Donald Trump does not understand some words have meanings beyond the definition in the dictionary. As an English teacher myself, I feel it is my duty to help him understand why he is wrong (at least when it comes to this). See, Trump doesn’t seem to believe that calling a leader strong is anything other than a remark on that leader’s grip over his people and the problems that arise.

Today’s lesson is all about denotation and connotationDenotation refers to the actual, dictionary definition of a word. A word like “strong” means

  • having the power to move heavy weights or perform other physically demanding tasks
  • able to perform a specified action well and powerfully
  • possessing skills and qualities that create a likelihood of success

These are all definitions that, yes, can apply to Vladimir Putin and the Chinese government. In a very literal sense, yes, you can say that both of these forces of global politics are “strong” in this sense. But, what The Donald doesn’t understand is the connotation, or the common interpretation, of the term strong.

When you call someone “strong,” with no condemnation of how they use their strength, it is not seen as negative. It is seen as a statement of admiration. Trump saying it is not seen as “Damnit, Putin is strong.” It’s seen as “Wow! Putin is strong!”

And admiration of the strength that reduces freedoms and rights, invades other countries, and attempts to bring his country back to USSR-like boundaries is not a quality you want in a United States leader. Given his own tendencies to advocate for violence at his rallies, saying he himself would punch a protester in the face, it does lead one to wonder if he wouldn’t strive for such strength himself.

Yes, strong isn’t inherently a term of admiration. But it is definitely construed as admiration for what Putin does. It is construed as admiration for the Chinese government for putting down a “riot” (Note: Mr. Trump, Tiananmen Square wasn’t a “riot,” as you seem to believe).