Migrants, Metaphors and Manipulation: a Multimodal Case Study of Trump’s Speeches on Immigration (2015-2017)

DOI : 10.35562/elad-silda.885


This article intends to analyze the use of metaphors in a corpus of Donald Trump’s speeches on immigration; its main goal is to determine how migrants were depicted in the 2016 American presidential election, and how metaphor manipulated voters in the creation of this image. This study is multimodal since not only the linguistic aspect of speeches but also gestures are considered. The first part consists in presenting an overview of the theories on metaphor. It provides the theoretical framework and develops the main tenets of the ‘Conceptual Metaphor Theory’ (CMT). The second part deals with multimodality and presents what modes and gestures are. The third part provides the corpus and methodology. The last part consists in the corpus study and provides the main source domains as well as other rhetorical tools that are used by Trump to depict migrants and manipulate voters.

Cet article se propose d’étudier l’utilisation des métaphores dans les discours de Donald Trump au sujet de l’immigration. Il s’agit d’une analyse de corpus ayant pour but de dégager la façon dont les migrants ont été décrits dans les discours de Donald Trump lors des élections présidentielles de 2016, et comment la métaphore peut revêtir un rôle manipulatoire dans la création de cette image. Cette étude multimodale prend en compte non seulement l’aspect linguistique des discours mais également l’impact des gestes produits par le candidat. La première partie présente le cadre théorique concernant la métaphore et expose les principes de la théorie conceptuelle de la métaphore (Conceptual Metaphor Theory en anglais, ou CMT). Ensuite, la question de la multimodalité sera abordée, puis le corpus et la méthodologie seront présentés. Enfin, la dernière partie est constituée de l’étude de corpus et détaille notamment les différents domaines sources utilisés par Donald Trump pour faire référence aux migrants et manipuler les électeurs.



immigration, métaphore, discours politique, métaphore conceptuelle, gestes, multimodalité, manipulation, linguistique cognitive, domaine source, dysphémisme


immigration, metaphor, political discourse, conceptual metaphor, gestures, multi-modality, manipulation, cognitive linguistics, source domain, dysphemism




Wave, tide, flood, submersion. These lexemes seem to be only used to describe natural catastrophes. However, they are also very commonly used to depict and dehumanise vulnerable human beings, and more particularly refugees. Those metaphors are indeed resorted to by some politicians to manipulate voters and exacerbate tensions between migrants and the citizens of the host country, creating two different groups [Van Dijk 2008: 9]. Even though this linguistic phenomenon is not new, the past years have been marked by the 2015 migrant crisis in Europe and by the unexpected rise of right-wing politicians such as Donald Trump in the U.S., who largely resorts to such derogatory lexemes to refer to refugees. In addition, not only has anti-immigration ideology been growing recently, but the use of social media has also been rising, making far-right ideas even more available on the Internet, where users are easily manipulated. As Katz [1998: 33] points out, “a metaphor not only illuminates, it conceals”, which partly explains why immigration metaphors can be seen as dangerous and manipulative since, for example, the quantity of refugees is often highlighted while individuality is completely concealed by the metaphors at stake in political discourse. In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson [1980] paved the way for the ‘Conceptual Metaphor Theory’ (CMT), in which they assumed that metaphors were “part of our everyday life not only in language” but also in “thoughts and actions” [1980: 3]. One of the main tenets CMT relies on is the ‘highlighting-hiding principle’ [Kövecses 2002: 80]. By creating a metaphor, and thus a specific mental picture, the speaker systematically highlights some elements of the target domain, putting some other elements in the shadow. Thanks to metaphors, some constituents of the target domain are highlighted while others are hidden. This does not seem to be dangerous when a metaphor is merely used for its ornamental function but what about political discourse concerning sensitive topics such as immigration and/or discrimination? The aim of this article is therefore to determine to what extent such metaphors ‘conceal’ the truth and how they may have contributed to manipulating voters in the 2016 United States presidential election. In order to do so, I will analyze Trump’s speeches about immigration from 2015 to 2017, as well as his gestures, to carry out a multimodal analysis and answer the following questions: why are some source domains more manipulative than others? Is the manipulative feature inherent to the source domain itself or is it because metaphors combine with other manipulative techniques?

In the first part, I will give an overview of the theories on metaphors. Then, in the second part I will provide a brief definition of multimodality and tackle the use of gestures in political discourse. The third part will consist in the description of the corpus and methodology. The last part will finally focus on a case study of Trump’s speeches about immigration from 2015 to 2017.

1. Theories on metaphors and manipulation

1.1. Definition and manipulation

The first manipulative feature of metaphor can be found in one of its early definitions: “Metaphor is the application of an alien name by transference either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, or by analogy, that is, proportion” [Aristotle 2008: 41]. It conveys the idea that metaphors consist in the use of an unsuitable or inappropriate term (in other words, a term which comes from a totally different notional domain), which is being applied to what is being described, creating parallels and similarities between the “alien name” and the subject. It is therefore because of these parallels, that is to say, because of this “transference” described by Aristotle, that manipulation can occur.

A metaphor can also be defined as an analogical process that enables the utterer to describe something implicitly, highlighting or hiding the differences or resemblance between two different domains and partly merging them. Nonetheless, they are different from similes since they create a real fusion between the two domains without resorting to the prepositions as or like as comparative tools. The absence of such tools also contributes to the manipulative function of metaphor since it enables the speaker to erase the distinction between two elements. Saying “X is like Y” is assuming that “X is not Y”, which is the case with similes, while the metaphor “X is Y” is a misleading approximation that can lead to manipulation since it does not enable the co-speaker to make a distinction between X and Y.

This first definition of metaphor has evolved since then; according to Lakoff and Johnson [2003(1980): 2] a metaphor can be defined as a “mapping between a source domain and a target domain”. This “mapping” is partly responsible for the manipulative function of metaphor since they explain that the two domains have nothing in common or at least that it is difficult to find the existence of a coherent, logical link between them at first sight. Ritchie [2013: 9] defines the term mapping as “a process in which particular words are connected with meanings” and Simpson and Mayr [2010: 43] explain that “the target domain is the topic that you want to describe through the metaphor while the source domain refers to the concept that you draw upon in order to create the metaphorical construction”. In other words, thanks to a metaphor, a connection is created between what is being talked about and an element of a different domain1. This definition of metaphor will be the working definition used in this paper.

1.2. Manipulative types of metaphors

Vivid, conventionalized and dead: these are the three different types of metaphors that have generally been identified by scholars. Chamizo Domínguez [1998: 47-70] used the terms creative, semi-lexicalized and lexicalized respectively to refer to the same categories. To avoid the existing overlaps between the first aforementioned categories, I will use Chamizo Domínguez’s terminology in this article, as it specifies the degree of lexicalization. ‘Lexicalized’ metaphors are defined by Punter [2007: 146] as “metaphors which have been used so often that they barely stand out as metaphor at all and have descended to the level of cliché” and are therefore found in dictionaries. Those metaphors are opposed to ‘creative’ metaphors, which rely on a new association between the target and the source domains. This new association can be highly manipulative since the two notional domains have almost nothing in common and since it is the speaker who decides to create a cognitive link that did not exist before. The category of ‘semi-lexicalized’ metaphors can be found in between; they are generally not recorded in dictionaries. Those metaphors very often rely on shared knowledge between the speaker and the audience to be understood, which means a sense of in-groupness

[Van Dijk 2008: 9] and cohesion is created; these metaphors are likely to encourage discrimination since anyone who does not belong to the group cannot understand what is said. Studying these different types of metaphors can be particularly helpful. Punter [2007: 102] explains:

The recognition of metaphor becomes not only a sign of power but also a powerful marker of cultural instability; metaphors need to be considered not only in terms of their endurance but also in terms of their passing away.

In other words, the degree of lexicalization has to be taken into account so as to evaluate to what extent the ideologies conveyed by the metaphor are ingrained in people’s mind in a given community for a certain period of time. Widdowson [2007: 71] gives the example of the metaphor “an army of immigrants”. He wonders why the lexeme army is used instead of crowd and explains that such a metaphor creates a real dichotomy between migrants and the members of the host country. Unlike crowd, which is rather neutral, the lexeme army presupposes that migrants are armed, well-organized and potentially dangerous while it portrays the speaker and their audience as victims. According to Van Dijk [2008: 11], this strategy is widely resorted to so as to defend xenophobic ideologies. It always enables the speaker to create a dichotomy between two different groups, leading to “social inequality and injustice”. Van Dijk [2008: 9] adds that such metaphors usually highlight the positive features of the speaker’s group and the negative aspects of the “out-group”, which generates “self-glorification” and manipulation at the same time.

1.3. Conceptual Metaphor Theory and the ‘highlighting-hiding principle’

Lakoff and Johnson [1980] explain that human beings mostly think metaphorically. According to them, metaphors are essential to our ability to conceptualize and make sense of the world, as well as to our ability to communicate. They write that “most of our conceptual system is metaphorically structured” [1980: 61], which means that metaphors are not a mere linguistic phenomenon.

One of the main tenets of the CMT that can contribute to manipulation is the ‘highlighting-hiding principle’ [Kövecses 2002: 80]. Lakoff and Johnson [1980: 10] describe it as follows:

The very systematicity that allows us to comprehend one aspect of a concept in terms of another will necessarily hide other aspects of the concept. In allowing us to focus on one aspect of a concept, a metaphorical concept can keep us from focusing on other aspects of the concept that are inconsistent with that metaphor.

Thus, this principle states that when resorting to a metaphor, the utterer consciously or unconsciously manipulates the listeners, since only some aspects of the target domain are highlighted. The ‘highlighting-hiding principle’ is therefore frequently conspicuous in metaphors used in political speeches, especially in speeches about immigration, where the proportion of migrants is very often emphasized while their individuality is entirely concealed by the metaphors at stake. This can thus be dangerous, as pointed out by Lakoff and Johnson [1980: 236]:

Like other metaphors, political and economic metaphors can hide aspects of reality. But in the area of politics and economics, metaphors matter more, because they constrain our lives. A metaphor in a political or economic system, by virtue of what it hides, can lead to human degradation.

According to them, the fact that metaphors hide some aspects of reality prevents voters from being fully aware of the ideas they are voting for, meaning that their choices are partially influenced and manipulated. More recently, this idea has also been defended by Charteris-Black [2005: 13] who writes that metaphors enable politicians to shape the voters’ opinions and values. In other words, metaphors do enable the speaker to manipulate the audience.

1.4. Manipulative functions of metaphors

One of the first objectives of a metaphor is to create understanding through a new and original mental picture; therefore, the cognitive dimension is the primary function which is to be found in a majority of metaphorical occurrences. Orwell [1968: 134] explains that “the sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image”. Following this idea, Gibbs [1999: 156] writes:

The inseparability of mind, body, and world, and cognitive and cultural models, points to the important idea that metaphor is an emergent property of body-world interactions.

In other words, metaphors are what enables us to relate our body or mind to the environment; that is why the cognitive dimension of metaphors is crucial in our everyday life since it enables human beings to conceptualize and make sense of the world, which is particularly important when describing migrants, as different conceptualizations exist, as Charteris-Black [2006: 565] explains:

The role of metaphor as a cognitive heuristic is likely to be especially important in relation to immigration because of the range of conflicting representations in public discourse. For example, immigration is sometimes represented as desirable because falling birth rates create problems in supporting the cost of pensions for an increasingly aging population, while in other metaphors it is represented as undesirable. There is the possibility of immigrants undercutting the wages of those who are employed, the cost of the social welfare system and an association with human smuggling. The idea of embracing the victims of political repression or economic devastation is counterbalanced by fears of terrorist attack, Islamic fundamentalism and fraudulent asylum seekers.

Another function of metaphor that contributes to manipulation and which is to be found in political speeches is the didactic function. A metaphor can be used in order to make complex concepts more easily available and to explain them to people who are known to be less experienced in a given domain. Osenga [2013: 31] explains:

To create the best discourse community, the participants must understand the science and the policy components, as well as the relationship between the two. Essentially, metaphors can be used to educate the public about science while framing it within the debate.

This didactic function is commonly used by far-right politicians so as to talk about ideas that are not seen as politically correct or “mainstream” [Delouis 2014: 1]. For example, she explains that migrants are considered the “new colonizer” by far-right politicians, which means that the citizens of the host country are portrayed as the “indigenous people” by extension. Although such metaphors are sometimes used to simplify some concepts, they are particularly cunning or deceptive, and it is this oversimplification that finally creates manipulation.

However, in political discourse, the main function is the rhetorical one. Metaphors enable the speaker to create a real community of voters thanks to shared knowledge. Besides, because metaphors resort to the ‘highlighting-hiding principle’, they are frequently euphemistic or dysphemistic. Thus, the speaker’s vision of reality is either attenuated or exaggerated. Allan and Burridge [1991: 11] describe euphemism as “an alternative to a dispreferred expression, in order to avoid possible loss of face: either one’s own face or, through giving offense, that of the audience, or of some third party”. According to them, a euphemism is a means not to upset someone or not to be seen as unpleasant when talking about a sensitive subject, which is why pro-immigration politicians will, for instance, tend to prefer the adjective undocumented to the lexeme illegal. On the contrary, dysphemism is defined by Allan and Burridge [1991: 26] as:

An expression with connotations that are offensive either about the denotatum or to the audience, or both, and it is substituted for a neutral or euphemistic expression for just that reason.

This dysphemistic function is frequently used to talk about migrants as it will be exemplified in the case study. According to Charteris-Black [2006: 569], migrants are for example very frequently referred to as natural catastrophes. He writes:

There are two main areas of metaphor that occur in relation to immigration: the first are metaphors of natural disaster – predominantly the behavior of fluids – and the second are container metaphors – especially those relating to the build up of pressure.

These two main areas (fluid and container) will be further developed in the case study.

2. Multimodality in manipulating the audience

2.1. A Combination of modes

Even though manipulation in political speeches is mostly possible thanks to linguistic means, it can also be reinforced with gestures, sounds or images, which is why I have chosen to carry out a multimodal analysis. Forceville [2009: 22] gives the following definition of a mode:

What is labeled a mode here is a complex of various factors. As a first approximation, let us say that a mode is a sign system interpretable because of a specific perception process. Acceptance of this approach would link modes one-on-one to the five senses, so that we would arrive at the following list: (1) the pictorial or visual mode; (2) the aural or sonic mode; (3) the olfactory mode; (4) the gustatory mode; and (5) the tactile mode.

According to him, five different modes exist, and each mode relies on one of the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. He explains that this typology is questionable because it is only based on perception. With this classification, written texts and gestures would thus belong to the same mode and the aural mode would contain “non-verbal sounds”, “music” as well as “spoken language” [Forceville 2009: 22], which can be problematic. This is why Forceville [2009: 23] then came up with a new typology with nine different categories: (1) pictorial signs; (2) written signs; (3) spoken signs; (4) gestures; (5) sounds; (6) music (7) smells; (8) tastes and (9) touch. This new classification enables him to describe multimodal metaphors [2009: 24]. According to him, unlike monomodal metaphors, multimodal metaphors mostly resort to different modes; for example, spoken signs and gestures as well as written signs and pictorial signs frequently combine. This is particularly the case with posters that are created for political campaigns and which frequently display multimodal metaphors that rely on written signs (2) (with the slogan or the title of the poster) and on pictorial signs (1) (with the use of pictures or images).

2.2. Manipulative gestures

Political speeches can often be considered multimodal since they enable the speaker to resort to spoken signs (3) and gestures (4). In the gestures category, Müller and Cienki [2009: 301] only take the movements of the forearms and hands into account, while they do not consider head and eye movements, as well as body shifts, as gestures. According to them, “self-adjustment” (for instance, the adjustment of a bow tie) or “object manipulation” (for instance, “lifting a cup to take a drink”) do not belong to the category of gestures. Müller and Cienki [2009: 302] add that “we often find the use of metaphoric verbal expressions without co-occurring metaphoric gestures”. Speakers rarely mimic what they say with gestures; however, when this phenomenon does occur, that is to say when the two modes (spoken signs and gestures) are used at the same time, the same source domain is represented both by the linguistic expression and the gestures, which is frequently the case in Donald Trump’s speeches. For instance, in a speech at the FBI National Academy Graduation Ceremony in Quantico, Virginia, on December 15th, 2017, Donald Trump delivered the following sentences, explaining that the migrants entering the U.S. were people who were rejected by their own country:

Do you think they are giving us their best people? No (laughter). They give us their worst people, they put them in a bin. [T05]

With the source domain bin, which tends to lead to the creation of dysphemistic and highly derogatory metaphors, the President of the U.S. portrays migrants as garbage. In addition, Trump’s gestures and paralinguistic vocal features (such as the laughter) are also disrespectful towards immigrants since he accompanies his linguistic metaphor by gestures mimicking someone throwing something into a bin and closing the lid with his right hand, as shown in the screenshot hereafter:

Figure 1: Donald Trump, “They put them in a bin”, Quantico, Virginia, December 15th, 2017, CNN.


This metaphorical gesture, which goes together with a co-occurring linguistic metaphor, deeply emphasizes Trump’s point of view. The audience has to cognitively resort to two of the five different senses of the human body: hearing and sight. Therefore, his message becomes more powerful and easier to remember; the gesture is only reinforcing what is being said so as to support its effect. Furthermore, Trump’s right hand is not static and “motion attracts our attention more than anything else. Even a new-born baby reacts to an object moving across its visual field” [Radden & Dirven 2007: 278]. This is why this multimodal metaphor is likely to have a stronger impact on the audience and to be memorized more easily than a monomodal one, which means manipulation itself is reinforced by multimodality.

Besides, gestures cannot only be seen as a means to attract the listeners’ attention but also as a device enabling the speaker to clarify their discourse, which means the didactic dimension of metaphor is at stake. Following this idea, Müller and Cienki [2009: 313] write:

It is well known that many gestures present abstract ideas, which are being mentioned in the speech, as concrete entities in front of the speaker: the gestures indicate particular spaces and locations for the idea, or the hands appear to hold an idea, as if it were an object.

Thus, an idea that was considered as abstract in a political speech becomes more concrete thanks to gestures since it enables the audience to picture this very idea. Müller and Cienki [2009: 313] add that conceptual metaphors indicating evaluations, such as up is good or down is bad, are frequently resorted to. Such gestural metaphors also contribute to manipulating the audience as they emphasize, once again, the linguistic metaphors, making them more powerful and more likely to be remembered by the audience.

3. Corpus and methodology

The corpus used for this study is composed of American speeches which were collected between November 2015 and December 2017. It consists of official allocutions, debates and interviews, as well as posters and screenshots of different gestures. This corpus is composed of speeches by Donald Trump as well as by Hillary Clinton so as to carry out punctual comparative analyses. 11 spoken sources that specifically include the transcription of 1 interview, 2 debates and 8 speeches were selected. The visual sources are composed of 6 screenshots of gestures and 2 images that were taken from the White House’s website. This corpus has been selected in order to tackle the topic of immigration in the 2016 American presidential election. One of the main goals of the case study is to determine whether the metaphors used by Trump contributed to manipulating voters in this presidential election and whether right-wing politicians, such as Trump, resort to those rhetorical tools more frequently than their opponents. The aim is also to study whether Trump resorts to more euphemistic or dysphemistic metaphors, whether they are rather vivid or lexicalized and whether some source domains are more regularly used than others. The focus will be laid more particularly on the study of the manipulative function of these source domains and of their combination with other manipulative tools.

The sampling has been done according to the productivity of the semantic field of migration. That is to say that terms such as immigration, migrant, refugee, deport, asylum seeker, illegal entry, illegal aliens or emigr*, with any ending, have been searched in the transcripts of the speeches. The metaphors were then manually identified according to the Metaphor Identification Procedure (MIP) as defined by the Pragglejaz Group [2007: 3] and then categorized according to the ideas they expressed, their source domains, the conceptual metaphors they belonged to and their etymology. Then, the videos of the speeches, when available on the Internet, have also been studied so as to determine if the linguistic metaphors matched with specific gestures. Besides, some political posters have also been analyzed when the pictorial metaphors had a source domain that had been previously pointed out in the speeches.

4. Manipulation in Trump’s speeches on immigration

4.1. Immigration metaphors in the 2016 United States presidential election

Immigration is deeply rooted in American history. Since Christopher Columbus’s discovery in 1492 and the arrival of British colonists in the 17th century, the ‘New World’ has never stopped witnessing people coming to its shores. Much more recently in the United States, Republican candidate Donald Trump unexpectedly won the race to the White House against Hillary Clinton on November 8th, 2016, putting immigration issues at the center of his campaign. Donald Trump’s main goal was clear: stopping migrants and preventing them from entering the country by building a wall between Mexico and the United States. The aim of this case study is therefore to see to what extent the metaphors used by Trump to depict migrants may have contributed to manipulating voters in the 2016 presidential election. In this study that has been carried out on a total of 170 metaphorical occurrences, Trump resorts to 134 immigration metaphors while Clinton resorts to 36, which shows that Trump uses almost four times as many metaphors as her opponent to refer to immigration. Besides, he frequently talks about immigration, even when it does not seem appropriate to do so. For example, after the terrorist attack at the Pulse nightclub on June 12th, 2016 in Orlando, Florida, Trump delivered a speech in which he resorted to 32 lexemes such as migrant, refugee, immigr* or emigr*, even though the murderer was born in the United States. On the contrary, Hillary Clinton’s speech about this attack contains no occurrence of those terms, which demonstrates that Trump definitely centered his campaign on immigration. This strategy may have enabled him to spread false ideas and to make voters believe that migrants were criminals. I thus chose to analyze the main source domains he uses to talk about this topic so as to determine to what extent they are manipulative. I particularly focused on the source domains water and container – since they are the most frequent source domains in the corpus – and studied how they combined with other rhetorical tools.

4.2. Water metaphors

One of the main source domains that is frequently resorted to by Trump to depict migrants is water as this domain represents 40% of the occurrences in the corpus. The manipulative dimension of such metaphors is inherent to the source domain, since, according to Cunningham-Parmeter [2011: 1580], water metaphors highlight three distinct features: direction, quantity and power. Besides, Cunningham-Parmeter [2011: 1580] adds that such metaphors often refer to “great floods [that] have devastated societies throughout human history”, which means that migrants are not only considered as a natural catastrophe but as a dangerous and devastating one. This is why terms such as tide, wave, flow, etc. are very often used by far-right politicians so as to make immigration appear as something risky for the host country, which is a means to manipulate the audience. This is the case in the following examples:

We have to stop the tremendous flow of Syrian refugees into the United States. [T02]
But we now have an obligation to control future immigration – following previous immigration waves. [T03]

Donald Trump goes even further since the movement he depicts is not only horizontal but also vertical with the use of the verb pour in the example hereafter:

She wants open borders. People are going to pour into our country. [D02]

The verb pour is even more manipulative in the sense that the directional dimension pointed out by Cunningham-Parmeter is emphasized. Therefore, unlike the terms tide, wave or flow, which all refer to a horizontal direction, pour highlights the idea that immigration is uncontrollable since it can come directly from above. Furthermore, the verb pour represents a descending movement and is related to the conceptual orientational metaphor down is bad, thus underlining once again the dysphemistic dimension of the water metaphor since this orientational metaphor is very often negatively connoted. In this case, the manipulation is therefore inherent to the water source domain and emphasized by the orientational metaphor.

4.3. Container metaphors

So as to talk about immigration, Trump also often resorts to the conceptual metaphor of the container. The U.S. is indeed regularly portrayed as a house, and therefore as a unit that has clear-cut borders as well as an inside and an outside. House metaphors represent 48% of the occurrences. According to Radden and Dirven [2007: 16], those types of orientational metaphors are very efficient and quite frequent in discourse since they are cognitively based on essential spatial features that are related to the human physical world. They explain that these metaphors “make particularly good source domains because they have developed from our earliest bodily and spatial experiences and hence are immediately meaningful to us”.

Thus, it explains why container metaphors tend to be comprehended quite easily since they make the images of the interior and the exterior of things emerge. In speeches about immigration, this is regularly the case, the host countries are depicted as a house and the borders as the doors of this house. Therefore, the manipulative feature is, once again, inherent to the source domain, which is illustrated in the following example:

Immigration law doesn’t exist just for the purpose of keeping out criminals. It exists to protect all aspects of American life – the worksite, the welfare office, the education system and much else. That is why immigration limits are established in the first place. If we only enforce the laws against crime, then we have an open border to the entire world. [T03]

When Trump deplores an “open-border immigration system” and depicts the U.S. as a house, he enables the audience to conceptualize the borders of the country as the doors of this house. There are indeed two different correspondences between two conceptual domains in this case: America is a house and American borders are doors. The audience is manipulated because the house source domain clearly shows the idea of comfort; it can imply that American citizens own the house and that they should be able to choose who is allowed to come in. According to Charteris-Black [2006: 577], such metaphors can, on the one hand, be seen as rather positive if one considers the agent (in this case American citizens), and, on the other hand, they can be considered as dysphemistic when describing migrants. The refugees are portrayed as trespassers in those cases, thus creating a sense of intrusion that is highly manipulative. Furthermore, the container source domain is also employed by anti-immigration politicians so as to support the idea that the host country is so small that it is going to burst if more people come in. Charteris-Black [2006: 577] explains that these metaphors describe some “pressures on the container from the inside”. He goes further and writes that politicians who are against migration regularly talk about a “critical point” [Charteris-Black 2006: 578]. So as to stop pressure, some restrictions are looked for, which is why Trump uses the following metaphor:

Those who have left to seek entry under this new system will not be awarded surplus visas but will have to enter under the immigration caps or limits that will be established. [T03]

The noun caps designates the lid of America. The country therefore becomes the container and migrants the content that has to be limited, which enables Trump to justify and explain his immigration policy.

4.4. A Lottery system

Another means to manipulate the audience is not to criticize migrants themselves but to complain about the immigration system. In order to do so, Trump resorts to the metaphor The immigration system is a lottery, such as in the following example:

You pick people. Do you think the country is giving us their best people? No. (Laughter.) What kind of a system is that? They come in by lottery. They give us their worst people, they put them in a bin [...]. Congratulations, you’re going to the United States. Okay. (Laughter.) What a system – lottery system. We’re calling for Congress to end chain migration and to end the visa lottery system and replace it with a merit-based system of immigration. [T05]

This metaphor is similar to the water metaphor in the sense that it also emphasizes the uncontrollable and overwhelming aspect of immigration. According to Trump, migrants are chosen as arbitrarily as numbers in a lottery and should be selected according to a “merit-based system”. So as to support his argument and to make it more powerful, Trump also resorts to gestures, and mimics someone who holds the handle of the lottery machine, as in the following screenshot:

Figure 2: Trump, “they come in by lottery”, Quantico, Virginia, December 15th, 2017, CNN.


This gesture can be considered a rhetorical tool that combines with the spoken metaphor so as to reinforce the argument that becomes more manipulative, since two out of the five senses are targeted. In addition, four American flags can be seen in the background and one on Trump’s brooch. These elements can also convey the idea that there are two different groups, American citizens, on the one hand, and migrants on the other hand, and this also contributes to manipulation.

Though the manipulative dimension is inherent to the source domains that are chosen, and more particularly to the water and container source domains, other rhetorical tools (such as repetitions, determiners or the ‘principle of end-focus’), which will be analyzed in the following part, combine with these metaphors and contribute to manipulating voters.

4.5. Migrants are uncivilized

4.5.1. Us vs. Them

Determiners are grammatical tools that frequently supplement water and container metaphors in creating a dichotomy between migrants and the citizens of the host country. Trump very often stresses the so-called possessive determiner our and the adjective American so as to prove that American citizens are his priority, such as in the following example:

The fundamental problem with the immigration system in our country is that [...] it doesn’t serve you the American people. Our greatest compassion must be for our American citizens. [T03]

In Trump’s immigration discourse, this rhetorical strategy is also regularly associated with the semantic isotopy of protection. According to him, the U.S. needs to be protected from immigration as if migrants were a threat. As Van Dijk [2008: 9] explains, this type of isotopy contributes to highlighting the negative aspects of the “out-group”, which makes migrants appear as dangerous people such as is illustrated in the examples hereafter:

We have a dysfunctional immigration system, which does not permit us to know who we let into our country, and it does not permit us to protect our citizens properly. [...] The immigration laws of the United States give the president powers to suspend entry into the country of any class of persons and I will use this power to protect the American people. [...] Each year the United States permanently admits 100,000 immigrants from the Middle East and many more from Muslim countries outside of the Middle East. Our government has been admitting ever-growing numbers, year after year, without any effective plan for our own security. [...] When I’m president I pledge to protect and defend all Americans who live inside our borders. [...] America will be a tolerant and open society. America will also be a safe society. We will protect our borders at home. [...] We will ensure every parent can raise their children in peace and safety. [T02]
It’s time to support our police, to protect our families, and to save American lives. [T04]

All these tools therefore intertwine and combine with water and container metaphors so as to generate manipulation by creating a dichotomy between two groups and by depicting migrants as a threat.

4.5.2. Criminality

Trump also very often emphasizes the idea of criminality and associates the topic of immigration with that of terrorism or crime. In the Phoenix speech, 24 occurrences of the collocate illegal immigrant can be found. In Orlando, after the terrorist attack, Trump said:

The killer, whose name I will not use, or ever say, was born to Afghan parents who immigrated to the United States. His father published support for the Afghan Taliban, a regime which murders those who don’t share its radical views. [T02].

In this example, he clearly highlights the origins of the murderer by resorting to a repetition. Furthermore, he resorts to the ‘principle of end-focus’, which puts the most important information at the end of the sentence. In other words, what is the most important for him is that the killer’s parents “immigrated” to the U.S. and that they were not born in America. In addition, he assumes that a majority of immigrants are murderers:

We cannot continue to allow thousands upon thousands of people to pour into our country same thing many of whom have the same thought process as this savage killer. [T02]

The water metaphor is found, once again, with the use of the verb pour and it combines with the repetition of thousands as well as with the use of the quantifier many that refers to a great quantity, so as to make voters think this event is not an isolated case and that it is likely to happen again. The combination of those tools enables Trump to make his audience think that almost all immigrants are “savage killers”.

On the contrary, Hillary Clinton’s goal is to dissociate the attack from the foreign origin of the murderer. During the final presidential debate on October 19th, 2016 in Las Vegas, she even insisted on the fact that the terrorist was born in the U.S. and said:

In fact, the killer of the dozens of people at the nightclub in Orlando, the Pulse nightclub, was born in Queens, the same place Donald was born. [D02]

So as to contradict Trump’s argument, she also relies on the ‘principle of end-focus’, but this time immigration is not considered the most important element.


The analysis of Trump’s speeches about immigration during the 2016 presidential campaign has shown that he very frequently resorts to metaphors to talk about migrants (134 occurrences for him against 36 for his opponent Hillary Clinton). Nevertheless, very few different source domains are used by Trump to refer to this topic. This study has indeed revealed that the two main source domains were water (40%) and house (48%). Thus, Trump often repeats the same metaphors, which enables him to rely on a ‘hammering effect’ that is likely to spread misinformation. The manipulative dimension is inherent to these source domains since water metaphors systematically emphasize not only the quantity and direction of migrants but also their power; container metaphors, and more particularly house metaphors, can be seen as highly dysphemistic because they depict immigrants as trespassers and their entry as a violent intrusion [Charteris-Black 2006: 577]. Furthermore, metaphors are all manipulative by definition because they link two domains that usually have nothing in common and since they all rely on the ‘highlighting-hiding principle’ [Kövecses 2002: 80], they hide some aspects of reality.

However, although manipulation is inherent to the water and container source domains, they never work on their own and are always resorted to with other rhetorical tools, such as repetitions, specific determiners, collocates, etc. Trump largely resorts to the so-called possessive determiner our and the adjective American so as to emphasize the dichotomy between migrants and American citizens. Manipulation occurs thanks to those tools and their combination with metaphors, enabling the speaker to reject anyone who does not belong to the “in-group” and nurturing this dichotomy [Van Dijk 2008: 9]. Trump also very often associates immigration with crime or terrorism by using the collocation illegal immigrant, which also combines with other tools, such as quantifiers; this contributes to manipulating voters in making them believe a majority of migrants are criminals.

This case-study has shown that immigration metaphors combine with gestures, which can be considered rhetorical tools per se. Trump often mimics his spoken metaphors with gestures and since “motion attracts our attention more than anything else” [Radden & Dirven 2007: 278], gestural metaphors that supplement linguistic ones are likely to be more easily remembered by the audience and the ideas they convey more likely to be voted for. Thus, even though water and container metaphors are very effective, manipulation in Trump’s immigration speeches is generated thanks to the intertwining of those two source domains in combination with many other rhetorical tools.

The corpus that was analyzed for this study was centered on Trump’s speeches, with minor comparison to Hilary Clinton’s. For further discussion, Trump’s metaphors on immigration could be compared to those used by his opponents so as to determine whether they are deconstructed or not by Democratic candidates. Besides, the manipulative effect of Trump’s rhetorical tools has been studied in general and further study could focus on specific audience in order to see whether all voters are likely to be manipulated by such linguistic tools.

1 Many other scholars have worked on metaphor in cognitive linguistics, but their theories will not be developed in this article. For further


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CNN [YouTube], 2017, Trump’s full speech at FBI Academy, 15 Dec 2017, “they come in by lottery” (10:25) and “They put them in a bin” (10:35), available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2rKlVM6O98.

Clinton Hillary

[C01] Council on Foreign Relations, New York, New York City, 19 Nov 2015 [Speech], available at https://time.com/4120295/hillary-clinton-foreign-policy-isis/.

[C02] Cleveland, Ohio, 13 Jun 2016 [Speech], available at https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2016/6/13/1538232/-Hillary-Clinton-s-remarks-in-Cleveland-Ohio-full-transcript.

[C03] Democratic National Convention, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 28 Jul 2016 [Speech], available at https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/7/28/12319246/read-hillary-clinton-dnc-speech-2016-democratic-convention.

[C04] Reno, Nevada, 25 Aug 2016 [Speech], available at https://www.politico.com/story/2016/08/transcript-hillary-clinton-alt-right-reno-227419.

[D01] United States Second Presidential Election Debate, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri, 9 Oct 2016 [Debate], available at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/us/politics/transcript-second-debate.html.

[D02] United States Third and Final Presidential Election Debate, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada, 19 Oct 2016, [Debate], available at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/20/us/politics/third-debate-transcript.html.

Trump Donald

[T01] Interview on ABC News, New York City, New York, 22 Nov 2015 [Interview], available at https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/week-transcript-donald-trump-ben-carson/story?id=35336008.

[T02] “Speech on Orlando Shooting”, Orlando, Florida, 13 Jun 2016 [Speech], available at https://www.marketwatch.com/story/prepared-text-of-donald-trumps-speech-on-orlando-shooting-and-national-security-2016-06-13.

[D01] United States Second Presidential Election Debate, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri, 9 Oct 2016, [Debate], available at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/us/politics/transcript-second-debate.html.

[D02] United States Third and Final Presidential Election Debate, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Nevada, 19 Oct 2016, [Debate], available at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/20/us/politics/third-debate-transcript.html.

[T03] “Immigration Speech”, Phoenix, Arizona, 31 Aug 2016 [Speech], available at https://www.politico.com/story/2016/08/donald-trump-immigration-address-transcript-227614.

[T04] “Meeting with Immigration Crime Victims”, Cabinet Room, Washington D.C., 28 Jun 2017 [Speech], available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-meeting-immigration-crime-victims/.

[T05] FBI National Academy Graduation Ceremony, Quantico, Virginia, 15 Dec 2017, [Speech], available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-fbi-national-academy-graduation-ceremony/.


1 Many other scholars have worked on metaphor in cognitive linguistics, but their theories will not be developed in this article. For further discussion see for instance Kövecses [2002], Steen and Gibbs [1999], Grady [1997] or Katz [1998].


Figure 1: Donald Trump, “They put them in a bin”, Quantico, Virginia, December 15th, 2017, CNN.

Figure 1: Donald Trump, “They put them in a bin”, Quantico, Virginia, December 15th, 2017, CNN.

Figure 2: Trump, “they come in by lottery”, Quantico, Virginia, December 15th, 2017, CNN.

Figure 2: Trump, “they come in by lottery”, Quantico, Virginia, December 15th, 2017, CNN.


Electronic reference

Bérengère Lafiandra, « Migrants, Metaphors and Manipulation: a Multimodal Case Study of Trump’s Speeches on Immigration (2015-2017) », ELAD-SILDA [Online], 5 | 2020, Online since 20 juillet 2020, connection on 19 octobre 2021. URL : https://publications-prairial.fr/elad-silda/index.php?id=885


Bérengère Lafiandra

Université Lyon 3