Stunned analysis of Donald Trump’s electoral chances seems to be a growing industry these days, so much so that it has spawned its own sub-genres. Why is he so popular? His tough talking? His insouciance? His anti-establishmentarianism? Much of it comes back to language.
Politicians are notorious for their controlled language. Their public speeches often stick to abstractions—general concepts over specific details—and use qualifying phrases to avoid being pinned down. Trump plays it less safe. While the subject matter may not be more specific, the claims are grandiose. As the Columbia Review of Journalism points out, ‘Every time that he needs to raise his visibility, change the subject, or respond to an attack, he says something outrageous and the cycle starts again.’
So Trump’s language is different, and it is important; he picked up at least three states overnight in the presidential primaries, and he is leading the Republican race by a large margin. A number of media organisations have begun the process of analysing just how Trump uses language to appeal to US voters.
Divide and conquer
The New York Times began by analysing 95,000 words spoken by Trump at public appearances over a one-week period. The study shows two main trends. The first is his use of violent vocabulary, which represents a break from previous presidents—even as the US is waging a war against terrorism and in an era of heightened national security. The other trend is his use of divisive words like ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and his targeting of vague, unspecified, but threatening groups.
The podcast Lexicon Valley narrowed the focus by dedicating a show to Trump and his use of just one word: sad. The hosts, Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo, looked back over a thousand years to find the word’s original meaning (to be weary or tired of something) and reported the evolution of its definition ever since—how it’s come to mean steadfast, brave, heavy, and eventually heavy-hearted.
Trump, however, uses it in the sense of an insult. This has been largely acceptable since the 1930s, but the thing that stands out about Trump’s use of the word, according to Vuolo, is his use of sad ‘as a weaponised piece of punctuation’ and his tendency to use ‘semantically irreducible words.’ That’s to say, his vocabulary is littered with simple binary concepts that lack depth or nuance.
In fact, a Boston Globe analysis of candidates’ speeches showed that Trump communicates at the level of a fourth grader, by far the lowest of all the presidential hopefuls. The test works by analysing individual word choice and sentence structure for their complexity. Hillary Clinton was shown to speak at a seventh grade level, while Bernie Sanders was one of the highest ranked, speaking at a tenth grade level. To provide some historical context, George Washington’s ‘Farewell Address,’ delivered in 1796, was rated at grade 17—graduate level.
In a similar vein, the online proofreading service Grammarly assessed readers’ comments on the Facebook pages of 19 different presidential candidates. Its goal was to quantify the number of spelling and grammar mistakes made by supporters of each candidate. Democrat supporters had a lower rate of mistakes, averaging 4.2 per 100 words, while Republican supporters averaged 8.7. Of the Republican candidates, Trump again had the lowest outcome. His supporters generally make 12.6 mistakes per 100 words.
Finding the answer
So, the message is more divisive and more brutal and less well formulated, and Evan Puschak helps to show how this works in practice. A video on his YouTube channel, the Nerdwriter, analyses one of Trump’s answers to a question posed by US talkshow host Jimmy Kimmel by breaking down the response. He shows that of the 220-word response, 172 had only one syllable and 39 had two syllables (only four had three syllables).
This would seem to show a very simplistic sentence formulation. But Puschak also shows how Trump creates often awkward inversions of his phrases, in order to place the most dynamic word last—the word that sums up the message he wants to convey, which allows the rest of the speech to be less coherent. In this particular answer, Trump finishes his sentences with words like harm, dead, die, problem, injured, root cause, and bedlam. An ominous message from any incoming president.