The power of wordsDonald Trump as president has been as pugnacious as he was as a candidate. He enjoys shocking the world. His anti-immigration executive orders landed like a bombshell. The repercussions and backlash have been equally huge. He raised a global uproar in just 13 days in office.
The policy claims to protect Americans from the dangers of terrorist attacks by extreme Islamic militants. The U.S. is the land of immigrants.
Trump’s weapons platform is Twitter. He rolls out 140-character missives in unrestrained and unabashed words. “We have some really bad dudes in this country. We’ve got to get the bad ones out,” he tweeted in defense of his controversial immigration policy.
Trump bragged that he could be called the “Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters,” comparing his messaging craft to the simple but powerful prose of the famed American novelist. A wise leader is capable of simplifying a complicated issue. Trump usually resorts to coarse bashing. Roughness can overwhelm grace. Trump uses everyday street talk. He debunks the niceties and pretentious ways of the Washington political mainstream.
Trump’s inauguration speech was as straightforward and sensational as his character. His America First agenda was described with belligerence. “This American carnage stops here and stops right now,” he said as he reaffirmed his campaign against crime. He invited criticism from the mainstream media. Washington Post columnist Dan Balz criticized a president “elected on words” by saying his “unusual” inaugural address, full of “rhetorical bravado,” will soon clash with the reality of governing. Trump was unabashed. He lambasted the New York Times for its criticism of his anti-immigration policy, calling it “fake news.” He claimed it had a “bias” against him from the beginning. He said that the Times and The Washington Post had been “false and angry.” Trump won over voters on words and he still does. The traditional media still underestimates the power of his plain words over the average Joe.
In the age of social media, typed words are truly mightier than the sword. Former culture minister Lee Uh-ryung said that in today’s world, the power of language can be as powerful as the military, politics and culture. Former U.S. president Barack Obama gained enormous popularity because of his eloquent speeches. His approval rating was as high as 60 percent by the time he resigned. Yet his Democratic Party was crushingly defeated in both legislative and presidential elections. The individual Obama stood out because of his personal appeal. ”Obama used words as a creative means for governance,” Lee observed. Through more than 3,500 speeches and statements over the eight years, Obama inspired and healed his populace. His farewell speech was as poignant and strong as ever. “Yes, we can,” he said. “And yes we did.”
A leader must master language to move the hearts of the people. President Park Geun-hye was called the queen of elections. She also delivered simple and plain-spoken words. But after entering the Blue House, she kept her mouth shut, which was a fatal mistake. She drifted further and further away from the public. Her supporters were left stranded. Then the explosive scandal involving her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil erupted. Her support base collapsed, along with her grip on power.
Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon folded his run for the presidency in less than a month. He was ignorant of the use of verbal weapons. Upon returning home on a red carpet, Ban cried for the replacement of mainstream politics. The public was disgusted with mainstream politics. He seemed at a remove from dirty domestic politics. “The people hunger for rhetorical cries for new politics to make their heart beat again,” said former Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil. But Ban’s words stopped inspiring. Supporters lost interest.
Ban should have trained his vocal muscles. He should have toughened his rhetoric about reforming the politics of Korea. That was his selling point. But he never took it up a notch. He went to the scenes of the Sewol ferry sinking and the wreckage of the Cheonan warship.
But it was unclear why. Politics is all about making choices and explaining them. Then he made fatal verbal blunders. He whined about a lack of money for his campaign. It became his shortcoming. A leader can never risk being looked down on.
Ban underestimated the double-edged sword that is rhetoric. One who is not armed with words lacks negotiating power. Ban’s meetings with various opposition bigwigs like Kim Chong-in, Sohn Hak-kyu and Park Jie-won only highlighed his weak character. His approval ratings tumbled. He slipped further and further behind frontrunner Moon Jae-in, a true veteran.
Politics involves turmoil and upheaval. Ban lacked fortitude. Courage and boldness is built on words. His drama ended in just 21 days.
Words command the public’s imagination. Voters hang on the words of leaders. Leadership must pay close attention to language. Ban did not know the power of words — as Trump and Obama do.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 2, Page 31
*The author is a senior columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.