When Donald Trump declared himself this weekend to be “like, really smart,” this rang false to some ears. Trumpspeak is known for its restricted vocabulary, name-calling, raging use of ALL-CAPS, promiscuous superlatives, and weaponized exclamation marks. But this burst of valley girl uptalk seemed at odds with Trump’s tough guy persona. Had Alicia Silverstone hacked the POTUS Twitter account?
“Like” is used in modern discourse in two non-traditional ways. First, the quotative like, in which “like” replaces “said.” Despite its name, the quotative like is not usually used with straight-up quotations. More often, it is used to paraphrase, convey strong emotional states, or bring out interior discourse.
She was like, OMG, this is my song.
“Like” is also used an intensifier or reinforcer, often used to buttress a statement of fact made about an unexpected state of affairs. Donald Trump’s apparently un-ironic statement of “being, like, really smart” seems to fall into this latter category of the reinforcing like. (There is also an unnerving echo here of Fredo Corleone’s pathetic outburst in Godfather Part II: “I’m smart! Not like everybody says! Like, dumb! I’m smart… and I want respect!”)
The quotative and reinforcing likes are a neglected occasional feature of Trumpspeak. A few examples from his rambling and barely coherent off-teleprompter remarks on August 22, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona:
So, he talked about it for like that much, then he goes, “Let’s get back to Charlottesville.”
They don’t show it. They take — they’ll take one thing, like, seriously, he was late was the best thing. He was late.
But, I mean do you ever see anything — and then you wonder why CNN is doing relatively poorly in the ratings. Because they’re putting like seven people all negative on Trump.
And do you ever notice, when I go on and I’ll put, like, out a tweet or a couple of tweets, “He’s in a Twitter-storm again!”
Language is usage, and it is futile and silly to rage against the perpetual renewal and enrichment of English by youthful speakers. But after eight years of Barack Obama discoursing in periodic sentences and finely crafted paragraphs, it is still jarring to hear POTUS using speech patterns typically associated with ditziness and callow materialism. Sad!