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Trump, existential threats and the banality of evil – Or why sociolinguists should (re)read Hannah Arendt

Working paper
Authors Tommaso M. Milani
Publisher King's College London
Place of publication London
Publication year 2019
Published at Department of Swedish
Language en
Subject categories Media Studies, Media and Communications, Specific Languages, General Language Studies and Linguistics


The aim of this paper is to offer a theoretical and empirical contribution to current sociolinguistic discussions about “existential threats”, and their discursive construction in everyday life. Theoretically, the paper argues for the importance of (re-)purposing some of the ideas of Hannah Arendt, a key political scientist, who, however, has remained somewhat neglected in sociolinguistic inquiry. Empirically such theoretical insights will be applied to shed light on a set of text trajectories that begin with Donald Trump’s famous statement: “You look at what happened last night in Sweden” at a rally in Florida in 2017, and ends with a video circulated by the Swedish Moderate Party – Nya Moderaterna – in the context of the 2018 general elections campaign. Ultimately, the argument I make in this paper is that Trump and the members of Nya Moderaterna in Sweden are terrifyingly normal. Their rhetoric might not be truthful, but links into a ‘truthiness’ built of elements that sound true, and, through a web of discursive devices and intertextual links, creates the dystopian illusion of a truthful and coherent account of society. As Arendt would say, each of these discursive elements is like a spore in a growing fungus that might not have much depth, but is spreading quickly into the very centre of the political debate in Sweden.

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