Tell It Like It Isn't: A Campaign Guide to Political Doubletalk


AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Republican presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz, left, answers a question as Senator Marco Rubio, center, listens and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, right, looks on during a Republican presidential primary debate, Thursday, January 28, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Doubletalk is the natural language of politicians, or so Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark argue in their witty lexicon by that name decoding this election’s political buzz words and jargon. McCutcheon and Mark also dissected the language of politics in their 2014 bookDog Whistles, Walk-Backs and Washington Handshakes. But their new title, Doubletalk: The Language, Code, and Jargon of a Presidential Election, captures the special absurdity of the 2016 campaign, which has been especially long on doublespeak. Below is an excerpt from Doubletalk, with a sampling of some of our favorite definitions.

Here are the political words and phrases to know before you head to the polls. With the presidential election approaching, this guide should help anyone seeking a flashlight to shine on the deliberate darkness of the campaigns.

Because—news flash—presidential elections can be highly confusing. Especially when, as of this writing, there are more than a dozen candidates just on the Republican side, all of them deploying many of the same verbal tricks. Donald Trump’s candidacy, which is surging as we write, is fueled in no small part by a resentful backlash to obfuscation. Trump doesn’t even use multisyllabic words much; he keeps things simple—and, of course, very direct.

Most of the time, political doubletalk is deliberate. When someone dismisses a question as “an opportunity, not a problem,” or pledges to “tell it like it is,” or seeks to brush off a controversy with “it’s just politics,” it fits with the definition of spin—attempted control with the intent to deceive. But we also agree with political speechwriter Barton Swaim, who in his 2015 book The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics wrote: “Using vague, slippery or just meaningless language is not the same as lying; it’s not intended to deceive so much as to preserve options, buy time, distance oneself from others, or just to sound like you’re saying something instead of nothing.”

We have tried to avoid issue-specific phrases, such as “anchor babies,” and extremely familiar terms such as “gaffe.” We looked for definitions with staying power, staying away from the dated utterances of past campaigns, such as “hanging chads” and “binders full of women.” And as in our previous book, Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs and Washington Handshakes, we have no political agenda. Whenever possible, we looked for words and phrases that have been used on a bipartisan basis.

“Ad hominem attacks”: A fancy-sounding defense mechanism in which a politician who’s the subject of criticism responds by targeting someone making the argument and not the argument itself. Ad hominem is Latin for “to the person.”

Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz repeatedly portrays himself as a victim of what he considers ad hominem attacks. In March 2015, California governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, said that Cruz was “absolutely unfit” to run for office because of his “direct falsification of the existing scientific data” on climate change. In response, Cruz said that “global warming alarmists” like Brown “engage in ad hominem attacks” and “don’t want to confront the data” on climate change.

(The senator argued that weather satellites show that warming isn’t happening; climate science websites, however, noted that the latest satellite models indicate exactly the opposite.)

On the liberal Daily Kos blog, a commenter using the name “Cassiodorus” wrote a widely read dissection of ad hominem attacks, seeking, among other things, to distinguish them from purely personal ones.

“A personal attack occurs when you say that ‘so-and-so is bad’ for whatever reason,” he wrote. “Personal attacks … contribute nothing to rational, civil discussion—but they do not, by themselves, constitute ad hominem arguments. An ad hominem argument comes into being when one uses the implied presumption that bad people can only make bad arguments.”

“Cuckservative”: A portmanteau of “cuckold” and “conservative” that emerged in mid-2015 as the most-talked-about right-wing-on-right-wing insult.

“It means something like RINO (Republican in Name Only), but with more implied contempt,” wrote Roger Schlafly, son of far-right activist and antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly, on the blog of Eagle Forum, the group founded by his mother. “The cuckservatives pretend to be conservatives but are always appeasing liberals and failing to stand up for conservative principles.”

The Washington Post was inspired to do a lengthy dissection of the word. “The ‘cuck’ slur is vulgar, yes, but then piercingly accurate,” wrote Richard Spencer, president of the white-nationalist National Policy Institute, in an email to the Post. “It is the cuckold who, whether knowingly or unknowingly, loses control of his future. This is an apt psychological portrait of white ‘conservatives,’ whose only identity is comprised of vague, abstract ‘values,’ and who are participating in the displacement of European Americans—their own children.”

The Post’s David Weigel noted that those getting the tag “are conservatives who seem to have made peace with elements alien to traditional white Americanism. That could mean the transgender movement; it could mean non-white immigrants.”

I don’t read The New York Times”: A Republican candidate’s fashionable way of trying to score points with the conservative base.

As The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza pointed out: “The Times functions as a stand-in for everything—or at least many things—conservatives dislike: liberalism, the arrogance of big cities, intellectual elitism and out-of-touch-ness.” He also noted that the Times“functions as a stand-in for all mainstream media.”

Jeb Bush’s pronouncement in March 2015 that he didn’t read the nation’s most influential newspaper even bothered some on the right. “No one should believe Jeb Bush doesn’t read NYT, but this shallow pander to conservatives is telling,” wrote Noah Rothman, an editor at Commentarymagazine, on Twitter.

“Nontroversy”: A conflating of “non” and “controversy” to describe an incident or utterance that’s seen as wholly undeserving of any fuss.

The word has been around for years and extends beyond the political realm; back in 1998, New York Post sportswriter Tom Keegan dismissed the hubbub around baseball slugger Mark McGwire’s taking of over-the-counter drugs: “It’s not a controversy; it’s a nontroversy.” (This, of course, was years before McGwire admitted he took illegal steroids.) But it’s found a home in politics, thanks to the ability of social media to create and reinforce negative perceptions at blinding speed.

An April 2012 posting on Time’s website by James Poniewozik declared that year’s presidential campaign “the year of the nontroversy”: “Who’s nicer to dogs? Whose idiot supporters said more obnoxious things than the other guy’s idiot supporters? Who didn’t eat a cookie that it would have been more advisable for him to eat? These are some of the burning issues that have faced America as the general election of 2012 has gotten under way.”’s Robby Soave dismissed the March 2015 furor when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker accepted the resignation of a campaign consultant who criticized how much power Iowa holds in presidential politics. “This is the textbook example of a nontroversy: A consultant said something everybody already believes and some other people pretended to be offended about it in order to win a political battle,” he wrote.

“Political jujitsu”: The art of taking an opponent’s criticism and turning it against them.

When Hillary Clinton gave her official campaign launch speech in June 2015, Washington Post liberal columnist E. J. Dionne noted that she struck back against GOP rivals’ criticisms of her age—67 at the time —and her association with the 1990s. He held up the speech as “an occasion for her brand of political jujitsu. Clinton’s Republican foes cast her as the candidate of the past, but it was the GOP, she insisted, whose ideas come from long ago and far away. Her Beatles reference—‘They believe in yesterday’—may have been corny, but it made her point.”

And in complaining about Democrats, conservative columnist Derek Hunter wrote: “It’s one of the greatest feats of political jujitsu that the party of slavery, Jim Crow, the KKK and segregation—indeed, the party that watered down the GOP-led Civil Rights Act of 1957 to the point it was rendered toothless—is now viewed as the party for black Americans.”

“Voter zone”: The wheelhouse of political supporters to which office-holders aspire to appeal.

As Bernie Sanders drew widespread publicity in 2015 for his unabashedly liberal beliefs, Sanders consultant Tad Devine pronounced: “Underdogs succeed when the voters are in a certain zone—I call it ‘the voter zone’—where they are looking for something, and the underdog candidate taps into that something … If the underdog can get into the voter zone with the voters by themselves, and if they are credible, they can win despite the odds.”

Four years earlier, an unnamed Republican strategist took a similarly sunny view in describing former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty: “He’s right in the middle of the voter zone for Republican primary- and caucus-goers.” That zone wasn’t very big, though: Pawlenty dropped out well before the primaries.

“Zugzwang”: A chess term referring to a situation in which any possible move in a game will weaken a player’s position; in politics, it defines the constraints facing a party or lawmaker stuck in a tough spot.

Zugzwang is German for “compulsion to move,” and its use in chess literature is said to date to the mid-1800s. Like several other jargon words (“Borked,” “squish”) we would posit that its popularity is at least partly due to the fact that it’s fun to say.

After Republicans failed to oust President Obama in 2012, Forbes contributor Lawrence Hunter lamented what he saw as the sorry state of the party: “The GOP is not quite in checkmate but it is on the horizon, as Republicans have entered into what chess masters call zugzwang, a situation in which every move available to a player simply worsens his position. But this terminal diagnosis for the GOP is not good news for the Democrats, especially when Obama’s policies begin to fail, which they inevitably will.”

Because the compiling of political words seems to have been a useful endeavor— and because it’s fun—we encourage and welcome your contributions to our ongoing efforts. Please visit our website,

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