President Trump, outraged by the use of nerve gas on civilians, launched 59 cruise missiles at the airfield that Bashar al-Assad uses in Syria. Then he made a statement justifying the action. It’s a case study in Trumpspeak — does the pileup in intensifying adjectives and adverbs make a statement more persuasive, or more suspect?
In my book and here, I classify imprecise and meaningless adjective, adverbs, and similar words as weasel words. Political speech is full of them, especially when it’s trying to stir the emotions. And Donald Trump is a master at stirring up emotions.
The intensifier-laden Trump statement on bombing Syria
In Mar-a-Lago, Trump made a short speech explaining the bombing. Here’s how he starts out (weasel words in bold):
My fellow Americans, on Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of god should ever suffer such horror.
That’s 10 weasel words out of 64, for a weasel density of 16% — the highest in any passage I’ve ever analyzed. And on top of these modifiers, there are emotional phrases like “choked out the lives”, and “suffer such horror.” I understand the reasoning, but here, as in any other statement, if the number of weasel words exceeds 6%, the statement reads as bullshit. The more intensely you shriek, the harder it is to believe you. Are “cruelly murdered,” “very barbaric,” and “innocent civilians” and “beautiful babies” really more effective rhetorically than plain old “murdered,” “barbaric,” “civilians,” and “babies”?
Let’s take a look at how the paragraph would read shorn of all emotional and weasel words at all.
My fellow Americans, on Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapons attack, using a deadly nerve agent to kill men, women, children, and babies. No one should ever suffer an attack like this.
Without the intensifiers, it’s still shocking, but loses some its emotional resonance. Now look at how the statement reads if we restore just a few of these words in key places, and insert some actual numbers.
My fellow Americans, on Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a deadly nerve gas attack on innocent civilians, including men, women, children, and babies. The attack injured over 500 helpless people and killed at least 86, including 28 children. They suffered and died slowly.
No one should ever suffer such horror, even in war.
In my judgment, numbers and a few well-placed emotional words can have a more powerful impact than a pileup of weasel words. They retain the power to shock without undermining the speaker’s credibility.
Here’s the rest of the statement:
Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital national security of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.
There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council. Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically.
As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.
Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.
We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world. We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed. And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, that peace and harmony will in the end prevail.
Goodnight and god bless America and the entire world. Thank you.
This is a well-reasoned, clear, and straightforward statement that any other president might make when using military force. Except for the last two paragraphs about God’s wisdom and the souls of the victims, it is clear and factual: Trump ordered an airstrike on an airfield because stopping chemical weapons attacks is a national interest of the United States and other nations.
The history of American military action in the last 20 years is a tale of actions taken in moments of passion, including the war in Afghanistan after 9-11 and the war in Iraq based on nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The consequences of those actions have been decades-long wars, the inflammation of jihadist hatred against the United States, and terrorist advances into power vacuums from the resulting chaos.
Trump’s action may deter Assad. It may also create a proxy war with Russia or generate openings for the Islamic state. “Babies died so we have to do something” is not a strategy.
What matters most is not what Trump and his military and diplomats did yesterday, but what they do next. Let us hope it is based on reason and forward-looking analysis, not outrage and political consideration.