How Trump Uses "The" to Distance Minorities from White People

October 12th 2016

During the second presidential debate, you might have noticed a peculiar word choice by Republican nominee Donald Trump.

In response to Clinton accusing Trump of targeting women, immigrants, and minorities, Trump said:

“I’m going to help the African-Americans. I’m going to help the Latinos, Hispanics. I am going to help the inner cities. [Clinton has] done a terrible job for the African-Americans.”

If Trump's unorthodox usage of the word "the" before naming certain ethnicities seems offensive to you, you're not alone. During the debate, #TheAfricanAmericans was trending on Twitter.

So why exactly does Trump's unnecessary use of the definite article feel off?

In an essay on Quartz, Lynne Murphy, a linguistic scholar at the University of Sussex claims:

"Under normal circumstances, saying “the African-Americans” would raise the question: Which African-Americans? In the context of the debate, we have to assume he intends to refer to all African-Americans, and so “the” seems unnecessary. But it is doing something. It takes that plural, “African-Americans,” and makes the group into more of an undifferentiated whole."

Murphy continues: 

"'The' makes the group seem like it’s a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals. This is the key to 'othering:' treating people from another group as less human than one’s own group."

She highlights other examples of others using the word choice, such as when the Nazis talked about die Juden, or “the Jews,” when homophobes target "the gays." Murphy also offers what she has learned from her own study of the word "the."

"In my research on British and American cultural relations, I’ve found that British writers’ views on American English are a good predictor of whether they’ll write 'Americans say it that way' or 'The Americans say it that way.' Those who feel that American English threatens British English use 'the' to hold Americans at arm’s length (possibly while holding their noses)."

As Murphy points out, Clinton also uses "the" before certain nationalities (e.g. the Russians, the Syrians, the Iranians), but only in reference to governments or military groups, not every member of that nationality. Trump, on the other hand, seems to be using "the" to distance himself from those minority groups and to appeal to his voter base – frustrated white people, or more specifically, working class white men without college degrees, Murphy theorizes in her piece. "Trump’s 'the' works as a dog-whistle to disaffected rural white voters attracted to his message," she posits.

Trump needs to capture a white supermajority to win in November.

[h/t Quartz]

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