The rhetorical legacy of Donald Trump

by Prof. Neil Mercer

As Donald Trump seems about to vacate, with little grace, his place of prominence on the world’s political stage, there are three questions I want to address about his use of spoken English. The first is: what made his speeches so distinctive? I doubt if any of us would deny that they were, regardless of our views of him or his politics. And the second is: what made those speeches so effective? Any political campaigner who persuaded almost half of America to vote for him twice – and whose speeches received such enthusiastic receptions at his rallies – must be doing something right.  The third is: does understanding the way Trump communicates have any educational implications? In addressing these questions, I am fortunate in being able to draw on the work of other researchers and I have referenced my sources in the footnotes to this blog. I will focus mainly on the structural features of his speeches, but some analyses have also provided valuable insights into their content.[1]

The analysis of public speaking has a long history, back to the ancient Greeks. They identified some specific rhetorical devices speakers could use to engage and persuade their audiences. [2] [3] When it comes to Trump, it might seem that his style is strikingly different from that of a classical rhetorician; all bluster and bombast and as opposed to eloquent entreaty. But Trump has relied heavily on some classical rhetoric techniques. For example, epistrophe: the repetition of a word or expression at the end of successive phrases, or sentences:

‘We have to find out what is the problem’; and we do have a problem, believe me’ (Television interview, December 2015)

‘Go back eight weeks. I want to go back eight weeks. Let’s go back eight weeks.’ (6th January 2021, to his supporters just before they stormed Capitol Hill.)

and epizeuxis: the emphatic repetition of a word or phrase:

“This American carnage stops here and stops right now’ (inaugural speech)

‘It’s going to be a victory for the people, a victory for the wage-earner, the factory worker. Remember this, a big, big victory for the factory worker. They haven’t had those victories for a long time.’ (August 2016)

Trump also has his own distinctive ways with words. He frequently addresses his audience as ‘you’, much more than his contemporaries Joe Biden and Hilary Clinton. The Georgetown University linguist Dr Jennifer Sclafari[4] has suggested that features of his style come more from the tradition of salesmanship than politics. Evan Puschak, who posts his essay commentaries online as Nerdwriter[5], agrees, saying that ‘as a lifelong salesman, [Trump] has a huckster’s knack for selling a feeling’, with little regard for whether the facts and issues he draws on are true or accurate. He has a bank of catchphrases and ‘buzzwords’ which he uses to appeal to his loyal audience’s shared history of his speeches (‘Lock her up!’, ‘Fake news’, ‘Believe me’; he used the word ‘hoax’ in speeches more than 250 times in 2020). At rallies, those audiences commonly echo and chant those words after Trump has said them. In that way – just like evangelical preachers in ‘call-and-response’ routines with their congregations – he uses language as a tool to strengthen the bonds between himself and members of his support community.  Dr Ceri Hughes[6], of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has found that Trump also uses religious references (for example appeals to God) much more frequently than any previous president. And Caroline Mohan[7] of James Madison University notes Trump’s explicit, frequent appeal for support from ‘the silent majority’, which represents one large, blue-collar cohort of American voters who feel disenfranchised.

Some analysts have noted how relatively simple the language of Trump’s speeches is, compared with that of other politicians. Trump uses a higher proportion of one-syllable words and avoids the extended metaphors so beloved of by some politicians. Nerdwriter reports a study carried out by the Boston Globe newspaper, which put speeches by Trump, Clinton and Sanders through the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Test, used to assess the level of reading comprehension needed to understand a text. In summary, it seems that while a speech by Sanders would require the comprehension skills of the average 10th Grade (Year 11) student, Trump’s only require those of a 4th Grade (Year 5) student. Hilary Clinton’s speeches came between those two.

What conclusions might we draw from this analysis? One is that it would be very foolish to dismiss Trump as an inarticulate, careless speaker who has won over nearly half the American population despite his lack of public speaking skills. He uses both classical rhetorical techniques and his own, quirky stylistic features to very good effect. His distinctive way of talking has helped convince many of those voters that although he is a rich, white, New York businessman, he is not a member of the metropolitan, ‘liberal’, political elite that they distrust and blame for unsatisfactory aspects of their lives. They hear him speaking like ‘one of them’, not an Ivy League graduate ‘lawmaker’. A second conclusion is that this distinctive way of talking has helped not only to attract members of his target audience, but also to bind them together as a community with a shared vocabulary that they can use to voice their fears and aspirations. A third is that – while we should be very careful not to attribute to much weight to spoken language in explaining why any politicians succeed or fail – linguistic analysis can provide one reason why members of Trump’s loyal, working-class audience do not find Sanders or Biden so appealing. Trump’s oracy skills helped to gain him the power to govern the USA for four years. One reason I called this article ‘The rhetorical legacy of Donald Trump’ because, even if he does leave the political world stage in 2021, he has surely set an example that other populist politicians will want to emulate. It will be interesting to see if Trump tribute acts spring up in forthcoming American elections, using the same tropes.

Finally, what is the educational relevance of this kind of analysis? First, it shows that if young people are to understand how politicians gain public support, they need oracy education. Such an education would not only help them develop spoken language skills, but also raise their awareness and understanding of how skills in using the spoken word can be powerful in persuading people to think and act in certain ways.  This can enable them to be more critical of what they hear in the public domain, and so perhaps more able to discern truth from falsehood. Of course, it could also help them to become powerful persuaders themselves, in the cause of good or evil; but as that is a risk that educators already take in teaching literacy skills, I think we should be prepared to take this risk with oracy too.

Footnotes

[1] Lamont M, Park BY, Ayala-Hurtado E. (2017) Trump’s electoral speeches and his appeal to the American white working class. British Journal of Sociology,;68, Suppl 1:S153-S180. doi: 10.1111/1468-4446.12315. PMID: 29114866.

[2] https://theconversation.com/a-field-guide-to-trumps-dangerous-rhetoric-139531

[3] https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/rhetorical-devices-list-examples

[4] https://www.youube.com/watch?v=cpxCl8ylJgE 

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aFo_BV-UzI 

[6] https://theconversation.com/appealing-to-evangelicals-trump-uses-religious-words-and-references-to-god-at-a-higher-rate-than-previous-presidents-146816

[7] https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1772&context=honors201019

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