Virtually everything Donald Trump says these days gets recorded, broadcast, Tweeted, or reported in the press. In debates and campaign appearances, he talks nonstop about the dangers of immigrants, the perils of Muslims, his own accomplishments, and his plan to “make America great again.”
But what is Trump really saying? What’s behind his rhetoric?
We spoke to Columbia University linguist John McWhorter, author of numerous books on language and African-American culture, about the appeal of Trump’s straight-shooting style. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What do you hear when Donald Trump speaks? What do you pick up in his general linguistic approach?
Trump is easy: Trump is someone who, when he’s speaking to an audience, basically just talks the way people do when they talk casually. He uses casual speech in a public setting.
Now, over the last hundred years, public address has become more casual: What making a speech meant to someone, even 50 years ago, would be almost unrecognizable today. It’s no coincidence we call it “giving a talk.” Nobody would say that in 1930. The thing is, casual speech is something very different than we think it is, because it’s hard for us not to think that language is the way it is on the page. But we don’t talk like the page. Speech is baggy.
People who have studied casual speech, for no ideological reason at all, have decided that casual speech is more subjective than objective: Print is great for being objective. But when you talk, you’re talking from a self.
When you talk, you talk in short bursts of seven to 10 words. Casual speech is not good at getting across arcs of argument. Casual speech is not very good at making a constructive point. Casual speech is good at short, unitary statements. Casual speech is highly repetitious.
He is speechifying the way we talk: He’s emotional. He keeps it simple. And he says everything several times.
So there are ways to say everything he says – and I want to make clear I don’t agree with any of it – in a much tidier way and it would seem grisly, but less extraordinary.
What makes him so effective with his audience is, he just talks. And that especially works today, with the intimacy of modern social media.
And it works because it goes straight to the heart: One of Mitt Romney’s problems was that he was such a cool, formal guy, you couldn’t feel him. With Trump, you very much can.
So what Trump is doing – his natural way of talking to the public is just to sit on a barstool. The more oral you can be these days, the better you can reach most audiences.
How do the other candidates approach language?
If Hillary Clinton could pull a little of what he does – say “look” a lot, and keep her sentences shorter, and show a little bit of emotion – it would be highly effective. I think it’s a lot of what people like about Sanders: Sanders talks. While Clinton – who, as a woman, is handicapped by all kinds of stereotypes – she can’t let her hair down the way a Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders can, without being accused of being fluffy or feminine or hysterical.
You could talk to somebody on the left who most liberals see as being a bit of a wacko – say, Michael Moore. That person, talking like Trump, would have the same effect, would convince people of things that aren’t true, would be taken seriously as a presidential candidate when they had no business running… All of that could happen on the other side.
So Trump is channeling nasty, xenophobic feelings – but he’s more human when he talks than just about any other figure we have seen in a long time. Huey Long was doing the exact same thing 75 years ago, Father Coughlin, a xenophobic religious figure who is now a Trivial Pursuit question now… Talk gets to you in a way that speechifying never did.
There’s a sense that there’s no artifice when Trump speaks…
Precisely. You feel that he’s sincere, which he is. And you feel he’s more sincere than if he’d gotten up and read from notes, or if got up and spoke in a more courtly, professional tone.
The weird thing about Trump is that he’d not even particularly good at talk-talking. There are people who are very articulate in way that comes at you… People who can just yammer… I’m thinking of Dave Chapelle. But that’s not Trump. You don’t need to be good at it – it just sounds so bracingly natural.
It is amazing how inarticulate he can be. He’ll say, “They love me,” or come down over and over on pet words like “wonderful.” He rarely delivers a memorable or well-crafted phrase.
No, he’s not an artful person. If he were a courtlier soul, he would not have these numbers in the polls. He ends up being so artless he ends up getting attention.
Does this casual, straightforward way of speaking make him seem blue-collar, or help him appeal to working-class audiences who’d otherwise resist a very rich man?
Very much so – part of learning the levels of a language correlates to education and the various accoutrements of class. That’s not to say that everyone who grew up in Scarsdale and Grosse Point is an elegant user of language… But the more vernacular ways of speaking are more deeply entrenched among people who’ve had less education. So Trump, despite his vast riches and elite pedigree, can come across as a regular guy to, say, a truck driver, in a way that Mitt Romney never could.
He’s a messy speaker who’s confident enough to get up and not to try to change it. And lo and behold – talk works.
To what extent does Trump’s speaking style resemble demagogues from the past?
I think he very much feels that it’s time to cut through the bullshit. Time to get back down to cases. And he feels that there’s a battle required – because of the mainstream media, because of all the brainwashing… His idea is we need to think in a new way, and [he] will be the person to show you how to do that.
What’s interesting is that you can be exactly that kind of person and not talk like “the folk.” The best example was Hitler. Hitler was not getting down when he spoke: He spoke formal German, structured in ways an educated person would do it. There are other ways of being a demagogue – you don’t have to be on a barstool to do it. Because of microphones and social media you don’t have to shout.
[Trump] is a demagogue -- but the speech pattern is just one element in the toolkit.