Alternative facts, witch-hunt, bigly: the Trump era in 32 words and phrases

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Donald Trump not only changed much about campaigning, governing and the ways of Washington, even the language of American politics has altered during the Republican’s tenure. Trump’s rollicking rally speeches and manic Twitter feed conjured new slogans and insults or revived incendiary words with long histories; his allies, opponents and chroniclers searched for new phrases to describe the indescribable. Here is a glossary of some of them from the past five years:

alternative facts

Coined by Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, during a Meet the Press interview in January 2017 to defend press secretary Sean Spicer’s the false assertion that Trump drew the biggest inauguration crowd ever. Together these formed the original sin of the Trump presidency, culminating in his coronavirus and election denialism.

alt-right

A far-right movement based on white nationalism and antisemitism. One of its leaders, Richard Spencer, described it as “identity politics for white people”. When Steve Bannon was running Breitbart News, he called it “the platform for the alt-right”. Bannon went on to become Trump’s chief strategist during his first race for the White House.

American carnage

In his inaugural address, Trump painted a dark picture of poverty in inner cities, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones and crime and gangs and drugs, promising: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” But the phrase came back to haunt him, especially when the coronavirus pandemic killed hundreds of thousands of people.

America first

Trump’s central promise of self-interest galvanised his base and dismayed critics. He followed through on withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, renegotiating trade deals and leaving the US isolated on the global stage. The phrase also had jarring associations with a 1940s movement to keep the US out of the second world war that came to be accused of antisemitism.

Antifa

An amorphous and leftwing anti-fascist movement demonised by Trump and fellow Republicans. Its followers have used aggressive tactics including physical confrontations to intimidate groups they regard as authoritarian or racist. Joe Biden remarked during a presidential debate: “Antifa is an idea, not an organization.”

bigly

Legend has it that Trump first deployed this word during the first presidential debate against Hillary Clinton in 2016. “I’m going to cut taxes bigly, and you’re going to raise taxes bigly,” he said, or at least that was how some people heard it. Others reckoned he must have said “big league”. But the word “bigly” does appear in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

China virus

Trump complained that Covid-19 had multiple names but more often than not settled on the racist terms “China virus” and “kung flu”, putting Asian Americans at risk of hostility and persecution. He insisted: “Asian Americans are VERY angry at what China has done to our Country, and the World.” But even Conway rejected the term “China virus” as “wrong” and “highly offensive”.

collusion

The first half of Trump’s presidency was dominated by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia. In the end, Mueller stopped short of asserting that collusion took place – prompting Trump’s defenders to cry “collusion delusion” – but did make a persuasive case that the president obstructed justice.

deep state

Trump pushed the conspiracy theory that bureaucrats within the political system effectively run a secret government that plots against democratically elected officials. Others came to see civil servants, judges and national security personnel as a bulwark of democracy. “Thank God for the deep state,” John McLaughlin, a former deputy and acting director of the CIA, remarked last year.

disinformation

Typically defined as the dissemination of deliberately false information, it took flight with Russia’s social media attack during the 2016 election. Trump pushed disinformation about the economy, coronavirus, election and countless other topics. The willingness of Republicans and conservative media to do likewise raised fears of a fundamental breakdown in trust in government institutions and the media.

enemy of the people

In a characteristic shock tactic, Trump used this historically loaded phrase regularly to attack the media. Its lineage dates back to 1789 when French revolutionaries threw it at those who opposed them. In the 20th century it was embraced by autocrats from Stalin to Mao to justify their bloody purges. The danger of such rhetoric was evident in Trump supporter T-shirts that said: “Rope. Tree. Journalist.”

fake news

The term was popularised by BuzzFeed News media editor Craig Silverman to describe unverified claims and online rumours. But in January 2017, Trump, then president-elect, told CNN’s Jim Acosta at a press conference: “You are fake news.” From that moment on, he coopted and weaponised the phrase to dismiss media reports he did not like.

failing

One of Trump’s favourites on Twitter and elsewhere, particularly when referring to the New York Times. In fact the Times thrived during his presidency and now has more than 7 million paid subscribers. He remained obsessed with the coverage of him in his home town paper.

false and misleading

This became frequent media shorthand for Trump’s distortions. The Washington Post’s fact checkers even kept count: by 11 September, it noted, he had “made 23,035 false or misleading claims”. But from January 2017 onwards, when the New York Times ran the headline, Meeting With Top Lawmakers, Trump Repeats an Election Lie, media outlets became bolder about calling a lie a lie.

globalist

This was the dark side of “America first”. Trump’s defenders claimed he was using the term to condemn globalisation and its devastating effects on American workers. But critics heard a dog whistle for racist, antisemitic and antigovernment conspiracy theorists including the alt-right. George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist, was among the targets of anti-globalist bigotry.

hoax

Trump described climate change, the Russia investigation and his impeachment as a hoax. Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Reliable Sources programme, noted in August that the president had already used the word more than 250 times this year. When Stelter published a book, he naturally called it Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.

Javanka

A conflation of Jared Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump, both senior advisers to the president, both lightning rods for scorn and ridicule. Hopes that, as supposed New York liberals, they would restrain Trump’s worst impulses were dashed over and over. “They are the Faustian poster couple of the Trump presidency,” wrote Frank Bruni in the New York Times.

lock her up!

Along with “build that wall”, this became the classic chant at Trump’s rallies in 2016, when he ran against Hillary Clinton and, more unexpectedly, persisted through to 2020, when Joe Biden proved harder to categorise. The phrase was condemned for normalising the idea of a president seeking to jail his opponent.

loser

This is one of Trump’s go to insults, slung at everyone from the media to the Lincoln Project to former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. But it rebounded on him last September when the Atlantic magazine reported that he had referred to America’s war dead as “losers” and “suckers”. Two months later, Trump, who was all about “winning”, became a loser himself in November’s election.

Maga

Short for “Make America great again”, a slogan borrowed from Ronald Reagan that Trump made his own at rallies, on hats and on endless other merchandise. The “Maga nation” became a way to describe a country within a country, one that was seething with anger, nativist populism and contempt for liberals and fact-based reality.

Never Trumper

The Never Trump movement was a failed attempt among Republicans and other conservatives to deny Trump the party’s nomination in 2016. But it marched on through his presidency and found expression in groups such as the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump that opposed him in 2020.

norms

Trump bent, broke, shattered, shredded and trampled on norms from start to finish, prompting the lament: “This is not normal.” It was another way of saying that he crossed every line, pushed every envelope and violated every unwritten rule. It led some commentators to suggest that at least some of those rules should now be written down.

owning the libs

A symptom of negative partisanship, this political performance art is all about goading, shocking and outraging liberals, especially on social media. Its patron saint was Trump’s son Don Jr. “He is there only to engage in that performative dickery that is lib owning in the Trump world,” said Rick Wilson, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project.

quid pro quo

The Latin phrase, which means “something given or received for something else”, was uttered frequently during Trump’s impeachment hearings. He denied promising to unfreeze military aid to Ukraine in return for that country announcing an investigation into Biden.

resistance

The resistance to Trump’s presidency made a stunning debut with the women’s march in January 2017 and just kept going, energising grassroots groups such as Indivisible, diverse political newcomers such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and protests over Trump’s supreme court picks. The Resistance also happened to be the name of the good guys in the new Star Wars trilogy.

sad!

Another familiar Trump refrain, as in “Governor Cuomo has completely lost control. Sad!”, “Biden will also raise your taxes like never before. Sad!” and “These are “Organized Groups” that have nothing to do with George Floyd. Sad!” History will surely judge he did more for exclamation marks that any other president.

seriously not literally

“[T]he press takes him literally, but not seriously,” wrote Salena Zito in the Atlantic magazine in September 2016, “his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” This phrase hovered over much early debate about the meaning of Trump, although critics came to argue that his malign conduct should be taken both literally and seriously.

soul

In 2018 historian Jon Meacham wrote the book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Biden, an admirer of the book, characterised his presidential campaign as a “battle for the soul of America” (Meacham reportedly had a hand in his speeches) and tweeted on 16 December: “In this battle for the soul of America, democracy prevailed.” Right on cue, the latest Pixar animated film is called, simply, Soul.

split screen

A well-worn phrase that captured the division, partisanship and polarisation of the Trump years, especially the notion of two distinct media bubbles. There were moments when CNN and Fox News seemed to occupy different universes. Carl Bernstein, whose reporting on the Watergate scandal with Bob Woodward helped bring down Richard Nixon, said America had entered a “a cold civil war”.

triggered

This word became a football in the Trump-fuelled culture wars. People have legitimate reasons to feel “triggered” by examples of racism or other abuses. But rightwing trolls seized on terms like “triggered” and “woke” to mock liberals as “snowflakes”. Donald Trump Jr penned a book called Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us.

unprecedented

Arguably the most overused word of the past five years. A CNN book chronicling the 2016 campaign was entitled Unprecedented: The Election That Changed Everything; just last week, on 15 December, Biden accused Trump of an “unprecedented assault on democracy”. Weary journalists were left scrambling for synonyms.

witch-hunt

The phrase, which conjures images of women being put on trial and thrown into water amid hysteria reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, became a staple of Trump’s defence against the Russia investigation and Ukraine-related impeachment. Casting himself as a perpetual victim, more than one tweet simply yelled: “Witch-hunt!”