When Words Lose Their Meaning….

Before I was a lawyer, I was a high school English teacher, a position that required me to  explain how language communicates meaning–the roles played by denotation and connotation, and the often-unrecognized difficulty of getting one’s point across.

Recognizing that you may hear my use of term A to explain X  as an admission of Y is one  of the most frustrating aspects of political communication. it’s a problem that goes well beyond the obvious fatuity of slogans like “Defund the Police,” and it makes messaging particularly difficult for Democrats; the GOP base shares focused grievances that allow party strategists to communicate to a cohesive and receptive cult. Democrats who wring their hands over the party’s inept “messaging” aren’t wrong, exactly, but they fail to recognize both the inherent difficulties of language, and the Democrats’ need to reach people who occupy a broad spectrum of opinion.

A recent essay in the New York Times provides an example rooted in “dog whistle” days. It’s titled: “A Handy Guide to the Republican Definition of a Crime,” and it harkens back to that tried and true Republican demand for “law and order”–the meaning of which has changed rather dramatically.

If you think Republicans are still members of the law-and-order party, you haven’t been paying close attention lately. Since the rise of Donald Trump, the Republican definition of a crime has veered sharply from the law books and become extremely selective. For readers confused about the party’s new positions on law and order, here’s a guide to what today’s Republicans consider a crime, and what they do not.

Not a crime: Federal crimes. All federal crimes are charged and prosecuted by the Department of Justice. Now that Republicans believe the department has been weaponized into a Democratic Party strike force, particularly against Mr. Trump, its prosecutions can no longer be trusted. “The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society,” Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida recently tweeted.

The F.B.I., which investigates many federal crimes, has also become corrupted by the same political forces. “The F.B.I. has become a political weapon for the ruling elite rather than an impartial, law-enforcement agency,” said Kevin D. Roberts, the president of the right-wing Heritage Foundation.

And because tax crimes are not real crimes, Republicans have fought for years to slash the number of I.R.S. investigators who fight against cheating.

Having clarified why federal misbehaviors no longer qualify as criminal, the essay explains the current GOP approach to the labeling of state and local crime: if it happens in an urban area or in states run by Democrats, it’s a crime.

On the other hand,

Not a crime: Any crime that happens in rural areas or in states run by Republicans.
Between 2000 and 2021, the per capita murder rate in states that voted for Donald Trump was 23 percent higher than in states that voted for Joe Biden, according to one major study. The gap is growing, and it is visible even in the rural areas of Trump states.

But this didn’t come up when a Trump ally, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, held a hearing in New York in April to blast Manhattan’s prosecutor for being lax on crime, even though rates for all seven major crime categories are higher in Ohio than in New York City. Nor does House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — who tweets about Democratic “lawlessness” — talk about the per capita homicide rate in Bakersfield, Calif., which he represents, which has been the highest in California for years and is higher than New York City’s.

Republicans now include under their motto of “law and order” the “crimes” of abortion and transgender care, prohibition of which they piously frame as protection of children. (As the essay notes, GOP solicitude for the young doesn’t extend to regulating the guns that are the leading cause of American children’s deaths.)

There are other  GOP “definitions.” If Hunter Biden did it, it’s a crime. Trump and his offspring? Didn’t notice any wrongdoing–despite vast evidence of influence-peddling and self-dealing that would seem to violate the emoluments clause of the Constitution and any number of federal ethics guidelines.

And of course, there was Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, leading to the GOP’s righteous demands to “lock her up.” That was criminal behavior, unlike Trump’s obviously innocent efforts to overturn an election and his theft of classified materials.

Effective messaging and communication require clarity and simplicity. The GOP has mastered it. “Law and order” still means “arrest Black people,” but now it also means “if Republicans did it, it was lawful; if Democrats did it, it was criminal.”

Unfortunately, that simple message cannot be countered with an equally simple response; explaining why it is dishonest requires facts and logic–and listeners.

Communication is hard.


  1. Defund the Police movement did exactly the opposite for the black community than what was needed or expected. Law abiding citizens and businesses are being challenged by the political sea of actually defunding instead of training officers with much needed funds. Highly educated individuals ate less likely to enter into law enforcement according what recruiters such as an LA recruiter who “blew the whistle” on recruitment of officers that are below the level of recruits in the past.


    Democrats dont mean to harm black communities, but they do.
    They own them politically and then somehow in a literal substantial way support Soros funded prosecutors who let people off easily.
    Its an eye opening problem that causes recruiting and training issues.

  2. In my dictionaries the word “defund” has only ONE definition, stop providing funds. Now, unless there is also a question regarding funds meaning money, the Democrat’s “Defund the Police” has only one meaning and they can argue till Trump is back in the White House and his support of police abuse of power will be national law and will continue to be funded but the definition will not change.

    It’s not like the teeth gritting misuse of “your” when the correct word, term and meaning should be “you’re”. Try being totally deaf and tell people you are deaf but they continue talking and refuse your request to “Please write to me, I cannot hear a word you are saying.” after telling them you are DEAF. I have dealt with business people who gladly write to communicate with me but will give me their phone number. I remind them I am deaf and cannot call them, they ask for my phone number and they will call me.

    As for Hillary’s use of a single server, the fact that Colin Powell and Condoleza Rice also chose to use single server phones never resulted in an outcry to lock either of them up. Single servers were approved by the government; it was easier than carrying two phones. My daughter-in-law is Chief Custodian at Our Lady of Lourdes Church and School; she has a single server because she is on call 24/7 and numerous times the janitor or Priest has called her with an emergency during family cookouts. Police, Fire and the gas company also have her OLL number for emergencies. Common sense and logic are no longer a factor in communication; try talking to a Republican about any of the issues we are facing today. Or; try talking about the issue of aging and mental competence.

  3. Read recently that language is a gift. Listening is a responsibility. Listen nine times. Speak only once.

  4. Professor-as possibly the only reader of your daily column, who was taught by you in Freshman English at Arlington High School, your point today is spot on. You were a terrific teacher, firm, yet fair, demanding, yet inclusive. I suspect, you took those same skills with you as a practicing attorney, as a professor, as a spouse, mother, grandmother, friend and outstanding columnist. Thank you for these great words and thoughts today.

  5. I totally agree with your point that if your audience is specifically targeted you can cook your message down to sound bites, I only wish I could have said “small and targeted”. I amazes me that so many people fall into the small mindedness of bigotry and hate.

    Complex ideas take time and sometimes many words to explain and it gets harder when you have so many people willing to shout you down.

  6. One of my favorite comedians is Jordan Klepper. He attends MAGA rallies and captures it on tape. He gives us an opportunity to understand why it’s so difficult to communicate with the average 45 supporter. I’ve said it so many times, I think I should put it on a t-shirt, “Closely held beliefs are impervious to facts!”

  7. As usual, lots of complaints about how “good” the GOP is at communicating with average Americans (“6th grade education/reading level”), but none about the abject failure of the DEMs to understand that…

  8. Joann, The phrase “Reallocate funding to other social services away from the police” is just so hard to shout at a rally.

  9. Communication is hard. Sophistry is easy. And sophistry in the service of shameless demagoguery is a breeze.

  10. Speaking of weaponization… How about the Republicans meme and messaging machinery since the egregious G.H.W. Bush hired Karl Rove and Lee Atwater? Those two spawns of Satan created the current scheme for bastardizing language to get people pissed off at Democrats. Why? To win elections, of course. Serve the people of the nation by telling the truth in plain language? Not so much.

    And therein lies the seditious horror show of the Republican party. What are the Democrats to do? Start calling the Republicans lying bastards on national TV? The Republicans don’t seem to have any trouble doing that to Democrats.

  11. Vernon – not exactly that…but it is time for the DEMs to “take off the gloves”, especially regarding the donations/support of the GOP by the rich and corporate America. But, they won’t, because it would endanger their campaign contributions. Imagine a puppet show with the moneyed dividing America and destroying our democracy while rolling in wealth and paying few taxes – “The Fourth of July Show”.

  12. Communication is hard. It really is.

    One example:

    “From each according to his ability,
    To each according to his need.”

    Is that everything wrong with Communism or everything right about freedom?

    Depends on perspective.

    Here and new most Americans would react to that with disgust – that means steal from success to reward sloth – the antithesis of American ambition. That’s looking at it from a perspective of parents who’ve accumulated wealth from ambition owing kids wanting to be lazy. It’s teaching kids to be lazy sloths.


    Is it really about the secret of American economic success – specialization? I loved being an engineer, others loved being lawyers or farmers or teachers or cops or politicians or construction workers. So the phrase is about diversity of what we each were born with and into and learned from others as a result. A good thing, no? Just reality?

    Apparently, it is a confusing slogan.

  13. Christ was the Great Communicator!


    Because he used illustration and parables so the average listener could grasp his message.

    The good Samaritan!

    The evil slave!

    The vineyard worker!

    The prodigal Son!

    And many others that have been quoted, have endured for millennia. His quotations from the Mosaic law, and also, Daniel, Isaiah, Nehemiah, Elijah and Elisha, Abraham, Lot, Job, amongst others, have endured for several millennia. Because prophetic words tended to be simple and understood by ordinary or un lettered folks.

    And let’s face it, today’s ordinary or average folks have a hard time with comprehension! So the message always has to be simple, and if possible, illustrated.

    Important and relative messages should never be lost in translation!

  14. Dan @ 9:33 a.m. Thanks for the laugh of the day; maybe we need to start finding a “laugh of the day” to get us through till after the 2024 election; who will be laughing then? Thanks again!

  15. I have to admit, words can be immortalized and come back to bite you in the long run.

    Remember when G-Dub told the world, he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul, and that he was a good man! Well, at least Vladimir Putin believed it! Or as G-Dub so affectionately called him, putie poot 🫢 So much for the supposed educated elite being a good judge of character!

  16. Words do matter. Some of the most important lessons taught to me by exceptional teachers stay with me today because the words mattered.

    Modern day politicians, corporations and celebrities seldom speak in a public forum without the input of and sometimes complete surrender to speech writers or PR representatives. Hours of teamwork or just boilerplate kept on hand for crisis management are the result of targeted and carefully weighed words to serve the interests of the speaker, whatever those are.

    What makes Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or his Second Inaugural so remarkable and powerful is his use of words that mattered, understanding his audience, speaking in terms they knew, stories they identified with, painting word pictures, calling on the best of their natures, using words to move to positive action. Also of note, as far as we know, was that he wrote them himself.

    Words do matter, as propagandists know only too well. The GOP and their handlers care not for facts or trust as is clear in how often they use lies and how deliberate the use of misdirection, the racist, antisemitic, xenophobic, misogynistic and fascistic language.
    How do Dems respond when facts and trust are routinely rejected by the cult? Pushing it in their faces only deepens their commitment to the lies. Friendly persuasion only worked in the movies.
    It is a puzzle.

  17. Correct answers to the “Should I join today’s Republican Party” questionnaire:
    Question 1 – C. We need guns to protect ourselves from government based on free and fair elections.”
    Question 2 – B. “Taxes are what other people should pay to keep my street free from potholes.”
    Question 3 – C. “Parents know what’s best for their children except in cases where gender identity is concerned.”
    Question 4 – A. “Donald Trump tells it like it is and anyone else who tries that should be shouted down.”
    Scoring less than a four on this quiz means you might want to consider Independent status (but please vote Republican to avoid having a fake elector negate your choices entirely.

  18. Happy 4th!

    I will stow my comments today and keep it short.

    1) Sheila is correct, and some commenters miss it, that it is easy to “message” to a cult (not the “average American”), but difficult when you have a diverse group of people to reach. That is why there are so many “former Republicans”. If you can’t pass Jon Williams’ questionnaire (wonderful, BTW), they you aren’t wanted. Language is hard enough, but when you have disparate audiences, it becomes exponentially harder.

    2) Law and Order, since Nixon, was always about that wild, dangerous Black Man. Any crimes by the rich (assumed White Men) were always “mere peccadilloes”. Rich non-Whites were always on the line.

  19. Today a federal judge just ruled that the DOJ cant collude with big tech or social media in order to supress articles or facts. Strong evidence shows that the weaponized federal agencies have been using social media that goes against corporate responsibilities to follow the 1st amensment requirements as necessary

  20. Vernon, once again, I’m with you.
    Listen more, speak less makes sense. But, too many people come to the possibility of listening
    with firmly entrenched perspectives which are then used to change the message to their liking.

  21. John S: Another typo involving *are* in your 3:34 PM post. Proofreading one’s own work helps. Tough day, I guess.

  22. Betty; I certainly hope spending your July 4th holiday looking for errors and correcting John S twice, increased you holiday pleasure. We are all fallible and prone to making errors; even editing our own comments and choices we make in life. Please excuse our human faults; unless you have been hired to edit this blog, or do you take pleasure in embarrassing others? Thank you!

Comments are closed.