The word "semantic" means "related to the meaning of things". I understand, for example, the difference between syntax and semantics. But people also say "X is just semantics", "they're just arguing semantics", or things like this NYT article:

[Trump's] blood pumps red, white and blue, or so he assures us. In his dreams and decisions, he sees his country above all else. “The most important difference between our plan and that of our opponent,” he told Republicans in Cleveland on Thursday night, “is that our plan will put America first.”

But this lavishly professed love is a largely semantic affair. It’s fickle. It’s reckless. Under its guise, he’s apparently prepared to jettison values that really do make America great and alliances that really do keep America safer. His patriotism brims with grievances.

The rest of the article describes how Trump's patriotism is perhaps disingenuous, but I can't see any way it could be described as "largely semantic". Is there perhaps a separate, non-technical meaning of "semantic"/"semantics" when used like this?

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    Semantics in this usage means discussion or conclusions based on definitions and not concepts. Thus Trump has defined love of country as jingoism, and then he can say that he loves his country. – deadrat Jul 25 '16 at 4:23
  • Have a look at this link, which I've also just posted as a comment on the older question. It provides some historical perspective on the development of the term. – Lawrence Jul 25 '16 at 9:04

Dismissing something as "just semantics" is pretty stupid. After all, the semantics of what we say—that is the meaning of what we say—is kind of important! I think that "just semantics" may have derived from something like "quibbling over semantics". That is, quibbling over fine or unimportant shades of meaning, and missing the main thrust of what is being communicated.

Semantics in this sense has come to mean "empty of meaning", which is of course the opposite of its usual sense.

I couldn't find online dictionaries that support this particular definition. I hear it all the time however. I'd be inclined to simply call it an error since it is so illogical and stupid. It is an example of people using technical language that they don't understand.

Frank Bruni appears to be using semantics in this wrong sense in the article you quote from.

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