POLITICIANS like to promise action, not words. But this is odd: when was the last time a political leader did anything important with a physical action? Monarchs no longer lead armies into battle on horseback. Modern politicians stay safely at home. They give speeches, which they hope will make people vote for them. Once elected, their job is to give yet more speeches, have private meetings, engage in debates and maybe write the occasional opinion article.
In other words, a lot of words. It is fair to say that pretty much the entire job of a politician, unlike that of a woodworker or surgeon, is to talk, not to perform what might traditionally be called “action”. But this does not mean that politicians do nothing. There is a particular kind of speech that philosophers and linguists call “speech acts”, described by J.L. Austin in his book “How to Do Things with Words”, published in 1962.
Austin distinguished “locution”, the act of speaking itself, from “illocution”: the thing done in the world by that act. A classic distinction is a request phrased in the form of a question: “Can you shut the window?” It seems to be about the listener’s ability to shut the window, but the illocutionary act tells the listener to shut the window. Speech acts come stronger than that, too. People can commit themselves to a proposition, or promise a future action: “I promise I didn’t steal it” commits the speaker to being branded a liar if something else turns out to be the case. And “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” commits the speaker in court to accepting charges for perjury for doing otherwise.
Some people are authorised to change the state of the world itself through speech. A minister can marry two people with the words, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” A judge can say, “I sentence you to three years in prison.” A traditional test is that if you can insert “hereby” into a sentence, you are performing a kind of direct-effect speech act.
But one group of people can perform an especially powerful kind of speech act. Heads of government do so when they speak about the policies of their countries. Since they set those policies, everything out of their mouths can be taken as something between the promise of an ordinary person, and a speech act with direct effect. These are taken by listeners as “I hereby commit my country to the following course of action.”
The world has been shaken by the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency because he has been saying things for a year and a half that seem to commit America to radical new policies: an abandonment of NATO allies who do not pay more for their protection, an end to free trade and the killing of terrorists’ family members. Many such things will be under his direct control as president.
The more level-headed supporters of the president-elect like to defend him by saying that he often speaks with a hidden wink. In other words, don’t take these as literal promises—speech acts—at all. He was a successful reality-show entertainer, after all. Another philosopher has described what might be considered Mr Trump’s signature style: Harry Frankfurt’s book “On Bullshit” described speech that, distinct from lying, is a kind of performance in which the speaker isn’t even concerned about the truth of what he says. Mr Trump himself used this “locker-room talk” defence after a video showed him bragging about groping women.
Now he is the president-elect. His first act was to give an unusually measured speech in which he promised reconciliation at home, and said that “we will get along with all other nations willing to get along with us.” As he assembles his administration, he needs to know that the world has already taken a lot of what he has said as terrifying promises. Which Donald Trump will take office in January? The one who continually went off on reckless and damaging tangents during campaign speeches? Or the one who gave his victory speech?
It was reported that Mr Trump’s staff had taken control of his Twitter account from him late in the campaign. He also stopped committing major outrages in speeches and, probably not coincidentally, he soon began to close in the polls. His staff seems to have convinced him that his spontaneous speech was his own worst enemy. It is far from clear he will take that lesson to the White House, where the world will take his words as deeds, and respond accordingly.