869553 Andrew Johnson
president 74 0.002524355 Taft
president 105 0.006078532 W
president 80 0.008887996 George HW Bush
president 52 0.00954079 WH Harrison
president 96 0.016850757 Nixon
president 86 0.018566542 Ford
president 98 0.038807297 Reagan

In some of these cases, it seems like the word might have to do with unique relationships to the office. Harrison died immediately, Tyler took over even though no one wanted him (he was known as “His Accidency“), while succession laws were still untested, and Johnson abused the office to veto Congress until they impeached him (note: if you include “presidential” in these results, you add Clinton to the mix, suggesting impeachment may play a role). Still, even if this is right, it only explains a few articles. I have no idea what any of this has to do with Taft.

And then there’s this: Every Republican President since 1968 has the word “president” as an MDW. What’s more, in this era it’s only Republicans—Carter, Clinton, and Obama are all missing from that list. Why is this happening? Is it some sort of conservative preference for hierarchy/authority? A right-wing love of the institution? The tendency of these Presidents to wield presidential authority in problematic ways (Watergate, the pardon of the guy who did Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Decider and his father)? Just a random tic from a prolific Wikipedia editor? (Even then, it might interesting that the editor of these articles has that tic.)

I looked at the word’s usage in the articles in hope of clarity, but the answer wasn’t immediately obvious. I did notice that, in the George W. Bush article, for instance, there was a tendency to call him “President Bush” in photo captions (which are included in the articles I analyzed)—but this doesn’t explain why other articles don’t follow the same practice. This all put me in mind of a bumper sticker I used to see in Texas, that looked roughly like this:

WthePresident

I never knew how to interpret it. What’s the point of stating that the current President is the President? I am being completely honest when I say that I don’t know if this is supposed to be combative, reassuring, snarky, patriotic, a sign of the tribe, or something else I haven’t even thought of. So it’s interesting to see a sort of version of it replicated in these MDWs—105 uses of the word President††† in an article that tells you, right at the top, that it’s about a President. It’s an interesting form of distinction for the modern Republican President—the simple confirmation that they held the job.

 


Notes

*It was very tempting to use this as the title of the post, but I think you just can’t do that anymore. If you Google “what we talk about when we talk about” -love (the last part is so that you don’t get any actual references to Raymond Carver’s short story), you get 211,000 results. Based on those results, here are a few of the things about which we talk about what we talk about when we talk about them:

  • Apple and Compelled Speech
  • Gun Violence
  • “The Uyghurs” (quotation marks in original)
  • Indicators
  • Clone Club
  • Causality
  • GIFs
  • God
  • Minimalism

** I doubt he wins though; his name is too weird. My guess is Ben Harrison.

***Specifically, I used word frequencies from all articles to set expected values, and word frequencies in given articles to set observed values. I then used a Fisher’s exact test to determine which words were significantly more present than expected. I did not look for words that were missing (e.g., if a President’s article says “war” much less than ordinary). My thanks to Mark Algee-Hewitt for helping me write the R code used in this project, and for explaining MDWs to me in the first place.

† In all cases, the words are ordered by p-value, where lower is taken to mean “more distinctive”. Here and below, I’m pasting in partial lists for space purposes.

†† This makes it longer than Macbeth, as well as 7 other Shakespeare plays. See also the 2,800 word “Assassination of John F. Kennedy in Popular Culture” article.

††† W’s article has 105 occurrences of the word “president”, more than three times as many as George Washington, who not only has a roughly equal-length article, but practically invented the office.