I’ve been vaguely obsessed by Donald Trump’s use of believe me. How does he use it? How should we interpret it? In pursuing these questions, we’ll see how much more he uses believe me than everyone else and how he puts it in a different place than everyone else, too.
Trump’s high use of believe me stands in sharp distinction to his very low use of I believe. It isn’t that I worry that Trump believes nothing but that beliefs and facts are largely irrelevant to him. This would account for how much more extreme his language is than almost every other candidate since 1960. And it connects to the notion of “bullshit” and its dangers. But I’ll hold off on political philosophy and focus on the linguistics.
Believe me vs. I believe
Believe me has the form of an imperative: on the surface it is a command to trust. It directs the audience to attend to what the speaker (me) is saying. In general, people follow cooperative principles of communication so that people just assume folks are telling the truth and that propositions that are spoken are intended to be believed. People still structure their discourse in ways that show where there may be communicative breakdowns (I mean…) and they can add bits to build solidarity (y’know). But an assumption of truth-telling on all sides is the norm.
In political discourse, it is important for audiences to understand the belief structures of candidates. But if it feels odd to have a candidate explicitly describe what the audience should believe, you’re right. The Trumpian relationship between him, his audiences, and their belief systems is unusual. Here’s how it works out for various candidates over the years when we ask “if everyone spoke a million words, how often would these occur?”
The normal thing to do in debates is to state what you believe. From the first televised presidential debate in 1960 to last night’s third Clinton-Trump debate, I believe has been uttered 1,817 times. That’s over 22 times more often than believe me has ever been uttered (81 times total).
In debates, Donald Trump has said I believe only 15 times compared to his 40 uses of believe me. By contrast, Hillary Clinton has, over the years, said I believe 125 times. She’s said believe me once. For those of you keeping track at home, that means that 49% of all occurrences of believe me in debates have been spoken by Donald Trump.
I don’t want to list all of his uses, so let me start with the two uses he had in the final presidential debate:
I think I should respond to that. First of all, I had a very good meeting with the president of Mexico. Very nice man. We will be doing very much better with Mexico on trade deals. Believe me. The NAFTA deal signed by her husband is one of the worst deals ever made of any kind, signed by anybody. It’s a disaster.
The problem is, you talk, but you don’t get anything done, Hillary. You don’t. Just like when you ran the State Department, $6 billion was missing. How do you miss $6 billion? You ran the State Department, $6 billion was either stolen. They don’t know. It’s gone, $6 billion. If you become president, this country is going to be in some mess. Believe me.
There are fact-checkable claims in these excerpts (George HW Bush signed the trade deal, economists don’t think NAFTA did much, there’s no money missing from the State Department), but what Trump explicitly says believe me to are the unprovable propositions that (i) we’ll do better with Mexico on trade deals with Trump and (ii) Clinton as president will make the country a mess.
In other words, you deploy believe me when your proposition is the kind of thing that requires faith. You wouldn’t say, The sky we’re under right now is blue, believe me but you might say something like this (from One Life to Life because why not?): I’m not complaining. Believe me, I’m not complaining.
Looking at Trump’s most recent examples, we can see that the proposition-that-should-be-believed is, in the first excerpt, backed up with the implicit claim that Hillary Clinton is responsible for her husband’s trade deals. In the second excerpt, Trump begins with a situation he describes as a mess, then gets to his conclusion that the whole country would be a mess. In other words, these examples follow different patterns for ordering arguments and claims. But in both cases, believe me comes after the statement that is meant to be believed. As we’ll see, this is also unusual for everyone but Trump.
The very first believe me in our corpus of debate speech comes from Ronald Reagan in a 1984 debate with Walter Mondale. He’s asked about borders being “out of control”.
Georgie Anne, we, believe me, supported the Simpson-Mazzoli bill strongly — and the bill that came out of the Senate. However, there were things added in in the House side that we felt made it less of a good bill; as a matter of fact, made it a bad bill. And in conference — we stayed with them in conference all the way to where even Senator Simpson did not want the bill in the manner in which it would come out of the conference committee. There were a number of things in there that weakened that bill. I can’t go into detail about them here.
The journalist, Georgie Anne Geyer, was asking Reagan why his words and actions aren’t in contradiction. Reagan’s response is that he wanted to — and did — support the Simpson-Mazzoli bill until it got altered. His believe me breaks up we supported — in other words, this is not just the kind of phrase that occurs at the beginnings and ends of utterances.
Note that the verb supported is appropriate for a whole range of activities from very measureable ones like press conferences and memos to much less tangible ones like private hallway encouragements. (Historians: feel free to tell me what this one was.)
This is Reagan’s sole use in a debate of believe me. The other major users of the phrase are Ron Paul (12 uses) and Ross Perot (7 uses). Let’s look at the first use we have for each of them.
Ron Paul uses it in the midst of a warning, which is the kind of thing that you really do have to trust.
And what are they going to do with it? There’s all those weapons we’re giving the Sunnis in Baghdad. So look out, believe me, that war is not over and right now they’re demanding more troops in Afghanistan and we’re — some people, like the Senator, he thinks we should be there for 100 years if necessary.
For Perot, too, the believe me is about adopting his framing — the need for someone who can be an effective part of a cleaning up:
So I would say just look at all three of us, decide who you think will do the job, pick that person in November, because, believe me, as I’ve said before, the party’s over, and it’s time for the cleanup crew. And we do have to have change. And people who never take responsibility for anything when it happens on their watch, and people who are in charge — —
Both of them use these phrases with multiple other discourse markers. For Ron Paul, the claim is that war is not over but he precedes it with both a continuative so, a warning look out, and the imperative believe me. For Perot, you get a causal/ought-to because, then the imperative believe me, then another aside where he self quotes, as I’ve said before.
There is something quite different in where the believe me occurs. Our other “big users”, Ron Paul or Ross Perot put the believe me’s in these examples in what I’d call medial position. They never put believe me in final position. But the final position exactly where Donald Trump most frequently puts it.
All of these believe me’s are meta-statements: they refer to what’s going on in the discourse. This is a very Trumpian thing to do — think of his Alec Baldwin-like outbursts of Wrong or his repetition of modifiers like tremendous.
In terms of rhetorical strategies, believe me looks like an appeal to the authority of the speaker. I’m not quite sure how salient this is, especially since Trump usually stresses believe and de-emphasizes the me. You can go listen to a lot of (non-debate) uses of believe me here.
But let’s go back to placement. Most candidates use believe me before they make a statement to be believed; Trump puts it afterwards and it often has a separate, punctuated intonational contour. It stands out and may help give him both a way to verbally underline what he’s just said and give him a moment to plan what he is about to say.
It’s unfair for me not to summarize Donald Trump’s 15 I believe’s. So here are things he has said he believes in the various presidential and primary debates:
- in free trade (x2)
- that he would get along with Putin (x2)
- that Clinton’s campaign is behind the women who have come forward to accuse him of sexual assault (x2)
- that he restarted the border as an issue in the campaign
- that the word/notion “conservative” is important
- that the 14th amendment doesn’t mean we have to give citizenship to everyone born in the US
- in building safe zones
- in having other countries pay for safe zones
- that Clinton is leaving in a carried interest provision
- that we have to get ISIS
- that if Clinton wins, we will have only a small replica of the 2nd amendment that we have today
- that it’s important to appoint Supreme Court justices who interpret the Constitution as the founders wanted it to be interpreted
I should mention that the final debate introduced four I believe’s out of his total 15 uses across 14 debates. The four most recent were the claims that the Clinton campaign is behind all of the different women who say he pushed himself on them and the last two bullet points about the 2nd amendment and the Supreme Court.