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A few linguistic and interactional clues to Donald Trump's motivations, in his politically disastrous back-and-forth with Ghazala and Khizr Khan, can perhaps be found in some examples of his use of the word vicious:

For many years I've said that if someone screws you, screw them back. When somebody hurts you, just go after them as viciously and as violently as you can. [Donald Trump, How to Get Rich, 2004; cited in Michael Kruse, "The 199 Most Donald Trump Things Donald Trump Has Ever Said", Politico 8/15/2015]

Man! I been hit.
These people are hittin me,
I'm gonna go — and I was all set —
I was gonna go, and I was gonna talk about each individual one of them,
I was gonna say that De Blasio's the worst mayor in the history of our city but I couldn't say it,
oh he's a terrible mayor,
probably won't be there too long cuz he's got problems like you wouldn't believe,
but he's a terrible mayor.
But I was gonna say that but now I won't say it.
But- but I was gonna talk about other people, so
viciously because I have so many things to say.
[Donald Trump, Rally in Davenport Iowa; quoted (with audio clip) in LLOG 7/30/2016]

From Donald J. Trump and Tony Schwartz, The Art of the Deal:

Josh Marshall has suggested a way of putting all this in context  "Triumph of the Will", TPM 1/26/2016):

Trump doesn't apologize. He hurts people and they go away. He says things that would kill a political mortal (ban members of an entire religion from entering the country) and yet he doesn't get hurt. Virtually everything Trump has done over the last six months, whether it's a policy proposal or personal attack, has driven home this basic point: Trump is strong. He does things other people can't.

This is why Trump has so shaken up and so dominated the GOP primary cycle, at least thus far. As I've said, this kind of dominance symbolism is pervasive in GOP politics. It's not new with Trump at all. Most successful Republican politicians speak this language. And yet somehow for most it is nonetheless a second language. Not Trump. It's his native language. I still believe it's rooted in the mix of the hyper-aggressive New York real estate world, his decades of immersion in the city's febrile tabloid culture and just being, at the most basic level, a bully.

In any case, Mr. Trump seems unable to stop himself from doing enormous damage to his candidacy. David Wright, "VFW slams Trump, Gold Star families demand apology", CNN 8/1/2016:

The Veterans of Foreign Wars blasted Donald Trump Monday and a group of Gold Star families of fallen service members demanded he apologize for comments about the parents of a slain Muslim U.S. solider.  

"Election year or not, the VFW will not tolerate anyone berating a Gold Star family member for exercising his or her right of speech or expression," said Brian Duffy, who was elected July 27 to lead the nation's oldest and largest major war veterans organization.

"There are certain sacrosanct subjects that no amount of wordsmithing can repair once crossed," added Duffy, the national commander of the near 1.7 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and its Auxiliary.

"Giving one's life to nation is the greatest sacrifice, followed closely by all Gold Star families, who have a right to make their voices heard."


Greg Sargent, "The Khan fight highlights a huge GOP problem: No one knows how low Trump can go", Washington Post 8/1/2016:

Donald Trump's continuing war with the Khan family — which Trump inexplicably continued to keep in the news this morning with a series of new tweets — raises the specter of a brutal trap for Republicans.

For example — Katherine Krueger, "Roger Stone, Trump Allies Smear Muslim War Hero As Al-Qaeda Double Agent", TPM 8/1/2016:

Amid Donald Trump's ongoing attacks on the family of U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, a Muslim-American solider who was killed fighting in Iraq, a number of his supporters latched onto a conspiracy theory that Khan's father is a "Muslim Brotherhood agent" and his son was on an "Islamist mission."

It will be interesting, in a creepy way, to see if Trump can resist promoting this idea, as he did with the many other conspiracy theories he's promoted over time, most recently linking Ted Cruz's father to Lee Harvey Oswald and the JFK assassination.

Update — The beat goes on:

The principle that a "vicious" move requires a "vicious" counter-move seems to be more effective in New York real estate and in Republican primaries than in politics (and perhaps life) more broadly:

Update #2 — from Lee Wohlfert-Wihlborg, "In the Manhattan Real Estate Game, Billionaire Donald Trump Holds the Winning Cards", People Magazine 11/16/1981:

Trump currently is drawing up plans for a casino, named for himself, in Atlantic City and is bidding $1.2 billion as an agent of the Prudential Insurance Company for the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center. His ultimate goal, according to friends, is to head up his own TV network. Trump doesn't expect to get there by being Mr. Nice. "Man is the most vicious of all animals," he notes, "and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat. You just can't let people make a sucker out of you."


  1. Y said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 5:29 pm

    Hunter Thompson was also fond of using vicious, but of course he was a lot more fun than DT is.

  2. Rebecca said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 5:50 pm

    What I wonder: when he describes Mr. Khan's comments as vicious and when he describes NY real estate people that way, is he talking about the same thing? Because in my book, Mr. Khan's comments were strong and pointed, but not at all what I'd call vicious.

  3. Lance said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 6:08 pm

    I think "is he talking about the same thing" is the wrong question, because it presumes that Trump is using words to mean things. In all seriousness, I don't think he's using "vicious" semantically, to mean "savage" or "malicious"; I think he's just using it pragmatically, to indicate "this is a person who dared to criticize me". He used the same word a year ago to describe a lawyer because she said of him

    He got up, his face got red, he shook his finger at me and he screamed, 'You're disgusting, you're disgusting,' and he ran out of there. []

    If she's making it up (and to be honest, given that he also called Clinton going to the bathroom "disgusting", I don't have any reason to think she is), then it's at worst a little petty or mean-spirited, nothing that rises to the level of "vicious". Except, as I said, insofar as Trump just uses it to mean "someone is being mean to me".

  4. Christopher Henrich said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 6:13 pm

    But Rebecca- Mr. Khan attacked Trump! What could be more vicious than that? … at least, as Trump sees things.

    I think the ability to know how things look from another person's point of view develops in children about age 7 to 10. For Donald, it apparently didn't.

  5. Rubrick said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 6:58 pm

    In any case, Mr. Trump seems unable to stop himself from doing enormous damage to his candidacy

    Is he, though? He's certainly sparked tremendous outrage, but nothing he's done or said so far has caused voters to abandon him en masse. Quite the opposite, by the polls, though it's too soon to gauge the effect of the Khan affair.

    [(myl) So far this seems different. That's partly because it's the general election campaign and not the primary, and partly for other reasons. I didn't expect his earlier vituperations to hart him much with his core fans. But now he needs to reach a much broader audience — and even some of his natural constituency seem to be taken aback by this latest episode.]

  6. JPL said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 7:17 pm

    A reporter should ask Trump now whether he thinks that Humayun Khan was a war hero.

  7. Breffni said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 1:27 am

    Never mind Trump's adverbs, isn't anyone keeping an eye on his first-person-singular pronouns? Because I suspect there may be a degree of self-regard there, but you'd need to see the numbers.

    [(myl) I did the counts for one of the Republican debates:

    But the punditocracy has not focused on Trump's pronouns nearly as intensely as they did on Obama's — despite the fact that Trump actually uses first person singular pronouns much more frequently than other politicians in similar circumstances, whereas Obama rate is somewhat lower than that of his peers.]

  8. GH said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 11:13 am

    The "first-person pronouns = narcissism" claim appears in an article in The Atlantic devoted to analyzing (or perhaps rather diagnosing) his personality:

    Self-references pervade Trump's speeches and conversations, too. When, in the summer of 1999, he stood up to offer remarks at his father's funeral, Trump spoke mainly about himself. It was the toughest day of his own life, Trump began. He went on to talk about Fred Trump's greatest achievement: raising a brilliant and renowned son. As Gwenda Blair writes in her three-generation biography of the Trump family, The Trumps, "the first-person singular pronouns, the I and me and my, eclipsed the he and his. Where others spoke of their memories of Fred Trump, [Donald] spoke of Fred Trump's endorsement."

    In the ancient Greek legend, the beautiful boy Narcissus falls so completely in love with the reflection of himself in a pool that he plunges into the water and drowns. The story provides the mythical source for the modern concept of narcissism, which is conceived as excessive self-love and the attendant qualities of grandiosity and a sense of entitlement. Highly narcissistic people are always trying to draw attention to themselves. Repeated and inordinate self-reference is a distinguishing feature of their personality.

    (My emphasis)

  9. Frank Southworth said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 3:59 pm

    Interesting how an investigation of a single word used by Trump turned into a rather deep psycho-political analysis.

  10. Bloix said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 5:43 pm

    Last year the NYRB carried a review of several books about the Roman emperors that contained a quote from Nero in a speech to the Greeks – a subjugated people whom Nero "freed" – that is, raised their status in the empire. He sounds exactly like Trump:

    For you, men of Greece, it is an unexpected gift which, even though nothing from my generous nature is unhoped-for, I grant to you—such a great gift that you would have been incapable of requesting it. All Greeks inhabiting Achaea and what is now known as the Peloponnesus, receive freedom with no taxation—something which none of you ever possessed in your most fortunate of times, for you were subject to others or to yourselves. Would that Greece were still at its peak as I grant you this gift, in order that more people might enjoy this favor of mine. For this reason I blame Time for exhausting prematurely the size of my favor. But even now it is not out of pity for you but out of goodwill that I bestow this benefaction, and I give it in exchange to your gods whose forethought for me on land and sea I have always experienced, because they granted me the opportunity of conferring such benefits. Other leaders have liberated cities, only Nero a province.

  11. Bloix said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 5:47 pm

    He insults the Greeks while pretending to be concerned for them – he praises himself for being so good to them – he notes how the Greek gods have cared for him, without ever saying that they care for Greece – he backhandedly implies that the Greeks are pitiable, but he still likes them – and he implies that being subjugated to Nero is better than being one's own master ("subject to … yourselves"). It's Trump in every aspect.

  12. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 12:13 am

    Bloix: Nero's megalomania is unquestioned, but his point about being "subject to … yourselves" may have been valid and appreciated by his audience. Roman taxation is a complex topic I hardly know anything about, but I was taught that from the conquest of Greece to Diocletian Roman citizens were not subject to direct taxes, which were levied only on the provinces. If that was Nero's gift to the Greeks, he may have been rightly pointing out that they had always had to pay taxes at least to their own government, but now he was giving them the long-standing Roman privilege of having other people pay for their government instead.

  13. maidhc said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 2:00 am

    The Roman Empire practiced tax farming, that is, a kind of private-enterprise tax collection. Taxation rights were parceled out to tax-collectors who were expected to pay a certain sum to the Empire. Anything they could collect over that was theirs to keep. That is why tax-collectors were so despised in the New Testament. They were not like employees of the IRS or Inland Revenue. They were more like payday loan sharks or repo men. In fact, they were worse than these modern examples.

    So getting the tax-free status of a Roman citizen was no little thing. You would be willing to put up with a lot of insults.

    Like if President Trump announced that women were such weak, contemptible creatures that he was going to give them all free healthcare. OK, it's insulting, but …

  14. Bloix said,

    August 3, 2016 @ 2:45 pm

    Giacomo Ponzetto –
    I understand that, but every reference to the Greeks in the excerpt from the speech belittles, needles, and diminishes them and aggrandizes himself. From the very first sentence it's a master class in Trump rhetoric: this gift could not have been wholly unhoped-for because I am so generous that no gift from me could be unhoped-for, but you would never have asked me for it because it is too great for you to have asked for it. Of course, it's not as great a gift as it might have been, because you are diminished from what you used to be, but don't worry, I don't pity you for that, it's just that I like you and your gods have been good to me. And you should be happy about that, because you're better off being subject to me than governing yourselves. Is that Trump logic or what?

  15. GH said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 5:44 am

    The parenthetical digressions to brag or slag others off feel somewhat Trumpian, but obviously the rhetorical style here is much more polished, to the point where I'm not sure whether these are "real" off-the-cuff observations or some sort of literary convention.

    As for "you're better off under my/our rule than governing yourself", isn't that just the eternal logic of Empire?

  16. Tom V said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 5:19 pm

    I'm reminded of the late Richard Daley.
    "They have vilified me, they have crucified me, they have even criticized me."

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