Trump and the Magic Yams

What linguistic anthropology tells us about the appeal of Trump's lies.

By Wynn CoatesJuly 2, 2018

“THERE’S A NEW Hillary Clinton in town,” CNN reported on June 3, 2016, the morning after her foreign-policy-turned-Trump-takedown speech in San Diego. “Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different,” Clinton chided earnestly, “they are dangerously incoherent. They’re not even really ideas, just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies.”

For supporters, the speech marked the moment the notoriously careful politician found her footing. And in an important sense it did, field-testing what would become a staple campaign strategy: letting Trump’s words “speak for themselves.” As Brian Beutler wrote shortly after the election, the Clinton camp’s approach to Trump “was to not overestimate him” — “just show the people his words, the thinking went, and the politics would take care of themselves.”

The belief that words speak for themselves is characteristic of what English Studies scholar Keith Green terms the “‘scientific’ linguistics” that dominated the nineteenth century — a theory of language animated by literalism: “literal meaning was seen as its ‘core’ or essential meaning, a meaning that is not altered significantly by the vagaries of its use.” Like containers, words were thought to carry a clearly identifiable meaning, and neither the context of their use nor the fact that people used them in a number of ways altered it. From this perspective, all language was subject to verifiability; taken literally, Trump’s words and utterances were either true — facts — or they were false — lies, or else “incoherent.”

Using an opponent’s own words against them was no novel political strategy, of course. But against Trump, it seemed, the approach was especially well suited; it would be impossible for voters to see his obviously falsifiable claims as anything else. Inconceivably for so many, however, Clinton lost the election. While explanations for the loss abound in the weeks and months that followed, none found fault in the linguistic assumptions that informed much of the resistance against Trump: that language was subject only to literal verifiability. They weren’t wrong on technical grounds, of course — Trump’s traffic in verifiable falsehoods is indeed difficult to overstate — but instead on ethnolinguistic ones. In other words, we must consider how words and language often live different cultural lives outside of literal interpretation.

And it was this other life of words that began attracting the interest of scholars beginning in the early 20th century — an interest that resulted in a growing consensus that viewed language as not rational, rather than as irrational. As anthropologist Stanley Tambiah put it, “Language is an artificial construct” whose “strength is that its form owes nothing to external reality; it thus enjoys the power to invoke images and comparisons, refer to time past and future, and relate events which cannot be represented in action.” Under this new ethnolinguistic regime, even verifiably “false speech” carried meaning that could not be reduced to its technical or objective falsity.

Among the first substantive ethnographic inquiries to advance this view was initiated by the famed Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski in the early 1900s, who took interest in a particular kind of false speech often considered an exemplar of irrationality under scientific linguistics, often pejoratively referred to as “magic spells.” Captivated by the rituals and practices that permeated the daily life and agricultural methods of the Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea, Malinowski documented them in meticulous detail, most notably in his 1935 two-volume ethnographic opus, Coral Gardens and Their Magic. If you understand what he’s saying, you’ll understand Donald Trump.

One system of magic of particular interest to Malinowski, called vilamalia, the “magic of prosperity,” contained a rite known as kaytum-la bubukwa, the “pressing of the yam-house floor,” which was performed before and after the Trobrianders’ ceremonial yam houses were filled. In Trobriand society, yams were not simply a staple food source, but sat at the center of a complex system of exchange and display, associated as they were with power, wealth, and prosperity. As often comes to mind when we think of a magic spell, a ritual wielder — here, the tovilamalia — enacts a formulaic but precise combination of words and actions intended to bring about a desired outcome. In the case of kaytum-la bubukwa, the spells, uttered publicly, were composed of words that shared in their emphasis the qualities of heaviness and durability, while binabina — volcanic stones, “the pressers of the yam-house floor” — were placed on the floor of the yam-house, similarly punctuating traits of permanence and weightiness. Together, the words, actions, and ritual objects were mobilized toward anchoring or mooring the yam-house down by making it, as well as the yams stored within them, fat, weighty, durable, and lasting.

Taken literally, rites like these only appeared to confirm the childlike status of the “primitive” mind. The native believed, the thinking went, that words contained the force of natural or mechanical causality — that is, that a magic spell could perform the physical task of rendering yams weightier than they had already grown in the ground, or that bringing a heavy item (binabina) into contact with another (the yam-shack) would result in the transference of the desired qualities (heaviness, durability) from the first to the second. The intended goal of magical practices like these, Malinowski’s contemporaries assumed, were akin to those of modern science — an effort to accomplish physical tasks, but erroneously, with words.

While Malinowski recognized as verifiably false the belief that words alone could have direct causal force, or that the contiguity of items enabled the physical transference of qualities from one to the other, he was no more convinced that the Trobrianders were unaware of this, as his colleagues had taken for granted. Designating observable social phenomenon as unintelligible or irrational did not constitute an explanation, he thought, but only substituted it, signaling a forfeiture of the observer’s willingness to understand the practices in question. Believing that the Trobrianders were in fact rational actors insofar as they had and pursued practical interests — however much these might differ from our own — he considered other possible ways that their magic spells could be true, or somehow rendered pragmatic or sensible activity.

His caution rewarded, Malinowski found his answer where anthropologists tend to — among their informants. “Whereas the objective facts reveal to us that the whole performance is directed at the yam-house, at the food accumulated there,” Malinowski wrote stiffly, “the natives maintain that the magic acts on the human organism.” Self-consciously metaphorical then, “the real subject-matter of magic influence” were the Trobrianders themselves.

As Stanley Tambiah explains, the rite was intended to “restructure and reintegrate the minds and emotions of the actors” in a cultural context where the belly is the receptacle of emotion and understanding (“It is the belly that ‘hears’ and ‘understands’ the rite”), where yams are the foundation of wealth (“It is better to let the yam rot than to deplete the stock”), and where abstention from food is virtue (“to have little food or to show hunger is shameful”). Challenging the core assumption of scientific linguistics, Malinowski advanced an approach to language in which the meaning of words and utterances were determined by the wider context of the situation. From this perspective, the use of language in general — from magical spells to technical instructions — was always to elicit a practical effect or outcome, however obscured from view this practicality might be. The relevant question about the power of words, then, was not one of verifiability, but of efficacy — not whether a spell or utterance was true, but whether (and how) it worked.

For the Trobrianders, the “magic of prosperity” had the practical effect of reminding community members that yams sat at the center of a wider universe of social value and reinforced members’ sense of accountability toward it — yam shacks should be full, and bellies empty.

Such instances of “social magic,” however, are far from exceptional, and are as much a part of mainstream American society as any pre-capitalist one. Indeed, one of the most ubiquitous obsessions of recent American (professional) middle-class culture fits the character of such practices precisely — running. As anthropologist Grant McCracken argues, “[P]art of the regime of physical health that has held sway since the 1980s in North America may be attributed to this effort to make the self more capable, more resourceful, more mobile. Running, which was recently such a fad […] was undertaken not for its own sake but in the pursuit of improved performance.” In other words, he says, “movement of one kind” — physical — is thought to enable “movement of another” — within a career, for example.

Just as the Trobrianders mobilize contrasting metaphors of emptiness and fullness for the purpose of ritually emoting allegiance to their way of life, running in certain American contexts implicates a broader universe of value in which the dual metaphors of mobility (good) and stagnation (bad) factor prominently. The point, of course, is that while it may come as a surprise to many that running might have as much to do with professional success as it does physical health, this should not be taken to suggest that the belief that running has an impact on professional mobility is irrational or impractical. While few Americans would concede that running somehow automatically leads to career advancement, many would likely agree that it can “restructure and reintegrate” their minds and emotions toward this goal — a process that may well effect real outcomes.

From the “magic of prosperity” to the “magic of running,” then, it’s clear that — at least under the right circumstances — one can “do things with words,” as the philosopher of language J. L. Austin would later expound. Magic — and specifically magic words — can have material effects, and technically false speech can carry truthful meaning. Still, however, the question remains: Why is it that Trump’s words sound like nonsense, lies, and bloviation to some, and righteous truth to others? For his supporters, in other words, what has rendered Trump’s speech magical — and what has been the practical effect that Malinowski argued could be stimulated by such speech?

Answering these questions begins, at least, by challenging the widespread certitude that Trump voters simply blindly swallow his lies. In rare recognition of this possibility, Politico’s Michael Kruse writes the following in his essay, “Johnstown Never Believed Trump Would Help. They Still Love Him Anyway” — a rumination on his time spent with Trump supporters in Johnstown, Pennsylvania:

“The change you’ve been waiting for will finally arrive,” [Trump] pledged. It was what they so badly wanted to hear. On November 8, 2016, in Cambria County, Trump trounced Hillary Clinton by nearly 38 points. By last week, though, John George told me that despite what they might have said, people here didn’t really believe Trump would make good on all his promises. “Deep down inside,” he said, “I don’t think anybody thought the steel mills were going to come back.” George is the owner of “George’s Song Shop” downtown […] [He] is a Democrat, but he voted for Trump, and he would do it again, he said.

As readers may have noticed, Kruse’s discovery here closely mirrors that of Malinowski — that “the natives maintain that the magic acts on the human organism.” And again, maybe this isn’t so surprising. We can no more assume that Trump supporters’ undying allegiance to him necessitates literally believing everything he says than we can that Catholics’ participating in communion — partaking in the blood and body of Christ — are literal cannibals. That is, the metaphorical factor — at least at some level — is self-consciously understood as giving expression to a larger truth (in the case of Trump, a deeply-felt betrayal).

Metaphor employs what Tambiah calls the “evocative or emotive” use of language, wherein “words [become] signs for emotions or attitudes.” In such cases, the “referential power” of words — that is, their literal facticity or truthfulness — is “secondary.” As Salena Zito has written, Trump’s obvious lies and outlandish hyperbole “drives fact-checkers to distraction” — a comment presumably intended to goad readers into asking how fact-checking could possibly be considered a “distraction.” While “the press takes him literally, but not seriously,” Zito writes, “his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”

Now consider just a few of the powerful metaphors that have factored centrally in Donald Trump’s speeches: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” citing the “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape”; we are “bleeding jobs from our country” and must “take our country back”; the United States is “a piggy bank that’s being robbed,” and “we can’t allow China to rape our country”; the “flood of refugees” represents a “Trojan horse,” and “ISIS has spread like cancer”; and, perhaps most successfully, we must “drain the swamp of corruption in Washington, DC.”

For both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, a coinciding message explained their cross-over appeal in a context of the staggering political and economic inequality that began to change the structure of feeling concerning fairness in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis — that “the system is rigged,” and that average, wage-earning Americans were being “ripped off.” The difference between the two candidates, of course, was who they claimed was ripping them off. For Bernie, it was corporate America and the super-rich (reflecting his domestic focus), and for Trump it was immigrants and other countries (reflecting his foreign focus) — overlapping only in their contempt for the political class of both parties who facilitated the theft and “bad deals.” As American historian Jackson Lears argues, “Bernie Sanders’s challenge to Hillary Clinton, combined with Trump’s triumph, revealed the breadth of popular anger at politics as usual — the blend of neoliberal domestic policy and interventionist foreign policy that constitutes consensus in Washington.”

With Clinton’s primary defeat of Sanders, however, this verifiable truth appeared to have no other available vessel than Trump. His solutions may have been almost everywhere technically wrong — which did not necessarily escape his supporters’ attention — but his keen awareness that the moral basis for decades of bipartisan (neoliberal) “politics as usual” was facing a historic crisis of legitimacy made him their liar. As a noted professional “wonk” more practiced at tending trees than forests, however, Clinton appeared tone-deaf to the context of her candidacy, and undeterred by her earned reputation as symbol of this politics as usual.

And her campaign slogan did little to mitigate voter skepticism. While “Stronger Together” would no doubt have constituted an effective messaging pillar, it’s being made to carry the weight of the entire campaign only reinforced how manifestly out of step the Clinton camp was with the context of the situation. While Trump manipulated how many voters thought about the political and economic context in order to fuel enthusiasm around his ability to address their very valid concerns (often using race and xenophobia to do so, but also the “bi-coastal elite” and existing “political class” of both parties), Clinton ran a campaign preoccupied with slaying dragons — particularly related to identity — that Trump had created for precisely for this purpose.

In this way and others, Clinton epitomized what law scholar Joan C. Williams calls “the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite. The dorkiness: the pantsuits. The arrogance: the email server. The smugness: the basket of deplorables.” And the impact of the latter is difficult to overstate here; writing Trump voters off as racists, says Williams, “is a telling example of how, although race- and sex-based insults are no longer acceptable in polite society, class-based insults still are.” For many then, the Clinton campaign gave off the frustrating impression that while decades of regressive economic policy and the uneven impact of industrial decline was unworthy of serious focus, the question of whether or not sushi and yoga were acts of cultural appropriation might merit careful consideration.

But it was perhaps Clinton’s refusal to move beyond “fact-checking” as a mode of engaging Trump and Trump-leaning voters that most fueled their resentment and distrust. This approach not only presumed these would-be voters’ literal belief in everything Trump said — implying that they were duped, misled on the facts, or irrational — but contained the added conceit that Clinton understood the facts necessary to fight for what was best for them, even if they didn’t. The contradiction at the heart of her candidacy was clear. How were Trump supporters to square her espoused dedication to an expert-oriented and evidence-based approach to policy-making with the dramatic inequalities of the existing economy about which she had relatively little to say? Playing the perfect foil to Trump then, Clinton was doubtless a crucial component in the transformation of Trump’s lying words into magical ones.

But Clinton also stood as an ideal proxy for the growing class-culture war that is now a major feature of American politics. After all, the target of the long-building eruption of resentment and distrust that Donald Trump hijacked turned out to be not so much the rich (for their greed) as it was what Barbara Ehrenreich termed the “professional-managerial class”, including the media, whose lifestyle has come to stand as a distinctive marker of urban, upper middle-class arrogance and smugness — and yes, economics as usual.

As Joan Williams cogently explains, “[M]ost blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day.” Full of responsible opinion, the salaried elite are quick to advise those left behind by the new economy, for example, that they need to “adapt” — all the while being contentedly buoyed by it. “Talk about insensitivity,” Williams writes in response to a New York Times article in which men with high school educations are advised to take on “pink-collar” jobs in the absence of other work. “Elite men, you will notice, are not flooding into traditionally feminine work. To recommend that for [working class] men just fuels class anger.” Examples abound.

For many voters then, Trump, much like Sanders, represented a political candidate tailored for the times, for this context: one in whom a diverse constituency of post-industrial, wage-earning voters could entrust their aspirations for a better life without also obligating them to accede the lifestyle or cultural milieu of the professional-managerial class. As Williams argues, the dream of the working class “is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money.” In this context, fact-checking was not an arrow in the quiver of a shrewd campaign strategy, but another stone in the shoe of a drowning one. Clinton became, in other words, a talisman through which expressions of linguistic literalism (e.g., being “fact-checked”) could be mobilized by Trump as a marker of class belonging, identity, privilege, and exclusion.

So what does Malinowski have to say about the upcoming midterms and the 2020 presidential race? First, context is vital to grasping the meaning of language. Instead of prompting us to double down on our certainly that Trump supporters are wholly and simply misled on the facts, irrational, or pathological — the backward “primitives” of our time who erroneously believe that magic words have automatic effects — their ongoing support for Trump in spite of the degree and volume of his verifiably false utterances should constitute cause to reconsider our assumptions about the wider context. Crucially, this context is one defined by truly staggering (and growing) political and economic inequalities, and an historic pervasion of distrust among broad swathes of the electorate on both sides of the aisle.

For all the calls that Democratic Party leaders have made for more truth and less “fake news,” their unwillingness to mainstream policies that reflect the scale and gravity of the very real inequalities that define mainstream American life is rather peculiar. As two historians recently noted, explanations of the “realignment of American politics and the migration of working-class whites to the Republican Party…usually focus on how politicians from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump have exploited white backlash against racial and cultural liberalism. The flip side of this is the deliberate, long-term strategy by the Democratic Party to favor the financial interests and social values of affluent white suburban families and high-tech corporations over the priorities of unions and the economic needs of middle-income and poor residents of all races.” Indeed, the rise of Trump is far more the consequence of Democratic Party failures than Republican successes.

Second, the complexity and diversity of language use everywhere is challenging to grasp, but it’s clear to those who study it that verifiably false speech can carry meaning that is not reducible to its technical or objective falsity. Nor is it factual to say that magical speech — again, at least under the right circumstances — can elicit no real outcomes. Trump may be using language in an unfamiliar “magical” way, but closer consideration reveals that it’s more a part of our daily life than we often realize — used in contexts as routine as running and communion. While the successful use of magical speech may differ between the Trobriand and American cases — in the former deployed in order to honor an intact social contract, and in the latter to mobilize a response to a betrayed or broken one — the aim of the ritual wielder remains the same: “to restructure and reintegrate the minds and emotions of the actors” by ritually mobilizing culturally specific values, moods, and metaphors toward some determinative action or expression.

Alternatively, Clinton’s early assumption that Trump’s words would “speak for themselves” — as well as her later fixation on “fact-checking” (a term now dominating the center-left resistance) — was grounded in a distinctively 19th-century view of language. Believing that language could only be interpreted literally, she sought to correct Trump supporters rather than listen to them. Whereas Sanders engaged Trump supporters by arguing that Trump was the wrong answer to the right question — that average middle and working-class America was being fleeced — Clinton offered no such dignified pathway to their coming on side.

In light of this, the literalist certitude that fact-checking and labeling Trump a “liar” are unassailable tactics for resisting Trump demands reconsideration. Undertaken in isolation, the “Truth-O-Meter” approach not only plays into the dichotomy of truth and falsity that energizes Trump’s cries of “fake news,” but places him and his words at the center of the story where what is needed is his and their decentering, or contextualization. Is not Trump a predictable (if intensified) result of the very unresolved inequality and cultural division that preceded him? If so, Trump is neither “aberrational,” nor “sui generis,” nor “ex nihilo,” as has been repeatedly claimed. Focusing only on his literal words and distinctive willingness to lie naïvely frames him as the problem, rather than a symptom of a much larger structural politico-economic malaise that will no doubt produce worse political figures if left unresolved.

Trump has promised a lot of heavy yams. But understanding the meaning of this promise from the point of view of his supporters requires viewing it in its proper, wider context.


Wynn Coates is a graduate student in anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

LARB Contributor

Wynn Coates is a graduate student in anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. His current work focuses on class culture and identity in the United States, implicating topics ranging from the meaning of “success” and perspectives on inequality, to practices of self-expression and status aesthetics. His writing and interests, however, vary widely. Find him on Twitter at @wynncoates.


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