Trump the Thing Explainer?

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From reader Brad D:

You've been doing some interesting studies of Trump's speech patterns, and I wonder, have you done an analysis of his overall word choice since he started running for President?  Watching him speak in interviews, I often get the impression that he's translating his thoughts into small words so as not to seem to be speaking over the heads of his supporters (kind of like a political "Thing Explainer"). I'd be interested to know if there's any truth to that.

Brad added in a later note:

His overuse of simple adjectives does appear to be fairly consistent. "Good", "bad", "big", "smart", and "stupid" are the ones I notice most, but perhaps it's simply that he uses them when another word would be more precise. 

I agree that Mr. Trump tends to use common words, adjectives and otherwise, more than other politicians do. But this doesn't seem to be something that he's done recently so as "not to seem to be speaking over the heads of his [political] supporters". For example, consider this YouTube clip where he's being interviewed by his adult children on "Aspects of Real Estate":

Here's a transcript of his first turn with the adjectives bolded:

Well I have a lot of good people that work for me and they bring lots of proposals to me, and I'm a big believer in looking at lots of different things so you have a choice, you have a menu, it's like going to a fine restaurant,
usually the better the restaurant the more things you see on the menu, you have a menu of things,
and then you choose the one or two or three that you like.
I know people that look at one deal and they do that one deal and they don't see
a big display in front of them
and usually that one deal doesn't work out so well
so I like to have a big choice, a big variety, it's very important to me,
and then I'll choose a percentage of them
that I think are good.
You get to see a big beautiful menu and that's what I like.

… "good", "big" "different", "fine" [restaurant], "important", "beautiful", …

Or the verbs: "have", "work", "bring", "look", "go", "see", "choose", "do", "think", "like", …

As Brad wrote, the use of common words — like "menu of things" rather than "menu of alternative items" or even "menu of choices" — works well with Trump's habit of repeating phrases, and with his self-presentation as a frank, plain-spoken person.

When I have a few spare minutes, I'll try looking at the cross-entropy of Trump's speech relative to unigram or bigram distributions in general English text, and at the compressibility of those speeches. I suspect that both measures would confirm Brad's perception that Trump's vocabulary is skewed towards more repetition of words that are more common (and thus also shorter), compared to his peers in politics. But I don't think that this is a recent adaptation to his chosen political audience.

And it's interesting that Trump's spartan linguistic style is so different in character from his taste in interior design:

[See also here and here.]

Historically, taste in language and taste in design have changed in parallel. As I wrote in "The evolution of disornamentation" (2/21/2005)

I'm sure it's not an accident that Adolf Loos wrote Ornament and Crime a few years before William Strunk advised us to "omit needless words" in The Elements of Style (first published in 1918). Nor is it just a coincidence that E.B. White rewrote and republished Strunk's pamphlet in 1958, a few years after Rudolf Flesch's Why Johnny Can't Read (1955) and Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building (1957). There's more on the relationships among Viennese intellectuals, progressive politics, plain buildings and plain writing in a blog entry by Francis Morrone entitled The Word (and World) Made Flesch.

Donald Trump clearly breaks the connection. Is this special to him, or a more general trend?



  1. BlueLoom said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 9:09 am

    He should be disqualified on the basis of his taste in home decorating alone.

    [(myl) Well, the legacy of Louis XIV remains strong. People still visit his Palace of Versailles. And looking on the bright side, Le Roi Soleil certainly made France in some sense "great" again, and maybe in a way he deserves credit for 1789, 75 years after his death. On the other hand, most of us would probably just as soon avoid our own version of the Frondes, which already seem to be starting in a small way within the Republican party…]

  2. James said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 9:45 am

    Reminds me of my favorite Trump quote, from one of the recent debates: "We have to have a temporary something because there's something going on that's not good"

  3. ngage92 said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 9:50 am

    LOL, the better the restaurant the more things on the menu? This guy is really something else.

  4. GeorgeW said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 9:57 am

    With absolutely no data to support it, I feel like intellectualism and ornateness in taste are not compatible, at least in the current time.
    Although Trump has second-generation wealth, he seems classic nouveau riche.

  5. Lazar said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 11:33 am

    As Trump puts it:

    The level of stupidity is incredible. I'm telling you, I used to use the word 'incompetent', now I just call them stupid. I went to an Ivy League school, I'm very highly educated. I know words, I have the best words. But there's no better word than 'stupid', right? There is none.

  6. D.O. said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 11:34 am

    Well, people visit pyramids of Egypt, but nobody is trying to build their tombs likewise (maybe Trump will lead the way?). If elected, he should move the capital to Las Vegas. That seems like a good fit, stylistically.

  7. Alan Gunn said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 11:51 am

    I don't think Trump is "translating his thoughts into small words." Except for very crude notions like "immigrants are bad" and "China is stealing our jobs," neither of which makes much sense, his campaign is remarkable for its almost complete lack of ideas. His proposals can't be refuted because he doesn't really have proposals. Even when he seems to, like the 45% tax on Chinese imports, or "lets not let any Muslims in," he'll turn around and deny that he really wants that ("just the opening bargaining position"). He seems to have no foreign-policy or economic advisors at all, and he doesn't even claim to know much about those things himself. I've occasionally had students who would try to disguise their lack of understanding by stuffing lots of big words into their papers. Trump seems to be doing just the opposite of this, and doing it successfully, by not saying anything specific at all. Most politicians offer a lot of bs. Trump just takes this to an extreme by offering nothing else.

  8. John Roth said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 4:13 pm

    My suspicion is that he practiced this a lot when he was younger. [cynic]If you're going to talk to politicians, you have to use small words. [/cynic]

  9. David Marjanović said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 5:33 pm

    He seems to have no foreign-policy or economic advisors at all

    Very recently he said his foreign-policy advisor is himself…

  10. Larry Sheldon said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 2:40 am

    Do you deliberately do something that keeps a URL that works elsewhere from working from Facebook?

    E. g.

    [(myl) I wasn't aware of a problem. Attempts to link to this particular post on Facebook do work, except that the title comes out as "404 not found" (even though you can click through to the LLOG post). Exactly the same thing with all the other posts I've tried seem to produce the correct title as well as the correct link. I changed the title to remove the final question mark and the scare quotes, but it didn't make any difference. Another bizarre software mystery?]

  11. John said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 11:19 am

    Regarding the 404 error, Facebook has a debugger that will help isolate the problem:

    As I'm not a programmer, I can't help much beyond that. But it looks like a relatively easy fix to my untrained eye: a missing 'og:type' property, for this post and others.

    [(myl) Thanks! I think I fixed the problem, at least mostly, via this plugin.]

  12. Larry Sheldon said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 11:07 pm

    Thank for the responses to the 404 problem–they don't make much sense to me without some experimentation (my problem, not yours) so I WILL poke at it some more.


  13. Larry Sheldon said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 11:51 pm

    "LOL, the better the restaurant the more things on the menu? This guy is really something else."

    At the risk of "putting myself and others down" I will point out that there are arguments to be made that there is a class of people who believe that more choices is better, and that the audience he is talking to is the sort of anti-"intellectual", anti-"elite", city-bus-driver who might think that. Indeed, HE might think that.

    Please do not lecture ME–I think I know. I parked my truck around the corner where I hoped it would not be seen and went to dinner at a place in Moraga where there was no menu–you called for a reservation and if you were there the last time they served what ever they were serving on the requested evening, they would caution you and ask if you wanted to chose a different evening.

  14. Larry Sheldon said,

    March 20, 2016 @ 11:53 pm

    …and the 404 error has been repaired. I still do not understand what broke.

    But do not trouble yourself, if I am capable of understanding it, I will figure it out eventually from the clues given.

  15. maidhc said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 3:49 am

    I have been to some restaurants with truly gigantic menus, but it makes you wonder–how are they preparing this stuff? Do they keep it all frozen and just thaw it out when you order? There are some restaurants that have huge menus but it's just different combinations of a small number of basic ingredients. The better restaurants I've been to usually have a fairly small number of options and you chose from what the chef has selected–usually because he was out at the farmers' market early in the morning and saw what ingredients were the best that day.

    I'm reminded of the story of the restaurant that featured chops of all kinds. A food critic from one of the big papers came in and ordered an elephant chop. The waiter ran back in panic to the kitchen, and the chef comes out:
    M'sieu is dining alone?
    M'sieu has ordered just one chop?
    I'm sorry, m'sieu, for one chop we do not kill our elephant.

    For more comment on the way Trump speaks, check out this item from R. Crumb back in 1989 (different versions):

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 21, 2016 @ 2:11 pm

    Here's a trend piece from 2014 claiming the really-gigantic-menu trend was abating But the new equilibrium alleged by the article was still for menus orders of magnitude larger than the high-end only-what-the-chef-thought-was-extra-fresh-today approach. And the demographic that finds that less-is-more / sparse-because-selective approach to be a signal of quality is generally an elite one that this election cycle has revealed to be embarrassingly unknowledgeable about the tastes and perspectives of their fellow citizens. If you don't move in the sort of social circles where the Cheesecake Factory/Olive Garden/TGI Friday's genre of restaurant is viewed as a classy sort of place to go eat on a special/celebratory occasion, you probably have no idea who the heck these people who are voting for Trump are and where they come from. (I myself am sufficiently alienated from mainstream mass culture that I would probably never eat at the Cheesecake Factory were it not for the more populist instincts of my offspring — thanks kids!)

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