The Use of Metaphors in Rhetoric of Donald Trump

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It is evident that style in political discourse can help politicians to reach different purposes like impressing the public or obtaining support from them. Each politician has his own style when speaking to the public or to the media: in order to get their purposes, they resort to linguistic devices that help them to accomplish their objectives.

Undoubtedly, USA’s president Donald Trump stood out for his unconventional rhetoric and language, very different from the one adopted by previous presidents. Trump communicates with powerful metaphors avoiding too technical vocabulary. What contributes to make his speeches successful is the ability to use metaphors that average Americans comprehend.

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Trump’s presidency does not consist only of public discourses, but also of statements on social media (mainly Twitter), which play an essential role in shortening the distance with his audience. These powerful means have given Trump the possibility to interact quickly and directly with Americans and have enabled him to deliver unfiltered thoughts to whoever chooses to follow his account.

In the present thesis, the rhetoric of current president Donald Trump, with emphasis on their choice of metaphor, will be analyzed. I will examine some of the metaphors Trump uses to determine if there is a possible correlation between his metaphors and his political goals. To do so, I will draw upon the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff to examine some of the metaphors used by Donald Trump and illustrate the implicit meaning present in the statements, which will lead to a deeper understanding of how Trump’s language affects public reaction.

What is a metaphor?

Metaphor is defined as “an imaginative way of describing something by referring to something else which is the same in a particular way” (Collins Dictionary). Its etymology dates back to the Greek term metapherein, meaning to transfer, carry over; change, alter. Aristotle gave a definition of it in his Rhetoric as well: “Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else; the transference being either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, or on grounds of analogy.”

Most of us think that metaphors are linguistic devices that belong only to poets or writers’ style. But the truth is that each of us uses metaphorical expressions in our everyday language, often unconsciously. For example: “He broke my heart”, or “Fees have gone up again” are two common metaphors that we may hear in a regular conversation.

This paper will follow the Conceptual Metaphor Theory proposed by Lakoff and Johnson in their book “Metaphors we live by”, focusing on how these metaphors are used in Donald Trump’s political discourses to achieve a greater approval from his audience.

Lakoff and Johnson state in that work that metaphors are natural and pervasive in daily life, not just in language but also in thought and action. Our conceptual system is metaphorical in nature and plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. Moreover, although metaphors occur so often in our everyday language, we are normally unaware of them.

Lakoff and Johnson divide the metaphorical concepts into three groups: structural metaphors, orientational metaphors and ontological metaphors.

Structural metaphors

Structural metaphors are a way of understanding one concept (often an abstract one) in terms of another (often a more concrete one). To give their own example, the concept ARGUMENT is experienced in terms of WAR. The conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR appears in various expressions, such as “I’ve never won an argument with him”. Furthermore, ARGUMENT is not only talked about in terms of WAR, but it is also experienced it that way: an argument can be won or lost, the person I am arguing with is my opponent, I can defend or attack during when arguing, etc. With this, they build up a new definition of metaphor: “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another”.

“You’re wasting my time” and “How do you spend the time these days?” are examples of the conceptual metaphor TIME IS MONEY. As everyone knows, time is a limited source. The meaning underneath these words is that “time is a valuable commodity.” According to Lakoff and Johnson, TIME IS MONEY is a conceptual metaphor because “we are using everyday experiences with money, limited sources and valuable commodities to conceptualize time”. Here it is used the most specific metaphorical concept to characterize the entire system. With this example, it is comprehensible how metaphor is pervasive in even the most common-place thoughts, speech, and even actions.

An important feature in this group as well is the so-called highlighting/hiding phenomenon. The systematicity that enables us to understand a certain metaphorical concept often ends up hiding other aspects of that same concept. In the example above, the battling aspect is highlighted but the cooperative aspect which can also be a feature of war, is hidden. Who is arguing with us can be seen as someone who is giving us his time, as well as a valuable commodity.

Michael Reddy has identified an important metaphor which our way of speaking language is based on, such as the “conduit metaphor”: ideas are objects; words are containers; communication is the act of sending something. The speaker puts his ideas (objects) into words (containers) and sends them to a listener (through communication). Reddy demonstrates this metaphor with a variety of expressions, e.g. “I gave you that idea”.

Orientational metaphors

Another group are the orientational metaphors. They give a concept a spatial orientation; this relationship is based on our experiences of the physical space we have. The author provide the contrast between GOOD is UP – BAD is DOWN. GOOD IS UP gives an UP orientation to general well-being, for example HAPPY IS UP, SAD IS DOWN. According to Lakoff and Johnson, someone who is sad has a bowed posture while a happy person is upright. HAPPY implies UP; SAD implies DOWN (“Today I feel up/down”). Health and life are up; illness and death are down (“He fell ill”); in fact, serious illnesses force us to lie down.

And again: a HIGH SOCIAL CONDITION is UP; a LOW SOCIAL CONDITION is DOWN (“He is climbing the social ladder”). HAVING CONTROL is UP; BEING SUBJECT TO CONTROL is DOWN (“He is under my control”). Other cases are: MORE is UP, LESS is DOWN; RATIONAL is UP, EMOTIONAL is DOWN, and so on.

Ontological metaphors

The last and wide category comprehends the ontological metaphors. They are based on the experience with physical objects. Once we have identified our experiences as entities or substances, we can refer to them, categorize them, group them and quantify them, and in this way, we can reflect on them. Even when physical objects are not precisely delimited and defined, we categorize them as if they were, according to our purposes. Human purposes require artificial limits to be imposed on physical phenomena. Thus, ontological metaphors are ways of considering abstract experiences, ideas, events etc. as if they were concrete entities. An example the authors provide are the increasing prices: they can be metaphorically seen as an entity by means of the noun inflation (“Inflation is lowering our standards of living”). This way, we can identify it and refer to it. There is a broad range of ontological metaphors we can create; I will mention some of them which are clear and easy to understand.

  • There is so much hatred in the world.
  • A series of questions.
  • The ugly side of his personality comes out under pressure.
  • We could see the joy in her face.

For what concerns ontological metaphors, Lakoff and Johnson distinguish here a sub-category: the container metaphors. As human beings, we perceive the physical objects around us as containers with an interior and an exterior; we impose this orientation also on the natural environment and we delimit the territories in such a way that they have an interior and an exterior part, even when there is no physical boundary (“There’s a lot of land in Kansas”). The same is true for the visual field, because it also delimits the territory we can see (“There’s nothing in sight”). We also use ontological metaphors to understand events, actions, activities and states: a race is perceived as a container object that has participants and actions inside it (“Are you in the race on Saturday?”).

Personification is the most obvious examples of ontological metaphors. In this case a non-human or abstract object receives human qualities or acts as a human, namely that it is personified. Below are some examples:

  • The party died as soon as she left.
  • Love is blind.
  • The flood raged over the entire village.

Metonymy, instead, is a figure of speech in which something is not called by its proper name, but it is replaced by words that are related or associated to it. It must not be confused with personification, because in the case of metonymy we are not attributing human qualities to inanimate objects. Metaphor and metonymy are two different processes. Metaphor is a way of conceiving one thing in terms of another, while metonymy instead allows us to use an entity in the place of another:

  • “I bought a Raffaello”, meaning one of his works;
  • “Let me give you a hand”, where hand stands for help.
    • A particular case of metonymy is the synecdoche, where a part of something is used to refer to the whole entity, or a whole entity is used to refer to part of something:

  • “Twenty sails came into the harbor”, where the part (sails) stands for the whole (ships);
  • “France won the World Cup”, where the whole (France) stands for the part (team).


If someone says: “Don’t think of an elephant!”, I can’t help but think of one. The recipient of the message involuntarily disobeys it as soon as he receives it, because it is impossible not to depict an elephant when it is evoked by words, even if these words contain an explicit order not to do so. Words can evoke mental images exactly opposite to those programmed by the grammatical structure in which they are embedded. Therefore, as have just seen in the example of the elephant, if you try to negate a frame, you will end up strengthening that frame. This example is taken from “Don’t think of an elephant!” by George Lakoff.

The author explains furtherly this topic with another simple conceptual frame: when George W. Bush settled in the White House, the phrase tax relief appeared in White House press releases, official speeches and reports. Let’s look in detail at the framing called to mind by this term. The term relief evokes a frame in which there is an affliction, an afflicted party (someone who is damaged) and a reliever, someone who gives relief to the afflicted party. The reliever is a hero to whom the afflicted owes gratitude. Anyone who tries to stop the hero who is bringing relief, is a villain who wants the affliction to persist. Thus, when you use the word relief alone, all of this information is called up. Consequently, every time the phrase tax relief is used, in most people who hear or read it, the view of taxation as an affliction and of Conservatives as heroes is strengthened.

Framing is conceptual structure used in thinking. This process consists in using a language that reflects one’s own vision of the world. As human beings, we have a certain perception and a consequent representation of the world. This representation is different from person to person and is determined by values and beliefs we have. The words we use activate a series of thoughts in listener’s brain that will lead him/her to think about some elements rather than others.

Lakoff investigates how framing influences reasoning, or how the way we say something often matters much more than what we say. Framing plays crucial role in evoking ideas that it might be the key to success (or failure) of a political campaign. Lakoff, using the elephant as a reference symbol of the Republican Party, illustrates the very close link between politics and communication, and how Conservatives are able to exploit it to their advantage, imposing their language to the point of breaking into the emotional sphere of the electorate and coming out victorious from the electoral confrontation

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