What journalists can learn from Trump's campaign slogans

Political slogans have been with us almost since the beginning of the republic: "Give me liberty, or give me death." But they seem to have made a comeback in the age of Trump.

Trump’s was the face that launched a thousand tweets. But it also inspired a dozen slogans that Hillary Clinton could never match. As my colleague Rick Edmonds notices, Hillary’s slogan "Stronger Together" lacked a verb, as opposed to Trump’s full sentence with an imperative verb: "Make America Great Again."

So weak was "Stronger Together" that her husband, Bill Clinton, got it wrong in a speech, rendering it as "Growing Together." (Bill understood subconsciously that it needed some kind of verb action.)

A recent NPR report captured the enthusiasm of Trump supporters at a rally in Cincinnati, where the next president thanked the State of Ohio for his victory, patted himself on the back for getting Carrier to stay put and tossed red meat to the carnivores in the crowd on some of their favorite campaign themes.

In turn, the crowd chanted a series of slogans:

On Hillary: "Lock her up."
On immigration: "Build that wall."
On Washington: "Drain the swamp."

I needed to hear them spoken in close proximity to notice that structurally the three slogans were identical. Each began with an imperative verb (lock, build, drain). Each was three words long. All nine words were one syllable in length. Each verb was transitive, that is, it carried an object. And in each case some unspecified subject was order to do something to something else.

In comparison, Hillary’s repetition of "When they go low, we go high" was both derivative (thank you, Michelle Obama), and kind of wimpy.

The etymology of the word slogan, "a phrase expressing the aims or nature of an enterprise, organization or candidate," is revealing. Its etymon is Gaelic and translates to "battle cry," especially as employed by the berserkers in Scottish clans. The slogan, then, is not a rational conclusion of a subtle argument. The slogan is in your face, a call to arms.

Laurence Urdang and Celia Dame Robbins edited a book titled "Slogans," which they describe as "a collection of more than 6,000…rallying cries and other exhortations used in advertising, political campaigns, popular causes and movements, and diverse efforts to urge people to take action."

Such short phrases are designed to persuade readers to move, to sell them on a product, service, idea, political party, person, institution, team, celebrity, issue, or cause.

As I point out in my book, How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times, the texts of bumper stickers alone could make a case for the continuing importance of the slogan to our political and civic life. Thousands of bumper stickers are created each year on subjects related to American politics and culture, and many are created by companies that also print and sell T-shirts.

In other words, the bumper sticker is a T-shirt for an automobile. As in this pro-Sarah Palin message: "You Can Keep ‘The Change’/Palin 2012." Or this negative one: "Sarah Palin in 2012/ The world’s supposed to end anyway."

In case you are wondering who invented the slogan, it may have been Moses (maybe he slapped a message on the back of a chariot.) Urdang and Robbins remind us that you’d have to take a long ride on the Wayback Machine to find the earliest examples in human culture. They list:

"Let my people go." (Exodus 5:1)

"Know thyself." (from the oracle at Delphi)

"Love thy neighbor as thyself."

"Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!" (Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!, the rallying cry of the French Revolution).

Notice how the first three of those — like Trump’s — begin with imperative verbs. Leave it to the French to stack up three abstractions.

Journalists need to pay attention to all of this. Howell Raines, then political editor of the St. Petersburg Times, knew this when he asked me to accompany him to a political rally and barbecue in the Florida woods. Before we talked to anyone, he wanted to get a feel for the crowd. We walked through the parking area, noting the political bumper stickers on the backs of cars and pickups.

I was four years old when my mother in 1952 started reciting this famous campaign slogan "I like Ike." It remains my favorite. Three words — only eight letters — with a rhyme to boot. These three-beat slogans seem to be a special form of battle cry:

"I like Ike."

"Lock her up."

"Build that wall."

"Drain the swamp."

They are chant-able like many popular sports chants: "Let’s go Mets!"

Their expression in three words offers a kind of completeness: this is all you need to know. And their brevity rings like the gospel truth.

They show fidelity. They are confident, at times to the point of intolerance. Fact checking and wonkery bounce off of them. They seem silly when spoken by an individual. Coming from an excited crowd they express a collective energy, an army of followers ready to go to war for their king.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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