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  • When Actions Speak Louder …
  • Marianne Constable (bio)

As Americans and others have come to realize that President Trump has the same problems with language as campaigner Trump had, persons of all political stripes have taken refuge from much of what the president seems to mean, by saying, "Actions speak louder than words." They make this claim, then variously praise or blame Trump for particular actions in accordance with their political views. In so doing, commentators from across the political spectrum fail to do justice to language. The privileging of action over words—whether by Trump critics or Trump supporters—troubles both language and law.

The saying that actions speak louder than words contrasts actions that don't use words to actions that do; its claim seems to be that actions that don't use words "speak louder"—or are more telling or efficacious or forceful or powerful—than actions that do. The saying first becomes puzzling when, following J. L. Austin and others, one takes speaking or utterances to be acts that themselves do things and are not simply true/false propositions.1 Words speak. Speech acts. The speaking of words constitutes "action," and the [End Page 271] loudness of any such action—promising, warning, threatening, enacting, objecting, explaining—varies.

The attempt to bracket off what Trump does in words from what he does without them is problematic not only because what he does with words are actions. The distinction is problematic because the actions of Trump, as head of state, are matters of law that are done, more often than not, precisely through words. Trump institutes banning, vetting, honoring, and memorializing, for instance, through executive orders. Those orders, no less than accusations, commands, declarations, negotiations, or regulations, require words.

The sense in which Trump's actions speak louder than words is thus not only a problem of politics—or even a problem of possible right-wing appropriation of ostensibly left critiques of truth—but a challenge to law. Law sets great stock in language. Law, with its often excruciating attention to details of language, insists—as we shall see—on maintaining particular relations between speech and reality, between words and the truths they may show in speaking. Trump rebuffs words, and when he does so, the claim that his actions speak louder than words threatens the very possibility of law, insofar as law relies on language and on the promises of words to truth.


As an example of the privileging of action over words, take Trump's attitude, made manifest through an act of speaking, toward what one might otherwise consider to be shared words. On February 1, 2017, Trump tweeted "Call it what you want," referring to the travel ban from seven Muslim-majority countries that he had authorized through a particular (speech) act, an executive order, a few days earlier. This tweet followed press secretary Sean Spicer's demand that the word ban not be used to refer to the act. Spicer claimed that the press was responsible for the use of ban, although, as others pointed out, both Spicer and Trump had also called it that. Trump's tweet began, "Everybody is arguing whether or not it is a ban." He then continued, "Call it what you want, it is about keeping bad people (with bad intentions) out of the country."2 [End Page 272]

As writing instructors know, there is a difference between what something is and what it is about. In suggesting that one can call the executive order, or speech act of banning, whatever one wants3 and in focusing on what "it" is "about," Trump attends neither to what the order is nor to what it is called. In tweeting as he does and implying that it does not matter what the executive order is or is called, the order is—for him—louder than words. His speech acts matter in ways that differ from what words would call them or would say that they are; they matter in their loudness.

Such use, misuse, and nonuse of language are issues not only for grammarians, late-night comedians, and political commentators. The unmooring of words from what they say leaves us (those...