Campaign 2016 — an Avalanche of Metaphors
See what I did there? I used a metaphor of excess to indicate a profusion of them. That’s not unusual, as politicians and the media speak almost exclusively in metaphor. It’s a figure of speech that uses creative imagery to refer to one thing as something else, in order to clarify the speaker’s (or writer’s) intent. It’s from Greek roots; pherein, ‘to carry,’ and meta, ‘over, beyond.” A few examples: Reagan’s reference to America as “a shining city on a hill” (which he borrowed), golf — with it’s preoccupation with getting a little ball into a hole — could be a metaphor of the sperm fertilizing the egg. Or maybe not. Cognitive Linguist George Lakoff points out that we tend to think in metaphors or form visual images. That’s why we see them everywhere. This campaign season has been replete with some dandies, and I want to share them with you. So let’s saddle up and ride.
One of the most overused is the idea of America being at a crossroads. Scandals are bombshells. The elephant in the room is that the climate crisis is approaching the tipping point, and someone’s always getting thrown under the bus. Gambling metaphors are common; rolling the dice, the stakes couldn’t be higher, the system (or the debate, or the election) is rigged. The media loves the idea of the horse race, having total capitulated to big money brought by ratings. They have utterly failed to be the adversarial force envisioned by the Founders, and instead, spoon feed us news McNuggets.
Sports metaphors are the most common of all. Someone’s always talking about leveling the playing field. From track and field we have raising or lowering the bar. Hillary’s victory would result in a passing of the baton from President Obama, but her biggest hurdle is the trust issue. The Right won’t let her off the hook about her emails, either. Some pundits likened the first presidential debate to a heavyweight bout. In that case you could say Hillary scored a TKO. Some have compared the Trump campaign to a reality show, circus, or even WWE professional wrestling. I’ll have my own metaphorical take on him a little later. Football comes in when referring to a candidate’s organization in various states as having a good ground game. Trump criticizes the media for being unfair, which is how coaches work the refs. And speaking of sports, bigger or stronger things now are ‘on steroids.’
Early in the campaign when there were too many Republican candidates to fit on one debate stage, those with the lowest poll numbers were relegated to their own, an undercard, if you will. It was called the kid’s table. Ohio Governor John Kasich had a road map for prosperity, but his campaign broke down by the side of the road. See if you can decipher Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Trump in January: “He’s got the guts to wear the issues that need to be spoken about and debated on his sleeve.” I guess her train of thought got derailed. That’s what I’d call a dangling metaphor, or better yet, a mangled one.
Hillary called half of Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables,” which impelled me a few days later to walk into a birthday party and declare the entire assemblage a basket of adorables. But I digress. When she had to leave the 9/11 commemoration early, then collapsed into her limo (pneumonia), well, that’s called bad optics. It just looks bad. Prof. Gregory Lee of Lyon University talks about the historical use of what he calls the “inundation metaphor,” using multiple examples of anti-Chinese hysteria from the late 19th Century, but it sounds familiar. Trump: “We cannot allow illegal immigrants to pour into our country . . . they flow in like water.” There are floods of immigrants and waves of refugees.
The Republican National Convention could itself be a metaphor of the Trump campaign. He promised it would be great, tremendous, with the biggest celebrities ever, the best. Who was there? Scott Baio, Antonio Sabato, Jr. (who?), and Willie Robertson of TV’s “Duck Dynasty,” and four of his five children spoke. Talk about a circus. The vampire Nosferatu, Rudy Giuliani, raved and waved his arms around as if he were caught in the sunlight, Trump’s present trophy wife Melania plagiarized a 2008 speech by Michelle Obama, and he closed off the hate fest with the usual diarrhea of the mouth. The next week was the Democrats’ turn and one of the speakers was Khzir Khan, with his wife standing by his side. He asked Trump if he’d ever read the Constitution, and held out a pocket version, saying he would loan is to Mr. Trump. Trump immediately attacked them, and a week later at a rally in Portland, Me, several protesters held up pocket Constitutions, and his supporters booed them. I’m sure they would deny they were booing the Constitution, but still, it was bad optics again.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, it’s been said (an idiom, not a metaphor). Donald Trump Jr. tweeted a picture of a bowl of Skittles, adding: “If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you. That’s our Syrian refugee problem.” Someone from the Wrigley Co, maker of Skittles, tweeted back: “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people.” But the best response was from comedy writer Drew Magary, whose credits include the TV shows “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” It shows the picture of the bowl of Skittles with an orange one lying next to it, with this gem: “If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you one very orange Skittle wanted to deport all the green Skittles and called the purple Skittles rapists and said that ‘a lot of skittles are saying’ that the Skittle President is really and M&M and that some orange skittle was given $1 million by his father and still filed for bankruptcy 4 times and refuses to release his tax returns because he’s not as rich as he claims to be, would you elect the orange Skittle President of the United States?” Ouch.
Sometimes a metaphor will suggest itself in the general environment, like those protesters holding pocket Constitutions. I like to think these are attempts by the Universe to communicate with us. Many Republicans think the Trump candidacy threatens to destroy the Republican Party. During their convention an earlier photo surfaced of Donald Jr. in Africa, standing next to a dead elephant, the symbol of the party. Also at the convention was news footage of Trump protesters on the floor. One was a woman holding up the sign: “No racism, no hate.” A Trump supporter with a large American flag was holding it up, trying to block the camera’s view of her. He was holding it upside down, which is the symbol for distress. I’ll say!
Mixed metaphors are always fun, like “Every dog has a silver lining.” One that occurred to me was beating a dead horse to the punch. There have been a few in this campaign. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said Trump is a juggernaut that’s hard to unravel. CNN critiqued a July 28th speech by Hillary this way: “To use a soccer analogy, if you don’t knock it out of the park, you’re in trouble.”
What about the Grand Orangutan himself, the tangerine nightmare, Hair Furor, Agent Orange (and just as toxic), the cheeto-stained neo-fascist? He’s certainly lowered the bar for public discourse, and like Hillary, has lots of baggage. His multiple self-destructive statements and tweets evoke that bull in a china shop (make that bully). To use the gun meme, he’s a loose cannon, and frequently shoots his mouth off. He’s got a short fuse and a hair trigger. He has a tendency to shoot from the hip, resulting in a lot of self-inflicted wounds, although I think he’s shooting blanks. His campaign, with its constant replacement of managers and advisers, has been called a train wreck, a flaming dumpster (make that Trumpster) fire, the Titanic, the Hindenberg, and Chernobyl, circling the drain, in a death spiral. If I got into his hair, so to speak, we’d be here all day. He’s a con man, a scam artist, a snake oil salesman, a human shell game. Everything about him is phony; fake foundation, fake university, fake wife, fake tan, fake hair, fake candidacy. And his wall is the very symbol of divisiveness; sane of us are more interested in building bridges. My favorite metaphor of him is the Frankentrump monster, created by stitching together dead ideas, and now the monster has broken loose from his handlers and is rampaging through the countryside.
CNBC reported recently that this election could be a “black swan” event, a term used by the investment community to signify an event that comes as a complete surprise, such as Trump being elected. I’d actually call it a black hole event, pushing a once great country over the cliff and consigning us to the dustbin of history. And it will largely be the fault of the Republican Party. If Trump is a festering pustule on the ass of Uncle Sam, today’s Republicans are a malignant cancer on democracy. There’s one more particularly annoying metaphor I’d like to dispose of: bootstraps. The only people issued bootstraps along with their birth certificates are white males born to privilege. I’d like to suggest one more, although it may be more of an analogy. Just about every other candidate in my lifetime has used “change” as their primary promise. Remember the “Peanuts” comic strip? Think of change as the football, and Lucy as the candidate holding it. Charlie Brown is the American electorate, which has been fooled countless times before, running up to kick the football as the candidate jerks it away. Once again we fall on our asses.
I hope that now you realize how ubiquitous metaphorical language is in just about every aspect of our lives. By the way, I went back and counted over 80 metaphors in this piece, not counting a few doubles. How many can you find? Hint: the first word is one, you see.