WASHINGTON — Much of Donald Trump’s campaign can be boiled down to a basic phrase: Believe me.
It’s the not-so-subliminal message of the race — tucked into his speeches, uttered during debates, and tossed out at his rallies. To voters who are puzzled by his contradictory statements and well-documented predilection for exaggeration, he has the ready response: Believe me.
He utters the phrase whether he’s talking about military officers executing his orders (“They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me”), destroying the Islamic State (“We will. Believe me”), or a lawsuit against Trump University (“Believe me, I’ll win that case.”)
During a speech in March, he said he had studied the Iran nuclear deal in great detail — “I would say, actually, greater by far than anybody else.” He added: “Believe me. Oh, believe me. And it’s a bad deal.”
Trump so far has been impervious to fact-checkers who say that he cannot be believed. He was awarded PolitiFact’s “2015 Lie of the Year,” with the nonpartisan group deeming nearly 80 percent of the claims it examined as false.
But by being one of the most inconsistent and nonideological candidates in modern political history, he is baffling his opponents and preventing anyone from putting him into a neat political box. He is betting that the Trump brand, and his ability to convince voters that he speaks the truth when other politicians obfuscate, is so powerful that it can overcome those negatives.
Even if the evidence isn’t quite there — trust him, believe him — he’ll build a wall, deport immigrants, and ban Muslims. And, of course, make America great again.
“It’s almost like he’s trying to convince himself that he’s right,” said David B. Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Akron. “Believe me — that’s the phrase really of a used car salesman. ‘Believe me, this car is great. Just wait till you get this baby out on the highway.’ ”
And yet? It’s worked.
“It is shocking, is it not?” Cohen said. “This guy may be commander in chief. Believe me. It just might happen.”
Trump, asked for comment on his use of the exhortation, said through a spokeswoman on Tuesday night, “It’s said from the heart with emphasis!”
Many politicians have their own verbal crutches. President Obama, in search of a way to crystallize muddy issues, often says, “Make no mistake,” “Let me be clear,” and “Here’s the deal.” Hillary Clinton, striking a more common note, often addresses her audience as “folks.”
But for Trump, “believe me” is uniquely his. In the 12 Republican debates, he used it some 30 times — at a rate 56 times greater than his opponents, who used it a combined three times. (Neither Clinton nor Bernie Sanders used the phrase during the Democratic debates.)
“What’s interesting about ‘believe me,’ is the stress is on me,” said George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.
“It assumes that knowledge comes from direct experience,” he added. “Then it says, ‘I have direct experience of that thing. And you should believe someone who has that experience. You should believe me, because I know.’ ”
Trump has proven to be a master wordsmith, cutting phrases down to their most basic and honing an attack into a two-word moniker of “Lyin’ Ted” or “Little Marco.” His attack on Jeb Bush as “low energy” was devastating for the onetime front-runner from a famed political family.
By employing “believe me,” he is relying on the lexicon of those in sales, of someone trying to cut a deal. It’s not hard to imagine him using the phrase when selling investors on a new proposal, or when asking bankers for more time to pay back loans.
Trump uses “believe me” far more often when speaking than he does when writing. In a speech he gave to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March, the phrase appeared only once in his prepared remarks. But when he delivered it, he used the phrase 12 times.
“I know how to deal with trouble. And believe me, that’s why I’m going to be elected, folks,” he said.
Iran’s ability to sponsor terrorism will be restricted, he said. “Believe me. Believe me.”
Of Obama, he added, “He may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me. Believe me.”
Trump has often given fact-checkers plenty to do, earning numerous Pinocchio’s for his far-fetched statements.
Trump has said he would remove all illegal immigrants on his first day in office, something that is impossible given that there are 11 million undocumented immigrants.
He has said repeatedly that he would build a wall along the southern border and force Mexico to cover the costs, even though Mexico’s president, Enrique Pena Nieto, has said his country would do no such thing.
He has taken conflicting sides on hot button issues like whether to ban assault weapons (he favored in 2000) or not (his position now), or on whether he supports abortion (in 1999 he even supported “partial-birth” abortions) or not (now he wants to ban all abortions except in the case of incest, rape, or risking the health of the mother).
During a Sunday interview on Fox News, Trump seemed to contradict himself in the same sentence while talking about whether guns should be allowed in schools.
“I don’t want to have guns in classrooms,” he said. “Although, in some cases, teachers should have guns in classrooms, frankly.”
During the primaries, Trump opposed raising the federal minimum wage but now he says he is open to considering an increase.
While it’s unclear when exactly the “believe me” phrase entered Trump’s regular lexicon, it apparently runs in the family.
When his son Eric appeared last week on Fox News, he assured viewers, “Hillary’s got real problems. She’s got real, real problems on her resume and — believe me — we’ll talk about them.”
When he appeared on the network on Monday, he said his father has united the Republican Party.
“He is an amazing guy, I say this all the time, and he will win this,” Eric Trump said. “Believe me.”
Graphic source: The American Presidency ProjectMatt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.