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The Definite-Article Others: Debra Hawhee

This post is from Debra Hawhee, director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation and McCourtney Professor of Civic Deliberation. Debbie is an expert on rhetoric and feminism, as this piece ably demonstrates.  She will be addressing these issues as one of the esteemed faculty presenters at the MID class this semester Trump: The Candidate and the Campaign.

The Definite-Article Others

Sometimes a whole lot can be conveyed by the use of a simple word. Take the word “the” for example. Okay, that doesn’t tell us a whole lot. Let’s broaden the context to a specific phrase, “the women.” At a late-summer rally in North Carolina, Donald Trump claimed his campaign was “doing well with the women.” This tidy little phrase contains all the problems that show up in the televised encounters with particular women or the blaming of women for sexual assaults that have been on display so far in Donald Trump’s campaign.

Grammatically, “the” is of course an article, a definite article. This usage is not technically incorrect, but it falls somewhere between the use of a definite article to talk about a specific group of people (the Brits) and that used to identify an object or group of objects (the books). People learning English are taught that a definite article is used when that which you are referring to is identifiable (give me the magazine” versus “give me a magazine”). In the contexts of invoking a constituency, the use of a definite article carries a kind of presumptuousness. Simply place the article “the” in front of a non-dominant identity group (“the Latinos, the Hispanics,” “the blacks”), and you’ll get a feel for how such a seemingly subtle construction puts a box around an identified group, a box to which everyone in that group fits in an undifferentiated way, a box that can then allow everything in it to be placed together—over there. The definite-article others.

At times the presumptuousness is right there in the broader context—“Ask the gays!” Trump declared in what turned out to be his most memed utterances so far. Such phrases—“the women,” “the gays”— call to mind the 1992 Independent candidate Ross Perot’s use of “you people” and “your people” in his first (and only?) appearance before the NAACP. “The women” doesn’t directly address women. Instead, it conveys the caution of a late-nineteenth-century anthropologist arrived from a distant land to study the habits of a tribe previously unknown to humankind. The same sort of speech pattern is also how the 1970s sitcom character Archie Bunker elicited swell after swell of canned laughter.

Let’s be clear: this usage is not deliberate, and that’s what makes it all the more revealing. The “the” in these instances bespeaks at best a discomfort with how to invoke identity groups, with the identity groups themselves. At worst it indicates a closed-mindedness, the rhetorical equivalent of the wall Trump keeps promising to build. Trump never says “the men” or “the white men.” He has the first-person plural for that. 

I study and teach rhetoric, which means I care about words, their artfulness or inartfulness, what they do to, for, or with people and things. Words carry political dispositions, attitudes, comfort levels. And sometimes the tiniest phrases reveal a whole lot. In this case, one of the most common words in the English language shows why Trump, contrary to his insistence, is not doing all that well with the woman.