Donald Trump triggered yet another round of furious Twitterology this weekend when, in the midst of a tweetstorm defending himself against Michael Wolff’s blockbuster book, Fire and Fury, Trump declared that “throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.”
That, plus the follow-up that he is in fact a “very stable genius,” sent the Twitterverse into a tizzy. And just like the December tweet from the @realDonaldTrump account stating that Michael Flynn “pled guilty” to lying to the FBI, many observers picked up on the use of a single word. Last time, that word was pled (which I wrote about here and here), but this time it was another four-letter item: like, set off with commas.
The use of pled in last month’s tweet unleashed speculation about its true authorship—Trump’s lawyer John Dowd ended up taking the blame for a statement that seemed to add an incriminating bit of evidence to an obstruction-of-justice case. This time around, no one seems to deny that the sentiment is Trumpian. Even the machines agree: the site Did Trump Tweet It? puts the machine-learning probability that Trump wrote the tweet at over 99 percent. But those fussy commas around the like suggested to many that Trump must have dictated the tweet—perhaps to his communications director Hope Hicks, who is painted in Wolff’s book as “the ultimate facilitator of unmediated behavior,” on Twitter and elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the forensic linguists whom I spoke to in December haven’t yet worked out a model to help determine when Trump might be dictating his tweets and when they come from his very own thumbs. But his use of the word like is still worthy of some armchair analysis.
The commas around like are an anomaly in the president’s tweeting history: Of the tens of thousands of tweets in the Trump Twitter archive, this is the first time like has appeared this way, except for in two manual retweets. One was from a follower in 2013 who, upon hearing that Trump was speaking at the CPAC conference, exclaimed, “This conference just became, like, a hundred times more awesome!” The other, from 2014, was from Peter King of Sports Illustrated, who tweeted, “Why do baseball players slide headfirst? Are they just, like, not smart?” (Trump thought that was a “great point.”)
But while tweeting-Trump may never have used “like” in this way before yesterday, speaking-Trump uses it all the time—at least when he’s touting his own intelligence. Back on July 11, 2015, less than a month after Trump declared that he was running for president, he told a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, “I’m, like, a really smart person.” (That inspired MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow to run a segment with “Like, a Really Smart Person!” displayed on the screen behind her.) In December 2015, he told CNN’s Don Lemon, “But I’m, like, a really smart person. You know, I went to Ivy League schools.”
He continued the “like, smart” theme all through 2016. “I'm conservative, folks, but I’m also, like, smart,” he said at an Arizona rally in March excoriating Jeb Bush. “I’m, like, a really smart person, like a lot of you people,” he said in Connecticut in April, before explaining that “it’s very easy to be presidential” if he wants to be. And in December, responding to a question from Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday about why as president-elect Trump was eschewing the daily intelligence briefing, he said, “you know, I’m, like, a smart person.” That led Seth Meyers to crack on his late-night show that “‘I’m, like, a smart person’ is a sentence that disproves itself. It’s like getting a back tattoo that says ‘I Make Good Decisions.’” Despite the ribbing, Trump doubled down when he spoke at CIA headquarters on his first official day in office, saying, “Trust me, I’m, like, a smart person.”
So this is clearly a thing for Trump, even if it’s only now carrying over to his Twitter feed. Why, we may ask, does this self-declared “very stable genius” keep doing it?
First, let’s consider the role of “like” in “I’m, like, really smart.” The word “like” serves a number of functions in casual American speech, all of which tend to be stigmatized—just as Seth Meyers implied—as not exactly sounding “smart.” Alexandra D’Arcy, a sociolinguist at the University of Victoria, takes issue with many of the common characterizations of “like” that have been attached to it ever since it became associated with beatnik types (think Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs on the old “Dobie Gillis” show), and then with hippies, stoners, and surfers. Later, it was taken as typical of young women, particularly fitting the “Valley Girl” stereotype. (Indeed, many commenters on Trump’s tweet said his “like” made him sound like a Valley Girl.)
In a new book, D’Arcy lays out four different flavors of modern “like” There’s the quotative use, as in “I was like, ‘No way!’” There’s the approximative use, as in “It’s like thirty degrees below out there.” There’s the discourse marker, used to connect clauses as a kind of discursive glue, as in “…like, you know what I’m saying?” And finally there’s the discourse particle, which can get stuck into the middle of a clause. That last one is what Trump is doing when he inserts “like” before “really smart” or “a really smart person.”
As D’Arcy explains, when “like” is used as a discourse particle, it can serve a range of communicative purposes, even if it can’t be assigned a concrete definition. It can draw focus to a topic of discourse, indicating to those listening that they should pay attention to what comes next. It can also be used as a kind of hedge—or as the linguist Lawrence Shourup puts it, “like” can express “a possible unspecified minor nonequivalence of what is said and what is meant.” (Interestingly, despite the “Valley Girl” stereotype, D’Arcy finds that men actually use “like” as a discourse particle slightly more often than women.)
So why does Trump continue to use this hedging device, in his running self-evaluation of his own “smartness”? Of the various commenters expounding on Trump’s tweet yesterday, I think Katie Rosman of The New York Times did the best job of explaining the “like.” The word “hedges the claim before it, adds an element of ‘I know it’s immodesty but I’m not going to be afraid to say it,” Rosman tweeted, adding that Trump “has never shown such concern of seeming immodest.” I’m reminded of how Trump can preface a boastful statement by saying, “I will tell you this in a non-braggadocious way…” as he did when promoting the GOP tax plan last November.
Moreover, the “like” allows Trump to have his cake and eat it too: he can brag about his “very good brain” and his Ivy League education without coming off as intellectual, exemplifying what Jonathan Chait has called his “oddly snobbish anti-intellectualism.” Because the discourse particle doesn’t “sound smart,” he evidently thinks it disarms the ludicrous self-puffery of someone incessantly crowing about his own intelligence. He may not have a Valley Girl stereotype in mind—given Trump’s age, Maynard G. Krebs would be a more likely model—but he seems to treat “like” as something humorously not smart that makes his proclamations of smartness somehow more palatable. At least that’s how it must sound in the mind of a “very stable genius.”