Donald Trump's repetitive rhetoric

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Today the New York Times presented two dissections of the style as well as the content of Donald Trump's rhetoric: Patrick Healy and Maggie Haberman, "95,000 Words, Many of Them Ominous, From Donald Trump’s Tongue", and Jeremy B. Merrill, "How Donald Trump Talks".

But I haven't seen anyone describe what seems to me to be the most striking aspect of his style: its repetitiveness.

In this sample, I've used color-coding to highlight the repetitions (link):

Q: If you were president right now, what would be the first,
second and third thing you would do in the strategy to defeat ISIS?

A:  Well if I were president
we probably wouldn't be in the problems we have right now,
because it's incredible, we have an attack,
and then all of a sudden we bomb all these sites.
Why didn't we bomb the sites before?
We should have bombed the sites a long time ago, Mika,
These are training camps and training areas largely,
and we didn't take them out
why is it that we take them out now,
after there's this vicious and violent attack?
Uh the other thing I'd be explaining the problem to people.
We have a president that doesn't even use the term
and won't use the term
radical islamic terrorism.
He doesn't want to use the term
Hilary Clinton the- didn't want to use the term the other day in the debate —
which was a ridiculous and terrible debate frankly, a joke —
but she didn't want to use the term,
she refused to use-
all three of them refused to use the term
radical islamic terrorism.
They- they just can't say it.
They absolutely can't say it.

Here's another passage from the same interview:

Q: So what do you do as far as troops go, how many troops do you send over?

A: Well here's what I would do.
And I've been saying this for a long time,
I've been saying it to you.
I would have, and now they're just starting,
if you remember when I said attack the oil,
because that's their primary source of wealth.
Attack the oil.
People smiled and they laughed and they thought it was a joke,
and they thought it was funny.
Now as of two days ago they're attacking the oil.
Uh I would absolutely I would obliterate their source of wealth.
And I would also attack the banking system,
because they're getting tremendous amounts of funds
through a very complex network
of banking and banking systems.

Here's another example from an earlier interview (link):

Q: Let me ask you about women voters — why should they vote for you?

A: Because I'm very much into the whole thing of helping people and helping women.
Women's health uh issues are such a big thing to me and so important
and you know I have many women that work for me
I was one of the first persons uh people in the construction industry in New York
to put women in charge of projects,
I mean I have it even today,
and I have many women at high positions. I
you know I've gotten a lot of credit for that,
I mean I have so many women working for me
and so many women in high positions working for me
and I've gotten great credit for it.

But in fact nearly every example of his rhetoric that I've looked at has this repetitive cadence, to a degree that is strikingly different from other politicians of this era.

One consequence is that Trump's type-token curve runs well below that of other candidates, as I pointed out in "Political vocabulary display", 9/10/2015, and "Vocabulary display in the CNN debate", 9/18/2015. Trump's propensity for repetitive rhetoric is the reason for this consistent difference:

This rhetorical style is somehow familiar, but I've haven't been able to place it in the spectrum of political speechifying that I'm familiar with. Still, this satirical clip comes pretty close:

I certainly don't mean to suggest that Mr. Trump's rhetorical style is due to alcohol consumption — just that the satire in that clip is not entirely random. I haven't been able to find any scientific investigation of this relationship, but Linda Sobell  and Mark Sobell, who studied the effects of drunkenness on text reading ("Effects of alcohol on the speech of alcoholics", Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 1972) note that "many professional actors and others imitating drunken speech make great use of the characteristic of repetition".

Update — in the comments, Jaime points out that Trump's habit of repeating phrases has been effectively parodied in places like reddit and 4chan for some time, e.g.11/23/2015 on 4chan:

Look, I love the terrorist people. They're great people, I've employed thousands of terrorists, I have a great relationship with the terrorist people. I'm going to do great with the terrorists, in fact a poll came out in Mosul recently, I polled 25% with the terrorists; someone said if you get 25% of the terrorist vote, the election is over… but if I'm elected president, we are going to waterboard the terrorists. We have to waterboard the terrorists, or we won't have a country any more. We're going to waterboard the terrorists, and it's going to be a great waterboarding… and the terrorists are going to pay for it.

or 11/26/2015 on reddit:

"Hey Trump, are you a fascist?"

"You know what, that's something we have to consider closely, something we gotta look at, because we have to make America great again. We don't win anymore. Now you look at some of the fascists, in their early days, they won. They won. They didn't win towards the end because they made a whole bunch of mistakes. Like Franco. Franco made a whole bunch of mistakes and I wouldn't. But he had a country. He had borders. He put up a wall between Morocco and Spain and you know what? Morocco paid for it. Morocco paid for it.

And you know what? Franco took care of his vets! He was very strong in military. So strong on military. And our wounded warriors. How about them folks. I'd be so strong on veterans. Oh my gosh I'd build hospitals so fast for them. It's a disgrace how we treat our veterans.

And Franco was very strong on military. And let me tell you Id be very strong on military.

And how about values folks? What's the best book? That's right! It's the bible. The bible is my favorite book. Great book. What's the second best book? That's right, that guy has it there, THE ART OF THE DEAL! Go ahead and hold it up. You know, a lot of great fascists had a lot of great books. And you know what? They hated communism.

You know who else hates communism? Trump! Trump hates communism. Nobody hates communism more than trump. You know, I don't get enough credit for it, but I spoke out against the soviets in he eighties. Yeah. But those media back there, they won't write about it. THEY WONT WRITE ABOUT IT. I know. They're so dishonest. So dishonest. And you know who else is a communist?

That's right! Bernie Sanders. Oh my. Oh my. Can you believe this guy? He wants free college and free healthcare for everybody! For everybody!!! Can you imagine that? You know who else was for that? That's right, Stalin. Stalin. And you know who prevented universal healthcare in Spain? That's right, Franco. You know, Spain only started getting into this mess when it switched to democracy. It's true. It's true. I hate to say it, but it's true. They switched away from fascism and now look at them. They're poor. They have 40 percent unemployment. Their country is a liberal mess. They don't win anymore.

But Franco made great deals. Oh my gosh great deals! He got Germany to bomb the hell out of the rebels. Paid nothing. It was a great deal. It was a great deal for him. And then, he stayed out of the Second World War! He stayed out of it! He let Hitler and Stalin tear each other apart! And, by the way, I'm just fine with letting Russia bomb ISIS. I've been saying it for a long time. Bomb the oilfields. Why are we worried about Russia doing it? Let them. Franco did. And I made great deals too. Amazing deals. Yuuuuge deals.

So you know, people talk about fascism like its a bad thing. But they won a lot. They won a lot. And we don't win anymore. We don't. And what's the problem with fascism? They say it like its a bad thing. Like its a PC thing! It's always about tone now. But you know what? I'm not worried about tone, so let them write whatever they want about fascism because they don't know what they're talking about. Alright, next question.


  1. Lazar said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 4:47 pm

    If The West Wing is to be believed, repetitiveness is a hallmark of discourse in the White House. "You just said three things that all mean the same thing."

    [(myl) But saying "three things that all mean the same thing" is not the same thing as saying (almost exactly) the same phrase three times…

    And in fact, Mr. Trump's repetitions often mean different things, or at least refer to different situations — it's just that he repeats words and phrases where another speaker might have used anaphora. Thus

    all of a sudden we bomb all these sites.
    Why didn't we bomb the sites before?
    We should have bombed the sites a long time ago

    rather than (say)

    all of a sudden we bomb all these sites.
    Why didn't do that before?
    We should have done it a long time ago


  2. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 5:23 pm

    It seems like he can't be the first demagogue in history to have used this stylistic feature and that there ought to be a polysyllabic technical term for it in the lexicon of classical rhetoric. Anadiplosis and epanalepsis are both similar to what he's doing, but (at least in their strict definitions) not exact matches. But those are both terms previously unfamiliar to me that I just googled up, so maybe someone who actually knows the whole traditional jargon of the field could propose a better match?

    [(myl) You're right that this ought to be, and probably is, a technique that was familiar to Cicero and has a Greek-derived name in the lexicon of classical rhetoric. But I scanned a couple of such lists without finding it.]

  3. Thomas said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 6:29 pm

    It reminds me of a style of speechifying that I heard used by Saudi orators in Riyadh, years ago.

  4. maidhc said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 6:32 pm

    I remember a BBC show on oratory that discussed structuring things in threes to build memorable phrases. But usually they were three different but related things.

    Never have so many owed so much to so few.

    There may be a term for this, but I don't know it. Anyway, Trump is not going for that kind of formal speech.

    On the other hand, there's a humorous theory that New Yorkers (NYC that is) always say things in threes.

    No! No! No! Not like that! Not like that! Not like that! etc.

    There was a comedian who had a whole routine based on that, but I don't remember who it was.

    [(myl) Also, Trump's rhetorical repetitions are by twos and fours and fives as well as by threes.]

  5. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 6:37 pm

    Rush Limbaugh is moderately famous for this. I wonder if Trump is consciously emulating him.

  6. RF said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 6:51 pm

    The Wikipedia article on repetition is interesting. It seems that the general term for repetition of key words for emphasis may be conduplicatio.

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 6:51 pm

    That three-in-a-row tic is one of the verbal mannerisms of the nanny in the Eloise books. E.g., "Nanny gets up feeling tired tired tired and puts on her kimono and skibbles over to slam those windows down so that we don't freeze freeze freeze." But the nanny is supposed to be English (because posher than having a US-born nanny) even though the books are set in NYC.

  8. Dick Margulis said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 7:00 pm

    @Anschel: I have my doubts that Trump is consciously imitating anyone at all. His utterances seem to erupt unfiltered, unedited, and unpremeditated from his subconscious his subconscious his subconscious.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 7:33 pm

    Along the lines of "The secret of success is sincerity; once you can fake that you've got it made," I think one should be a bit suspicious of any political figure whose speech seems spontaneous, unscripted, unfiltered, etc., since there is so clearly political advantage to be reaped (with some substantial part of the voting public if admittedly not from all) by being perceived as "just being yourself" and letting it all hang out rather than being an automaton scripted by handlers and focus groups and so on.

  10. cameron said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 7:52 pm

    "Rightthinking people in this country are sick and tired of being told that ordinary, decent people in this country are fed up with being sick and tired. Well, I, for one, am not, and I'm sick and tired of being told that I am."

  11. Victor Mair said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 8:05 pm

    This way you don't need to pause and think or use too many fillers. If you don't know what you're going to say next, just repeat. Meanwhile, you're figuring out where to head and hammering in your points with repetition at the same time.

  12. mendel said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 8:11 pm

    "Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried,
    As he landed his crew with care;
    Supporting each man on the top of the tide
    By a finger entwined in his hair.

    "Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
    That alone should encourage the crew.
    Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
    What I tell you three times is true."

  13. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 8:20 pm

    Carthago delenda est!

  14. Jeff W said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 8:38 pm

    I’m tempted to say battology but that might be more of an editorial comment than a description.

    It looks to me like Trump is simply employing the “repetition principle”—you just repeat the key words often enough to hammer the point home. I had a high school teacher who did that—she’d say something like “Chile boasted a long history of democracy before the Allende government was toppled in 1973…long history of democracy…before 1973.” (It was a Latin American studies class.) It took a bit of getting used to but I found it pretty effective.

    In Trump’s case, it’s a little different; my teacher was conveying facts, Trump is conveying themes: “can’t/won’t use the term”/“radical Islam”/“can’t say it” or “bomb the sites”/“didn’t…bomb”/“should have bombed”—all of which convey (in Trump’s view) the theme of the Democrats’ inability/unwillingness to recognize the threat and take effective action (unlike, presumably, him). It’s not quite on the level of George Bush—who “catapult[ed] his messages by leaving logic out of them”—but it seems close. The specifics don’t matter; only the theme, as conveyed by the words repeated again and again, does.

  15. Rebecca said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 8:55 pm

    I hadn't noticed the repitition myself, but in reading the post, my hunch is the same as Victor's.

    What it reminds me of was a tip given in a workshop on improvisation: if you're jamming away and land hard on a real clunker, a note too prominent and too wrong to go unnoticed, then just hit it again, and keep doing that, even decorate it. Do that until your brain clears and panic subsides and you can plan an exit strategy, most likely pretending the clunker was your brilliant idea all along. (This, of course, only works for solo improvisation, which is what we were doing)

    In the quotes above, Trump isn't doing this to hide clunkers, but it may well be a way of gathering thoughts. It certainly makes it easier to hold the stage without elaborating or introducing new ideas. (I think he also does double down on clunkers, but not necessarily via repitition in the moment, because I think he's too tone-deaf to hear them as clunkers)

  16. D.O. said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 9:29 pm

    Repetition vs. anaphoria is an improbable explanation for the slower vocabulary display of Mr. Trump. After all, the words used for anaphoric reference are all produced in the first few tens of spoken words anyways. The only effect can be because of somewhat bloated denominator, but Prof. Lieberman's example uses 23 words where Mr. Trump uses 26. This is about 12% difference. But if you compare the rate of Mr. Trump's display to that of Mr. Bush's, they reach approximately the same level of 800 unique tokens in 4000 and 3000 uttered tokens for the difference of 30%. Also, it seems that Mr. Trump reaches about 150 unique tokens as fast as others and slows down only after that, which wouldn't happen if the main source of his slow display was repetitiveness of 3 and more word chunks. He seems to be both repetitive and stingy with introduction new words into his speech.

    [(myl) You may be right, but keep in mind that some of his repetitions are simply repetitive, not re-use of full phrases rather than anaphoric expressions:

    and you know I have many women that work for me
    I was one of the first persons uh people in the construction industry in New York
    to put women in charge of projects,
    I mean I have it even today,
    and I have many women at high positions. I
    you know I've gotten a lot of credit for that,
    I mean I have so many women working for me
    and so many women in high positions working for me
    and I've gotten great credit for it.

    Another factor is that he uses certain modifiers at a much higher rate than his competitors, but that's a topic for another post.]

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 5, 2015 @ 10:09 pm

    Is a possible reason to use repetition rather than anaphora that more chunks of your speech will be suitable for quotation?

    By the way, as I studied poetry before I learned many linguistic terms, saying "repetition rather than anaphora" sounds strange. For me the primary meaning of "anaphora" is a kind of repetition.

  18. pat barrett said,

    December 6, 2015 @ 12:25 am

    Speaking of demagogues who punched home a point by repetition…….. on Nov. 24th I entered into my blog an item titled The H Word – Is It Time? wherein I suggested Trump was sounding like Hitler, being very aware of the admonition that you've lost the argument if you find yourself using Nazi analogies. That very day, highly placed figures in the Rubio, Cruz and Bush campaigns called Trump a fascist. I have not read Hitler's speeches and I don't understand enough German to understand them in German, but I recall a certain cadence. Can anyone compare that to Hitler's ability to mesmerize his listeners?

  19. Jaime said,

    December 6, 2015 @ 6:23 am

    The internet (reddit, 4chan) has been parodying the repetitive nature of Trump's speech for some time now, see e.g. here or here.

  20. D'Arcy said,

    December 6, 2015 @ 9:34 am

    According to Walter Ong, repetition in speaking is a primary characteristic of any oral culture. So, Trump's speaking style could be seen as a by-product of a person who reads very little. He also seems to be agnostically-toned, aggretative rather than analytic, and additive rather than subordinative, which are also characteristics oral culture.

  21. Jason said,

    December 6, 2015 @ 10:13 am

    At the risk of invoking the ghost of Godwin:

    But the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unfiagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success.
    The purpose of propaganda is not to provide interesting distraction for blase young gentlemen, but to convince, and what I mean is to convince the masses. But the masses are slowmoving, and they always require a certain time before they are ready even to notice a thing, and only after the simplest ideas are repeated thousands of times will the masses finally remember them.
    When there is a change, it must not alter the content of what the propaganda is driving at, but in the end must always say the same thing. For instance, a slogan must be presented from different angles, but the end of all remarks must always and immutably be the slogan itself. Only in this way can the propaganda have a unified and complete effect.

    Mein Kampf, Chapter 6.

    Note, however, before anyone gets excited, that every contemporary politician uses the same Hitlerian technique. Tump may be an extreme example, but Hillary Clinton is little different in primary season.

  22. Charles Antaki said,

    December 6, 2015 @ 10:29 am

    There's a nice exploration of clap-trap in Max Atkinson's "Our Masters' Voices" (a classic from 1984), and I recall that repetition for emphasis is one of the devices he identiifies Thatcher et al using, though not in quite the loose way that Trump does. Atkinson left academia to become a consultant, and was actually hired by a British political party (the Liberals I think), so perhaps there's something in it… and he's still going, though he seems not to to have got round to Trump yet on his blog.

  23. mgh said,

    December 6, 2015 @ 3:56 pm

    The other place you hear this kind of repetitive speech is in beauty pageant interviews — maybe Trump has just hung around the Miss America contest too many times?
    ""I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uhmmm, some people out there in our nation don't have maps and uh, I believe that our, I, education like such as, uh, South Africa, and uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and I believe that they should, uhhh, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, should help South Africa, it should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future, for us.”

  24. m said,

    December 6, 2015 @ 5:59 pm

    Reminds me of Marc Anthony's, er, Shakespeare's “yet Brutus says he was ambitious; and Brutus is an honourable man.” This is called antistrophe out there in the internet. In Trump's case it should probably be polyantistrophe or antistrophorgasm.

    It were, if course, just these speeches from Iulius Caesar that some fictional Hitler in a Bert Brecht play rehearsed to improve his own oratory style.

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 6, 2015 @ 11:22 pm

    m: Reminds me of Marc Anthony's, er, Shakespeare's “yet Brutus says he was ambitious; and Brutus is an honourable man.” This is called antistrophe out there in the internet.

    Why is it called that? I thought the antistrophe was the second stanza of a Greek choral ode, which matched the meter of the first.

  26. Milan said,

    December 7, 2015 @ 7:25 am

    Jerry Friedman:
    Apparently, antistrophe also is an alternative name for epistrophe. But, that also doesn't describe what Trump is doing: In an epistrophe multiple consecutive sentences *end* in the same word or phrase.

  27. Ray said,

    December 7, 2015 @ 8:20 am

    trump's rhetorical style seems to be that of someone who's always in "making a speech" mode, and so it sounds odd and jarring when he's speaking in a conversational tone, one-on-one with an interviewer. if you read the interview transcripts above as though they were speeches delivered to large crowds, they sound right.

    [(myl) But as far as I can tell, other politicians giving speeches to large crowds don't use repetitions in the same way. Can you point us to some examples?]

  28. Jenz said,

    December 7, 2015 @ 1:13 pm

    I have to say I agree with Victor. I used to work as a fundraiser for a year, and then trained fundraisers for a year. The best one's don't use fillers or pauses – they simply repeat previously mentioned points without losing stride. You're saying something coherent in a self-confident manner, and give yourself time to come up with something new. Trump's rhetorical style, 99% bravado, is especially suited for such repetition.

  29. Brent Cotton said,

    December 7, 2015 @ 2:43 pm

    In rhetorical terms, this particular type of repetition is called diacope – the repetition of a word or phrase separated by one or more words. In the Trump excerpts above, we see both vocative diacope, the repetition of an exact word or phrase, for example:

    Hilary Clinton the- didn't want to use the term the other day in the debate —
    which was a ridiculous and terrible debate frankly, a joke —
    but she didn't want to use the term,

    and elaborative diacope, the repetition of a word or phrase with the inclusion of modification, for example:

    and I have many women at high positions. I
    you know I've gotten a lot of credit for that,
    I mean I have so many women working for me
    and so many women in high positions working for me
    and I've gotten great credit for it.

    A great text which addresses strategic repetition is Fahnestock’s (2011) Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion.

    For further clarification, Fahnestock defines anaphora as “repeating the openings of successive clauses” and epistrophe as “repeating the closings of successive clauses” (230).

  30. Ray said,

    December 7, 2015 @ 9:49 pm

    @ mkl: one has only to look at king's "I have a dream" speech to see how repetition works in a speech (but not in a one-on-one interview).

    in king's case, the repetition is usually (but not always) used as introductory "bullet points" preceding a series of phrases/ideas that become unified as they are built up, in real time, sequentially, in their variety and scope. in trump's case, repetition is used in a less linear, analog fashion, and more in tune with today's digital sound bite era where clips and excerpts of what people publicly say are later editorially presented asynchronously and without context. trump (and his minions) understand the premises of today's twittery-jittery media universe really well, just as mlk understood the sequential time/space continuities inherent in the media conventions of his time.

  31. maidhc said,

    December 8, 2015 @ 5:25 am

    Ray: I think Dr. King is working within a tradition of elevated oratory that goes back to the Greeks and Romans. In more modern times examples are Lincoln, FDR, JFK and Churchill. Dr. King was able to merge this style with traditional black religious oratory to forge his own personal style with great effect. This made him one of leading orators of the 20th century, and someone who spoke with great influence upon the course of events.

    It's a great shame that he died so young and we could never hear his statements on what went on in the years following.

    It may be that television will no longer deliver a lengthy finely-constructed speech to the public without editing. They want to deliver sound bites, and the more deceptively edited, the better.

    You can never get good Japanese food or good wild mushrooms any more, so I say O morels, O tempura!

  32. Ray said,

    December 8, 2015 @ 9:30 am

    @maidhc: hahaha

  33. Ken Miner said,

    December 8, 2015 @ 4:56 pm

    "perseverate" means "to repeat something insistently or redundantly". So "perseveration" is a possible term for what Trump is doing; the fact that it has a special meaning in psychiatry ought not to be a problem in this case.

  34. Rod Johnson said,

    December 8, 2015 @ 8:21 pm

    Thomas says: It reminds me of a style of speechifying that I heard used by Saudi orators in Riyadh, years ago.

    Indeed, as discussed in Barbara Johnstone's dissertation (published as Repetition in Arabic Discourse: Paradigms, Syntagms and the Ecology of Language, John Benjamins, 1991).

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