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Evan Puschak, the “Nerd Writer,” has put together an excellent video analyzing a single answer by Donald Trump to a single question by Jimmy Kimmel:

HT: @JoeCarter

Barton Swaim, author of The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics, made a number of these points in a September 15, 2015, piece for The Washington Post.

To get at what makes Trump’s language different, take a look at the shape of his sentences. They don’t work the way modern political rhetoric does — they work the way punchlines work: short (sometimes very short) with the most important words at the end.

That’s rare among modern politicians, and not simply because they lack Trump’s showmanship or comedic gifts. It’s rare because most successful modern politicians are habitually careful with their language. They are keenly aware of the ways in which any word they speak may be interpreted or misinterpreted by journalists and partisan groups and constituencies and demographic groups.

And so in important situations — situations in which they know a lot depends on what they say or don’t say — their language takes on (at least) two peculiar characteristics. First, their syntax tends to abstraction. They speak less about particular things and people — bills, countries, identifiable officials — and more about “legislation” and “the international community” and “officials” and “industry” and “Washington” and “government.”

Second, their sentences take on a higher number of subordinate clauses and qualifying phrases — “over the last several years,” “in general,” “in effect,” “what people are telling me,” and so on. This is the kind of language you use when you’re aware that your words might be misinterpreted or used against you.

When used well, it conveys competence and assures listeners that the speaker thinks coherent thoughts and holds reasonable positions. It suggests that the speaker cares about the truth of his claims. But politicians are frequently too careful with their language, and this conscientiousness can begin to sound like deceit or cowardice. When they rely too heavily on abstractions, when they avoid concrete nouns, when all their statements seem always hedged by qualifying phrases, they sound like politicians, in the worst sense of the word. To my ear, anyway, Hillary Clinton sounds this way almost all the time.

Whether used well or poorly, however, the language of a typical modern politician has a distinctive sound to it. It sounds complex and careful—sometimes sophisticated, sometimes emotive, sometimes artificial or over-scripted, but always circumspect and inevitably disingenuous.

Trump’s language is from another rhetorical tradition entirely.

You can read his analysis of the way Trump talks here.


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2 thoughts on “How Donald Trump Uses Language”

  1. Scott Adams understands Trump’s brilliance as a communicator. See here and here for instance. I don’t think that most people appreciate just how little persuasion often has to do with reason and logic. It is really worth taking some time to read some books on subjects such as sales and advertising, influence and hypnosis. It opens one’s eyes to just how pervasive and powerful such discourse is, not least within Christian circles.

  2. steve hays says:

    Thanks, Justin. I think many people’s impression of Trump depends on which Trump they tune into at any given moment. He’s good in front of a camera. He sometimes makes reasonable statements. He sometimes raises legitimate issues. Then there’s his carefully crafted image in the Apprentice.

    But if one considers his track record, or the totality of his statements, then a completely different Trump emerges.

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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