Insects, Floods and “The Snake”: What Trump’s Use of Metaphors Reveals

President Donald Trump holds a copy of the poem "The Snake" prior to reciting it during a "Make America Great Again" rally in Harrisburg, PA, April 29, 2017, marking his 100th day in office.

President Donald Trump holds a copy of the poem "The Snake" prior to reciting it during a "Make America Great Again" rally in Harrisburg, PA, April 29, 2017, marking his 100th day in office. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

October 22, 2019

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump famously avoided teleprompters, bragging about his ability to craft entire speeches from off-the-cuff remarks. But every so often, he’d pull a folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket and start to read aloud.

In the song “The Snake,” which Trump recited at many of his 2016 campaign rallies, a “tenderhearted woman” finds a half-frozen snake on a path and rescues it, only to be bitten. In Trump’s reading, the tale was a parable for the dangers of lax immigration policies. A sequence of Trump reading “The Snake,” interspersed with videos and photography from the U.S.-Mexico border, starts FRONTLINE’s newest film, Zero Tolerance.

In February 2016, when Trump asked a Florida crowd if they wanted to hear “The Snake,” he wrongly credited it to singer Al Wilson. When she first saw a video of the performance, Maggie Brown, daughter of the song’s real author, Oscar Brown Jr., was relieved.

“My first feeling was that my dad’s name doesn’t belong in Trump’s mouth,” she said. “It reminded me of a lynching scene, getting folks all riled up, about to kill this [black person]. I hated the idea of him using Oscar’s words to create such a platform.”

The irony that the song — written by an African American activist and musician — was being weaponized to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment wasn’t lost on the media. On Trump’s hundredth day in office, he once again recited the lyrics. The Associated Press called Maggie Brown and her sister, Africa, for comment, and soon after they were interviewed on MSNBC and CNN.

The family, too, was flabbergasted by the contradiction of Trump using their father’s work. In addition to writing songs and plays, Brown Jr. ran unsuccessfully for both Illinois state legislature and Congress. “Wait until Republicans find out that he’s quoting a former black nationalist and former communist party member,” said Maggie Brown with a chuckle.

But it is clear that the two men are linked by at least one quality: appreciation for a good metaphor. And now, as the next presidential race heats up, researchers are beginning to understand why and how Trump’s use of metaphor is, perhaps, his greatest weapon.

“He uses this metaphor to present himself as a hero, as someone who will protect you from these animals.”

For years, Donald Trump has used “The Snake” to whip up racist fervor at raucous rallies, said Austrian language researcher Kateryna Pilyarchuk. In a 2018 academic paper, she and a colleague analyzed the role of metaphors in Trump’s nomination acceptance speech, his victory speech and his inaugural address. Across all three, Trump used nearly 350 metaphors, making up 85 percent of the speeches.

Comparing immigrants to animals isn’t a new political trick: the Nazis frequently referred to Jews as vermin, and “metaphor theory” is its own research field in linguistics. There’s also a growing body of work showing why metaphors can be effective motivators.

Populist leaders like Boris Johnson often use metaphors to compare immigrants to animals, said Pilyarchuk. Yet Trump went a few steps further, she added, by using comparisons to insects and other “lower-order” animals such as snakes, a move that can trigger more disgust or fear. In those analogies, he often presents himself as a tamer of animals.

“He uses this metaphor to present himself as a hero, as someone who will protect you from these animals,” she said. “That means everyone else who comes to the country becomes not a human, but an animal. And if this person is a Muslim, this person is not even a mammal.”

Other metaphors used often by Trump include comparing the United States to a person — whether strong or suffering, the comparisons are always evocative — as well as those of force, machines, plants, animals, and liquids.

Types of conceptual metaphors used by Donald Trump in three of his speeches, (Kateryna Pilyarchuk and Alexander Onysko)
In 2018, researchers Kateryna Pilyarchuk and Alexander Onysko counted and analyzed metaphors used by Donald Trump in three of his key speeches. Kateryna Pilyarchuk and Alexander Onysko

One of the most striking elements in Trump’s speeches is his frequent use of so-called “dead” metaphors, or metaphors that have lost their meaning over time because they’re so common, said Andrew Hines, a philosophy fellow at SOAS University of London. “A live metaphor might be something that leaps out at you as clever use of language. Whereas dead metaphors are something that almost pass by without noticing,” said Hines, who has studied and written about the president’s rhetoric.

“Even me saying ‘pass by without noticing’ — words don’t literally pass us by. It’s those little things in everyday language that aren’t literal but have passed into usage over hundreds of years.” Those metaphors, he says, can help make people seem more trustworthy or relatable.  

The White House recently updated its immigration website with a Trump quote stating that the government has “taken very unprecedented action to stop the flow of illegal immigration.” Because “flow” relates to water and overflow, particularly when used in a negative sense, said Hines, that metaphor helps reinforce a feeling in voters that America — the “container” — is being overrun.

It’s important to flag, say both Hines and Pilyarchuk, that the effectiveness of Donald Trump’s rhetoric says more about the American public than it does about Donald Trump.

“It can come from us. From our own concepts, our own beliefs, our own culture,” said Hines. “It points the finger back at the public, and it prompts us to understand our own views, and our own unquestioned assumption and beliefs, and how easy it is just to grab the similarities and likenesses we think are true.”

In our modern age, said Hines, most people want to blame someone for how political language is shaped, whether that’s by Nancy Pelosi or Trump. “But I think the rhetoric is coming from us,” he said. “It’s coming from our own unquestioned assumptions and that’s why it’s so powerful. For me, that’s one takeaway, that moment of self-reflection.”

Since Trump started reading their father’s lyrics aloud, the Brown family has become accustomed to speaking publicly about their peculiar situation. But just last month, they discovered something new.

In early September, Maggie Brown’s sister-in-law was sorting stacks of dusty cassette tapes when she found and digitized a new song called “Illegal Immigrants.” The family has no idea who else is playing on the track, which is written from the point of view of a Mexican migrant, or when it was written or recorded.

“Immigrants illegally on land/Where our Mexico used to stand/Driven off and confined/Across a gringo border line,” Brown Jr. sings, as a woman sings in Spanish in the background. “It takes mucho grande ignorance/To call us the illegal immigrants.”

“Besides the chills coming up my arms and back, tears came to my eyes and I kept saying, ‘Wow daddy, you left us the rebuttal,’” says Maggie Brown. “That’s a clap back if ever I heard it. And who better to do it but him. For him to say it out of his own mouth in such a wonderful poetic way.”

In 2005, when their father was dying, a hospice nurse asked if there was anything she could get for him, said Africa Brown. “This man looked at her and said, ‘I just want to make sure I have the right attitude,’” she said. “He always said that you can’t drown out noise with noise,” added Maggie Brown. “You can’t out-hate hate. You want to get with people who know this isn’t the way. We’re going to have to come together. There is a race going on, and we have to win it.”

Karen Pinchin

Karen Pinchin, Former Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism Fellowship, FRONTLINE



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