A Crash Course on Political Language from Roosevelt by way of Trump to Orwell

by Michael Bedford

Published at 2017-06-15



The political world gets progressively denser every day, especially the world of US politics. And, though Canadians often pretend at being secure from the political meltdown south of the 49th parallel, the reality is that it's incumbent upon those of us who live north of the border to learn all we can about both the Canadian and US systems of governance ... and propaganda.


Participating in, or at least observing, two distinct democratic systems takes a lot of patience and dedication, especially nowadays. And, like any new endeavour, participants can only engage if they know the lingo. But with an ever-expanding lexicon that dates back at least 3,000 years, where does one start? Although I generally prefer to start at the beginning, a 3,000-year review of political terms hardly seems worthwhile or entertaining. So, instead, I've outlined a few common terms that are relevant to the current political climates in both Canada and the US.


Damage control

Damage control essentially involves a political player, usually an elected representative, seeking to manage bad press over a scandal affecting their office. Damage control is something the Trump administration has been engaging in quite heavily of late. Following President Trump‘s firing of FBI Director Andrew Comey, the Trump administration engaged in a confusing round of damage control during which the administration changed its reasons for the firing a number of times, which in turn led to another round of damage control.


Our own Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is no stranger to damage control. Consider his days as an MP when he used a “most decidedly unparliamentary” expression to describe Minister of the Environment Peter Kent’s position on the Kyoto Protocol, or his more recent $130,000-trip to a religious leader‘s private island, for which Trudeau is still on the hot-seat. He‘s lucky he has such a talented damage control staff.


Bully pulpit

The meaning of this term, originally from Teddy Roosevelt, may confuse some readers. “Bully," in Teddy Roosevelt’s day, implied exceptionality. Roosevelt used the term “bully pulpit” to describe the tremendous reach that the presidency of the United States gave him to describe and advocate for his beliefs. Over the decades, though, the original meaning of “bully” has fallen out of common usage in North America.


But, considering the way candidates and elected officials have been using their bully pulpits, it‘s not surprising that nowadays many believe that bully pulpits, rather than offering politicians opportunities to express their beliefs, simply offer politicians opportunities to be bullies.


Dog whistle

This term has been enjoying widespread use lately, especially in reference to Trump‘s “Muslim ban” and Attorney General Jeff Sessions‘ campaign to reinstate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders and prosecute them according to the most severe charges available. Like an actual dog whistle, the intended audience picks out the message while the unintended audience likely fails to hear it. Critics of Trump’s ban and Sessions’ statements have accused both of dog whistling to racist demographics in order to curry favour with them.



This is one of the more confusing political terms that has gained traction lately. Although political participants and spectators on the left insist that “alt-right” is dog whistle for “neo-Nazi,” a good editor always seeks factual accuracy. In an article for USA Today College from November 2016, Olivia Dimmer discusses the nature of the alt-right movement with Professor George Hawley of the University of Alabama. Hawley describes the alt-right as a loose movement largely populated by white nationalists. A neo-Nazi, as Hawley describes, is a person who believes that the Nazi regime was a positive historical development. Neo-Nazis frequently either deny the holocaust or describe it as positive.


So, as Hawley outlines, there may be a contingent of neo-Nazis within the alt-right, but this is likely a minority. Instead, the group is largely populated by white nationalists, who believe that people from different racial backgrounds should not live in the same country. So, if you're looking for a euphemism for the alt-right, use white nationalist rather than neo-Nazi. Factual accuracy, after all, is the cornerstone of any good dig.



Although this isn't a real word and the meaning of it is probably relatively clear—it's generally used as a synonym for “by a large margin”—this particular Trumpism is particularly relevant because it brings attention to the assault on the English language by poorly educated people who have access to a bully pulpit. And, as guardians of the lexicons, we editorial professionals must, with dictionaries and usage guides in hand, resist though the opposition be fierce. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing track of our multi-faceted and complex language in favour of something easier but less richly descriptive.


Because George Orwell described the destruction of language so much better than I ever could, I conclude with this passage from the upsettingly appropriate 1984 ...


It‘s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? … Take “good,” for instance. If you have a word like “good,” what need is there for a word like “bad”? “Ungood” will do just as well—better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good,” what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? “Plusgood” covers the meaning; or “doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still.


Thank you to for providing such a quick and easy-to-use reference of political terms.