Political commentators, eager to point out the significance and abnormality of Donald Trump’s latest insult or policy, often describe it as a “new low”. But hyperbole can backfire, as the biggest issues don’t stand out and audiences are left jaded. Critics should reserve extreme terms for the president’s most shocking transgressions, and describe his lesser faux pas and misdeeds as merely “offensive” or “unpresidential”.
At the time of writing, The Washington Post, Vice and The Atlantic have articles on their homepages about Trump hitting “new lows”, after his criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions for charging two Republicans with corruption ahead of the midterms and the publication of unflattering tales of the president’s behaviour in legendary reporter Bob Woodward’s new book. Other major news outlets have deployed the term to describe Trump’s failure to condemn the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, his endorsement of alleged child molester Roy Moore, his portrayal of Puerto Ricans as charity cases after Hurricane Maria devastated their island, and his policy of separating children from their families at the border (even Ivanka Trump agreed that was a low point). Pundits have also used it to describe the president’s mockery of the #Metoo movement, his sharing of anti-Muslim videos on Twitter, his squabble with the widow of a fallen soldier, and even his boast that he calls foreign leaders unlike previous presidents. While commentators were right to criticise these actions, and they couldn’t have known the scandals to come, it was evident at the time that several of these scandals were far from ‘new lows’ for the president.
The news media’s favourite descriptor might reflect the views of its audience. Google searches of ‘trump new low’ peaked in August 2017 after the Charlottesville protests, according to Google Trends data. They also spiked after the infamous Access Hollywood tape was released and several women accused Trump of sexual assault in October 2016, immediately after his election in November 2016 and during his first week in office in January 2017, when he baselessly accused ex-President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower in March 2017, and when he confirmed he was under investigation for obstruction of justice in June 2017. Some of the searches may have been for specific news stories on those events, but the majority likely spoke to the public’s feelings about the president and his behaviour.
Frequently used words don’t always lose their bite of course. “If the repetition of a phrase were enough to desensitize us to it, then Nike wouldn't be celebrating 30 years of the 'Just Do It' slogan,” says Lynne Murphy, a linguistics professor at the University of Sussex. Still, ‘new low’ is a cliché not a catchphrase, and its overuse threatens to dilute its meaning, weaken its impact and detract from the severity of the president’s worst actions. To paraphrase the famous saying, “If everything’s a new low, then nothing is.” Commentators should aim higher with their descriptions.