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Lakoff: Democrats must block Trump’s wall of hate

Senator Lindsey Graham recently made an interesting admission about the true nature of President Trump’s demand for a “wall” at the United States-Mexico border.

“The wall has become a metaphor,” he said, “for border security.”

Graham is half-right. The wall is a metaphor. But it’s a metaphor for racism, nationalism and white supremacy. The wall Trump desires isn’t made of concrete or steel. It’s made of hate. That’s why Democrats have a moral responsibility to deny Trump any wall – even a metaphorical one.

Metaphors are crucial. As a linguist and cognitive scientist, I wrote the book on metaphor – literally. “Metaphors We Live By,” co-authored with Mark Johnson, details the central role metaphors play in human thought.

Metaphors shape the way we think because they play a central role in defining our everyday reality. They are shortcuts that allow us to understand or experience one thing in terms of another. For instance, we think of happy as “up” and sad as “down.” We think of time as “money” (“you’re wasting my time,” “I’m running out of time”). We think of the mind as a “machine” (“the wheels are turning now,” “I’m a little rusty”).


It’s impossible to get through a conversation without metaphors. They’re so ingrained in our thinking that we hardly notice them.

Trump uses metaphors often, mostly as weapons against his enemies. Think “drain the swamp,” “rigged system,” “deep state” and, most infamously, “build the wall.” When he calls Washington a “swamp,” he doesn’t mean a steamy marsh teeming with alligators. He means a corrupt city full of dirty politicians who need to be removed.

George Lakoff

Similarly, when speaking of the “wall,” he doesn’t mean a literal wall spanning the entire 1,954-mile length of the border. After all, that would be physically impossible and environmentally destructive. It would also be ineffective, since most unauthorized immigrants in the US arrive via airports and overstay their visas.

Trump’s wall is a device that specifically targets Latino immigrants, especially Mexicans. During the campaign, Trump went out of his way to slander Mexican immigrants, falsely portraying them in violent terms to terrify his base. He proposed the wall as a solution to the fear he created.

In literal terms, a wall sets a boundary. It sections off a territory, either to protect it from outsiders or to keep people locked inside, as in a prison. A wall can be an actual physical barrier or an abstract dividing line. For instance, the border separating California and Nevada is invisible to the eye, but its effects are nonetheless real.

Trump’s wall of hate is also invisible yet formidable. In order for a person to support the idea of a wall, they must feel threatened. The first brick in Trump’s metaphorical wall is fear – a senseless but serious fear of the Latino immigrants who strengthen our economy.

Metaphors can change how we think. A 2011 Stanford study found that using different metaphors to frame the issue of crime affected how people viewed solutions to crime. When crime was framed as “a beast preying on the community,” people were more inclined to support tough-on-crime measures. When crime was framed as “a virus,” they were more likely to support social reforms as a solution.

“Metaphors aren’t just used for flowery speech,” said Dr. Lera Boroditsky, who led the study. “They shape the conversation for things we’re trying to explain and figure out. And they have consequences for determining what we decide is the right approach to solving problems.”

Before proposing his solution, Trump created a problem. He implanted a fear of Latino immigrants in the minds of his supporters – a fear so deep only a wall can fix it. Before creating the border crisis or the government shutdown crisis, he created a crisis of race-based fear in the minds of his base.

Never mind the fact that we’re an immigrant nation, or that Latino immigrants make our country better and stronger. Disregard the fact that physical barriers won’t stop immigrants from flying into airports or tunneling under deserts. This wall doesn’t have to work literally, only metaphorically.

If Trump gets even one penny for his wall, it would mean we needed one in the first place. It would lend credibility to the racism and hate that fueled his rise. It would also grant him a symbolic victory as the “builder” of the wall, which is very important for a failed real estate developer like Trump, with his widely-noted “edifice complex.”

Trump likes to falsely accuse Democrats of having voted for a wall in the past. But President George W. Bush didn’t call it a “wall,” he called it a “fence.” And while many Democrats supported the Secure Fence Act of 2006, that was long before Trump came along to imbue the issue of border security with racist symbolism.

Democrats are right to dig in their heels for a long fight. When it comes to Trump’s wall of hate, they can’t afford to give an inch.

George Lakoff is professor emeritus of cognitive science and linguistics at UC Berkeley and co-host of the FrameLab podcast.