Speech Is Action: Why We Should Pay Attention to What Trump Says

Don’t ignore what the president communicates to other countries, to actors within the state and to his citizens.

Businessman Donald Trump gives a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, December 11, 2015
Businessman Donald Trump gives a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, December 11, 2015 (Clay Masters)

The Niskanen Center’s Jacob T. Levy makes the same argument I did a few days ago, which is that Donald Trump’s words matter.

Except he does it more elegantly.

Speech is action

Levy counsels against ignoring Trump’s speech and only paying attention to his actions. Speech is action, he writes. Ignoring what the president communicates to other countries, to actors within the state and to his citizens is faux pragmatism.

It ignores how all those actors will respond to the speech and how norms, institutions and the environment for policy and coercion will be changed by those responses. Policy is a lagging indicator; ideas and the speech that expresses them pave the way.

Levy gives several examples:

  • Trump may not have withdrawn the United States from NATO, but his criticism of the alliance and only grudging affirmation of its mutual-defense clause has caused European allies to step up defense cooperation inside the EU.
  • Trump’s allegations of a “deep-state” conspiracy are causing career civil servants to leave agencies. It’s not just that they disagree with Trump’s policies. “They leave because they hear and understand that they’re not wanted.”
  • Trump’s demonization of immigrants and advice to cops not to be “too nice” to suspects appears to have emboldened Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
  • Trump’s rhetoric is changing what Republican voters think it means to be a Republican. Once the party of law and order, a majority now mistrusts the FBI, which the president has accused of plotting against him.

Click here to read the whole essay.