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What did Trump say? Explaining the former president's favorite talking points

Former President Donald Trump has long made headlines with controversial comments about everything from immigration to trade, but translating those talking points isn't always easy.
Jackie Lay/NPR
Former President Donald Trump has long made headlines with controversial comments about everything from immigration to trade, but translating those talking points isn't always easy.

Former President Donald Trump has a history of using provocative language to draw headlines, stir up support and attack enemies.

His words, at times, have been his greatest weapons but also his biggest vulnerability.

In recent weeks, he has described Nov. 5, Election Day, as "liberation day" for "hardworking Americans" and "judgment day" for his political enemies. He has called undocumented immigrants who commit crimes "not people" and has claimed Jews who vote for Democrats hate Israel.

It's not easy trying to make sense of what often appears to be indiscriminate attacks on migrants and political enemies, but Trump knows how to generate headlines, excite his base and provoke the left simultaneously.

He has described political correctness as a cancer that prevents honest discussion. He says that people are too easily offended and that the country doesn't have time to worry so much about others' feelings.

His language is also a political weapon — and a very effective one — to use against his enemies. It's a tool that stokes his base and baits one of his favorite foils, the media.

NPR examined Trump's campaign speeches, interviews and social media posts since he held his first rally last year in March, as well as additional relevant comments in recent years, to provide context to how his language reflects his political agenda. Here are a few of his most common talking points:

The U.S.-Mexico border

Nowhere has the former president pushed the boundaries of appropriate language more than on the issue of immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border.

He has described migrants as poisoning the blood of the country and calling those who commit crimes "animals."

This demonization of migrants is not new. It has been a pillar of his political career ever since he announced his presidential campaign in 2015 and called Mexican immigrants rapists, bringing drugs and crime, while also saying that some are "good people."

The border has now become one of the fieriest political issues ahead of the November elections as both sides, Democrats and Republicans, have been pointing fingers at the other to cast blame for a myriad of problems.

It's a clear vulnerability for President Biden and the Democrats.

Biden has struggled with historic numbers of people coming across the border. It's not just Republicans who are concerned. An increasing number of Democratic mayors and governors have raised real concerns about the drain of state and local resources in cities hundreds of miles from the border.

In a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, only 29% of respondents said they approve of how Biden is handling immigration. Republicans win the issue over Democrats by 12 percentage points when asked which party handles it better.

Critics say Trump is capitalizing on those concerns by playing up anti-immigrant sentiments.

While there is little evidence that undocumented immigrants commit more crimes than U.S.-born citizens, Trump and his supporters use anecdotal stories, such as the killing of 22-year-old nursing student Laken Riley, to paint an ominous picture about America being overrun by violent migrants.

During speeches in Michigan and Wisconsin, Trump accused Biden of creating a "border bloodbath."

"This is country-changing, it's country-threatening, and it's country-wrecking," Trump said in Michigan. "They have wrecked our country."

What Trump has said:

A second Trump term

Trump has been accused of using autocratic language in this campaign that echoes rhetoric of strongman leaders of the past.

Rather than rejecting those comparisons, Trump has been wielding them as a means to stoke his base, stir up media attention and, in some ways, win back former supporters.

One example is when he sparked the anger and indignation of his many critics after declaring he wouldn't be a dictator, "except for Day 1," said Chris Stirewalt, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

He says you could see a flash in Trump's eyes when Fox News host Sean Hannity provided Trump an opportunity to assure voters he wouldn't abuse his power.

"He realizes he's got a live one on the line, right?" explained Stirewalt, who is also the political editor for NewsNation. "He has the moment where he knows that the person who he's talking to wants him to say the right thing. And he knows that the advantage comes in saying the wrong thing."

Trump responded "only on Day 1," so that he could close the border and start drilling.

"After that, I'm not a dictator, OK?" Trump quipped to Hannity as the crowd in Iowa applauded.

Those fiery remarks set off a chain reaction of events and coverage. The media dissected the language, often repeating the dictator-for-a-day comments, and Trump's supporters came out in mass, largely on conservative outlets, attacking the media for, they argued, taking the comments out of context.

Stirewalt says Trump also triggered what he called "the anti-anti-Trump immune response," which means Trump reengaged former supporters, who may have felt he went too far on Jan. 6, 2021, and/or objected to his authoritarian tendencies, to come to his defense.

"What you get is the volleying back and forth between platoons on the left and the right," Stirewalt said. "Some of it's sincere — some of it's rage, content for clicks and attention. And by the time you're done, you have strength. Trump has managed to both inflame and distract his opponents, but also to further consolidate Republican support."

What Trump has said:

Reshaping the federal government

During a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump described himself as a "proud political dissident" and promised "judgment day" for political opponents.

He has vowed to "root out" political opponents whom he has described as "vermin," echoing the language of authoritarian leaders who rose to power in Germany and Italy in the 1930s.

"The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous and grave than the threat from within," Trump said during a Veterans Day rally in New Hampshire.

The former president faces four different criminal trials related to allegations of interference in the 2020 election, fraud stemming from a hush money payment to an adult film star and mishandling of classified documents.

He has repeatedly claimed the prosecutions are a political witch hunt, and he has cast himself as a martyr who is being targeted by Democrats.

George Lakoff, a professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, says Trump often uses salesman tricks to frame a debate on his own terms. He knows how to use repetition to strengthen association.

He repeats phrases over and over on the campaign trail and on social media, such as fake news or that he's going to obliterate "the deep state." Those descriptions, right or wrong, are then repeated by others, such as the media in its coverage. They're repeated again as opponents attack him over the use of such words.

"There is a neural reason for this," Lakoff said. "The main thing is, if it's in your brain and it's activating the neural system, whatever is activating your neural system, then your brain makes it stronger."

Trump has sought to employ the prosecutions against him to justify his own calls to overhaul the "deep state," including those longtime federal lawyers who make up the Justice Department, as well as other federal agencies that he argues are politically biased against him.

He and his allies have begun to draft plans to overhaul the Justice Department as well as expand his presidential powers by ending protections for tens of thousands of federal employees so that they can be replaced with partisan loyalists.

What Trump has said:

Foreign policy

During a winter campaign rally, Trump said he told a NATO leader that he would encourage Russia "to do whatever the hell they want" to countries that were "delinquent" and had not paid bills they "owed" the NATO alliance.

His remarks set off a firestorm domestically and internationally, as Congress remains locked in a stalemate over whether to provide Ukraine with additional military assistance so that it can defend itself from the invasion by Russia.

As president, Trump sought to largely pull the United States out of foreign conflicts. But that hasn't stopped him from making bold claims about the current armed conflicts raging in Europe and the Middle East.

He has repeatedly insisted that those conflicts are related to Biden's election.

"Look what happened to our country," Trump said at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "You have wars that never would have taken place. Russia would have never attacked Ukraine. Israel would have never been attacked. You wouldn't have had inflation."

If elected in November, Trump has vowed that both conflicts would be resolved fast. He has said he could end the war in Ukraine within 24 hours but has provided no details.

"There's a very easy negotiation to take place. But I don't want to tell you what it is because then I can't use that negotiation — it'll never work," Trump told Fox's Hannity last year. "But it's a very easy negotiation to take place. I will have it solved within one day, a peace between them."

Stirewalt says the secret to Trump talking about foreign policy is making it sound so easy and simple — even the most incredibly complex problems of the day — and people believe him.

"The authoritarian tendency in politics, not just in the United States but anywhere, is to say that there is a simple and easy answer," Stirewalt said. "But the bad people will not let you obtain it because they're weak — or they're corrupt."

Meanwhile, Trump has pressured lawmakers on Capitol Hill to oppose billions of dollars in additional aid for Ukraine. He has also seemed to go out of his way to avoid criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump's approach to the war in Gaza has been a little more nuanced.

While they worked closely together during his administration, Trump was angry when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Biden after winning the 2020 presidential election.

He at first criticized Netanyahu for being unprepared for the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed 1,200 people, and he complimented the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah when it stepped up attacks against Israel.

While he has since pledged strong support for Israel, Trump has also called on Netanyahu to end the war and has warned that Israel was losing the PR war.

"What I said very plainly is get it over with, and let's get back to peace and stop killing people," Trump told The Hugh Hewitt Show. "And that's a very simple statement. Get it over with. They've got to finish what they finish. They have to get it done. Get it over with, and get it over with fast, because we have to, you have to get back to normalcy and peace."

What Trump has said:

Abortion

Trump's abortion stances are all about politics. He has repeatedly changed his positions over the years — in 2016, he told MSNBC's Chris Matthews during a town hall that if abortion were outlawed, "there has to be some form of punishment" for women seeking abortions. He later retracted that statement.

As president, he supported a 20-week federal abortion ban, pushing the Senate to pass it. He also repeatedly took credit for the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. But by the time of the 2024 presidential campaign — when Roe was overturned, meaning a federal ban would be possible — his position on a federal ban was unclear.

Notably, he went the entire Republican primary without clarifying his stance on abortion, instead saying he would bring together both sides — abortion-rights supporters and abortion-rights opponents — and negotiate a compromise policy.

When he has spoken about abortion policy during this year's campaign, he has often stressed one point in particular: that he wants to win.

He said exactly that again when he made an abortion policy announcement on April 8. In that announcement, he said that he wants states to make their own policies and that he supports exceptions to protect a mother's life, as well as for pregnancies caused by incest or rape. He later added, "But we must win. We have to win."

Trump is attempting to walk a careful line on abortion. On the one hand, he wants to maintain the favor of the abortion-rights opponents who have long been the Republican base. But on the other hand, he understands that most Americans are not abortion hard-liners and that tight restrictions have proved unpopular in several statewide elections.

In addition, he has not taken a position on sweeping abortion restrictions proposed in Project 2025 — a road map for a conservative presidency written by a coalition of right-wing groups. Those restrictions include curtailing access to abortion pills, as well as using the Comstock Act — a 19th-century law intended to stop indecency — to prohibit the mailing of any goods used in abortions.

What Trump has said:

What Trump hasn't said:

Trade and tariffs

Trump is unfailingly strident in how he talks about trade, proposing policies that are deeply protectionist. His communication about that protectionism is central to his political persona — he uses trade as a way to telegraph that he is business savvy, not to mention that he is tough and wants the U.S. to not get "ripped off."

This involves suggesting tariff levels that are unheard of in modern U.S. trade policy. During this election cycle, Trump has reportedly discussed tariffs of 60% and, in one speech, of 100%.

There is also a full Trump presidential term of trade policy to observe. As president, Trump started a trade war with China. He also imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, with the rationale that those tariffs were in the interest of national security because they increased U.S. self-reliance for defense supplies. The right-leaning Tax Foundation, estimates that while Trump's tariffs did create revenue, they will also cost nearly 170,000 jobs in the long run. Their research also found that the Biden administration kept many of Trump's tariffs in place.

In his discussions of trade throughout his political career, however, Trump has at times exhibited indifference to, or even a lack of understanding of, how trade works. For example, he has talked about trade deficits as if they are indications that a country is losing money. He also has cast bilateral trade deals as superior to multilateral deals. Most trade experts disagree with that take. Furthermore, while he casts tariffs as beneficial for Americans, tariffs also often end up raising prices for American consumers. Finally, he often talks about trade deals as policies with winners and losers, when the goal of trade deals is to allow all parties to benefit.

It is also worth noting that while Trump's trade policy is aimed at protecting American industry, it is also deeply concerned with domestic politics — it's a way to court votes, particularly in industrial states.

What Trump has said:

Trans issues

Transgender issues weren't a major national issue in 2016 they way they are now. Similarly, Trump in 2016 was neither as vocal about nor as stridently opposed to transgender rights. When the topic did come up in a 2016 Today show segment, he said he wanted people to use whatever bathrooms they wanted.

But as president, Trump took several actions to curb transgender rights — excluding transgender individuals from the military, allowing health care professionals to discriminate against them and allowing homeless shelters to exclude them.

And as transgender issues have become central to political culture wars — and as anti-transgender activists have increasingly focused their attention on transgender kids — Trump has become increasingly vocal about the topic as well. He refers to gender-affirming care for minors as "mutilation" and regularly says in his stump speech that transgender girls shouldn't play girls' sports — one of his most reliable applause lines.

Often, he wraps transgender issues in with school vaccine and mask mandates, as well as the teaching of what opponents call "critical race theory," as a way of packaging these social issues as educational policy.

What Trump has said:

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Danielle Kurtzleben
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
Franco Ordoñez
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.