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War Of The Words: Trump Vs. Khan

by Jonathan Charteris-Black 25th June 2019

Author Jonathan Charteris-Black analyzes the recent exchange between President Donald Trump and Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London

In The Art of War Sun Tzu defines ‘contentious ground’ as: “Ground the possession of which imports great advantage to either side”. Metaphorically speaking, Twitter is contentious ground. Donald Trump’s recent state visit to the UK was preceded by a Twitter spat with the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Here I consider the relationship between verbal attacks and the medium by which they are delivered. Initially, it was Khan who criticised Trump’s state visit in a press article that was linked to in the following tweet:
The article framed the state visit as a form of ‘appeasement’ of the far right. Khan then developed an argument that Trump’s visit was of symbolic importance to the far right across Europe and alluded to the rise of fascism in the 1930s. His main subject was the symbolic meaning of Trump’s state visit: Khan sought to rally support in opposition to the visit. As Sun Tzu notes: “On the field of battle, the spoken word does not carry far enough: hence the institution of gongs and drums”. Metaphorically, Khan was banging a gong.

As he was landing the next day Trump responded with two tweets that attacked the person of the Mayor of London. The words and phrases that constitute an ad hominem attack, that is to say, a line of argument directed towards the character of an individual, rather than the ideas of views that are being debated, are in bold: The tweets demonstrate what has been identified as the prime characteristics of Twitter: simplicity, impulsivity, and incivility. The word choices are schoolboy-like, the tweet is posted while his plane was landing and there are tasty insults. However, Khan was perhaps bearing in mind Sun Tzu’s advice “Do not swallow bait offered by the enemy” when he responded the next day, June 4th, through two different media - a text tweet that links to a video broadcast: Instead of responding to the ad hominem attack he shifts back to the ‘special’ relationship between the UK and the US. Again, he was following Sun Tzu’s dictum: “We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbours”. The video was picked up in a CNN interview on June 4th, and the broadcast linked to on social media. This gave Khan the opportunity to make a fresh ad hominem attack on Trump’s style: Khan refused to do battle on the opponent’s territory. In chapter 7 of the second edition of Analyzing Political Speeches I discuss some strategies for responding to a coercive attack, such as ignoring it – either with or without ending the interaction - (strategies 1 and 2) or counterattacking (strategy 3). Initially he employed the first strategy but then switched to the third strategy in his ad hominem tweet as he calls Trump ‘childish’. By initially ignoring the attack on Twitter, but then responding in a different medium - video broadcast - Khan changes the terrain of battle to one where he has greater strengths. He summarises Trump’s ad hominem attack as ‘name-calling’ and beats his big gong in opposition to the visit.

Trump’s ‘Stone cold loser’ probably appealed to his followers. They may either forget who Khan is (note the misspelling of ‘Khan’ in the first of Trump’s tweets), or conflate him with Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim American soldier who died when protecting his unit and subsequently criticised Trump. Khan’s supporters also rallied around his position and will recall that he banged a gong against Trump’s state visit.

Linguists sometimes limit their data to a single medium but by doing so there is a danger of missing the interaction effect arising from different media: this spat was triggered by a press article, responded to by a brief tweet exchange and followed up with a linked video broadcast. While ad hominem attacks are a staple of Twitter, they don’t convert to the traditional media of spoken broadcast monologue and the press. When weaponising language, take Sun Tzu’s advice and think strategically about the ground you select on which to conduct battle.
Featured image credit: Photo by Michael Vadon. Available on Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 4.0.