Pittsburgh and Paris: Donald Trump’s failure to understand the metaphoric and symbolic power of language

There will be millions of words written about the Trumptster’s failure to ratify the Paris Agreement.  It will be about climate change and the failure of the US in world politics and diplomacy.

But there is another issue and it comes to the heart of Trump’s understanding of the world and his fundamental grasp of language. Ultimately, it is language that is the most powerful tool of the politician and it is the power of language that ultimately Trump does not understand.


In announcing to the world that the US would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, the President said he was elected to represent the people of Pittsburgh not the people of Paris.  It was all a bit confusing.

The people of Pittsburgh, to take a very literal or Trumpian view, all voted for Donald Trump and, presumably, all work in coal mines. Their interests are not represented by the Paris Agreement.


 One of the cheery folk who voted for the Donald

There is another group of people who, in Donald Trump’s eyes, he was not elected to represent. They are the people who live in Paris.


 These people did not vote for the Donald

Trump’s problem was that he got his metaphors very badly tangled up.

To begin with, his choice of metaphor, left the American people with the impression that he was elected to represent the coalmining interests of Pittsburgh because that is what Pittsburgh represents in a symbolic sense.

He didn’t choose Silicon Valley, or Madison Avenue or even Detroit as his symbolic example. He chose a coal mining area. So people would have taken him literally, given all the stuff about climate change.

It was a bad choice of metaphor and an even worse example given that even his own administration can’t defend his support of the coal industry.

But then he confused things even more by saying he wasn’t elected to represent the people of Paris. By confusing the people who live in Paris with the delegates to the Paris climate conference, he must have left his audience thinking, “He does know that the delegates don’t actually live in Paris, doesn’t he?”

 One of the things about great orators is they don’t confuse their audience and they understand the power of metaphor. This is how one great orator made metaphor work:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.


I know that this comparison is not fair. The Trumpster is no Martin Luther King, Jr. But is it too much to expect that the President of the United States of America should be a passable public speaker?

Donald Trump only understands the symbolism and power of things. That’s what he builds.

But resorts, golf courses and big shiny towers do not have the power of language, the power to inspire in the way that Lincoln, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Obama or Churchill did.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias , king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

                                                                                 Ozymandias   P B Shelley

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