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What Should We Make Of Trump's Speech Patterns — And Our Responses To Them?

President Trump gives a speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford at its commissioning at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia in July.
Steve Helber
President Trump gives a speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford at its commissioning at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia in July.

During a press conference on Aug. 15, President Trump was asked by a reporter why he waited so long to "blast neo-Nazis" in the wake of the white supremacist rally held the previous weekend in Charlottesville, Va.

That rally resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, a young counterprotester, and injuries to dozens of others.

According to NPR's transcript of the exchange, Trump responded in this way:

"I didn't wait long. I didn't wait long. I didn't wait long. I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct. Not make a quick statement. The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement. But you don't make statements that direct unless you know the fact. It takes a little while to get the facts. You still don't know the facts. And it's a very, very important process to me. And it's a very important statement. So I don't want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts —

"If you go back to my ... in fact, I brought it. I brought it."

Trump continues to answer the question from there.

What I want to focus on here is the pattern of Trump's speech, not the content of what he said. His use of simple words, and his repetition of them, is very striking. As the writer Teddy Wayne notes in last Sunday's The New York Times (using different examples than the one I have provided here), the president's speech generally tends to be marked by these two qualities. Wayne also points out Trump's propensity to use modifiers like "tremendous" and "very."

While I had noticed these features in Trump's speech over the last months, I hadn't thought of the point that Wayne makes about them:

"The combination of basic language and reiteration makes it easier for listeners to remember and recite his sound bites than those of the professorial Mr. Obama, who spoke in logically progressing paragraphs."

In fact, Wayne writes, it's not only Trump's supporters, declining in number though they may be, who now quote him endlessly. It's his detractors, too, who speak "with sarcastic contempt, but in [Trump's] manner nonetheless."

"Fake news," for example, is a phrase in abundantly popular use now by people all along the political spectrum.

Not everyone uses those two words with the same intent, of course. But does Wayne have a point? Are we all, as he puts it, "trafficking in the discourse of [Trump's] choosing"?

The work of linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff suggests the answer could be yes. In a 2016 essay written when Trump was still a presidential candidate, Lakoff fascinatingly looks at Trump's use of repetition and other linguistic strategies as intentional manipulation of his audience. But in the section most relevant here ("Biconceptuals"), Lakoff explains why the language we, as citizens, adopt is a significant factor in affecting our perspectives — and more, besides.

"Language that fits that worldview activates that worldview, strengthening it, while turning off the other worldview and weakening it. The more Trump's views are discussed in the media, the more they are activated and the stronger they get, both in the minds of hardcore conservatives and in the minds of moderate progressives.

"This is true even if you are attacking Trump's views. The reason is that negating a frame activates that frame, as I pointed out in the book Don't Think of an Elephant! It doesn't matter if you are promoting Trump or attacking Trump, you are helping Trump."

Yikes. Should those of us gravely worried about Trump's governance shed a habit of adopting his phrases?

From another linguist's point of view, there is more to the story.

I reached out to Joanne Scheibman to ask what she thought of Wayne's piece in The New York Times. Scheibman explained by email that "many of the linguistic features that Trump has been criticized for are unremarkable, in the sense that they are commonly found in casual conversations."

In other words, some of what seems like Trump's linguistic tics are actually quite functional in social context, as Scheibman's remarks make clear (edited, here, for length):

"In interactive discourse, repetition has important functions. It is used by speakers for emphasis (noted by Wayne), to express solidarity and ratification of another's point of view, to link ideas in discourse, and to help us remember what we hear.

Additionally, because conversations are important sites in which we maintain social relationships, language in these exchanges is often formally incremental — we exchange single words or short phrases (as opposed to full sentences) in informal dialogic speech because we are coordinating our talk with others.

In spontaneous spoken interactions, we typically have the benefit of greater shared physical and cultural context than in written discourse, so we don't have to say everything we mean; we can say this guy or that thing or we or they without specifying exactly what or who we're referring to because we assume our conversational partners have the background information they need to infer what we mean."

I like this perspective because it uses real-world conversation — not some formal abstract set of linguistic principles — as the context for evaluation. But that may be its limitation as well as its strength. Even when Trump is in public conversation with others and not giving formal speeches, presidential discourse isn't the same as everyday discourse. As Scheibman also emphasized to me, the real-world consequences of discourse are completely different for a president, after all, than for the rest of us engaged in everyday conversation.

For Scheibman, though, energy we put toward analyzing Trump's speech could better be spent focused elsewhere:

"As important as language is in our social lives, it is not Trump's repeated use of intensifying adverbs (like very) or his use of basic vocabulary items or relatively empty nouns (like thing) that make him a dangerous president and public figure. As compelling as they are, critiques of Trump's language use should not obscure his messages."

Point taken.

So is there reason for concern about this strange phenomenon so many of us are living through, that when Trump repeats simple phrases for the world to hear — the same ones again and again — some stick hard and fast in our minds and we rush to quote them back to each other? Is this practice (again, no matter whether adoring of or appalled by Trump) causing a mind-altering immersion in a Trumpian worldview that we don't even quite realize?

Or, instead, is that kind of worry just another distraction from assessing the cascading global consequences of a Trump presidency?

This conversation is one we should be having. A place to start is by assuming there are no easy answers. Let's speak to one another about it, not so much with the very simple words or big tremendous ramblings that Trump favors, but with the reasoned clarity that citizens' discourse best requires.

Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 14, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled Joanne Scheibman's last name as Schiebman.
Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.