Trump's rhetorical style

« previous post | next post »

It's the season of political speeches, and so I've been listening to a few. One thing that sticks out is Donald Trump's rhetorical style, which has some characteristics that I haven't observed in other politicians. In "Donald Trump's repetitive rhetoric" (12/5/2015) I noted his tendency to repeat words and phrases. This repetition means that many phrases are entirely predictable well before their end, and perhaps for that reason, he often leaves the last bits unspoken. And finally, he has an almost Pirahã-like ability  — or perhaps I should say Elmore Leonard-like ability — to express complex thoughts in paratactic form, with very little clausal embedding.

There are plenty of examples of these three characteristics from Mr. Trump's 12/21/2015 speech in Grand Rapids MI.

He starts the rally this way:

we love Michigan
we love Michigan
we love it
and we're going to bring those cars-
we're going to make so many more cars than we're making right now
not going to happen the other way
not going to happen the other way
too many bad things are happening
we're going to start winning again folks
we're going to start winning again

And he ends it like this:

we are going to make
our country
so strong
and so powerful
and we are going to make our country great again
and it's going to be a beautiful beautiful thing to watch
so beautiful
I want to thank everybody
this is a movement
this is a movement
you look outside there are thousands of people still trying to come in and we're finished
but you just look
this is a movement and this is important
it's going to be something that is so beautiful

In between, he tells a long story about various imagined interactions with the Ford Motor Company over their plan to build a new multi-billion-dollar plant in Mexico. Presumably because of NAFTA, which he doesn't mention, Ford will (he says) be able to import cars and trucks and parts from that plant without any tariff payments. His story presupposes that Ford needs the president's permission to build that plant, and that the president has the power to impose arbitrary company- and product-specific import duties as part of making a deal to give such permission. In this context, Trump presents his personal wealth and ability to finance his own campaign as an advantage.

You'll see some further repetitions; some examples of omitted redundant phrase-endings, and plenty of paratactic constructions.

After introducing the topic, Mr. Trump imagines Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton interacting with the company:

so with all of this money that they give
here's what happens
they go to a Jeb
and they say mister president
Ford has moved in
ba ba ba
let's say he knows it's bad cause it's bad
he'll say well that's no good we don't want them to make that deal
then he'll get a call from his donors
his special interests his lobbyists
and they'll say they helped you
they gave you five million dollars Jeb
you have to let them do it
and you know he's a very weak person so he's going to in two seconds
you have to let them go in
and he'll let them go in
they'll call Hillary they'll say
madam president
they give you millions
they gave you millions of dollars
you can't do anything about that
and she'll say you're right I can't they've been very loyal to me
not to you
but to her
because she's a hundred percent- look
is she crooked or what?
okay give me a break is- is she crooked?
I mean
how crooked is she?
how crooked is she?
and you have to understand
in my prior life one of the magazines said world-class businessman
which is true I'm all over the world and I'm a

I think great
really good-
and I get along with everybody I get along with her I get along with everybody
I get along with democra- that's my obligation that's my job
I have to do that
so they say to her
they say
it's bad
we got to stop it
and then she'll be confronted with the special interests the lobbyists the donors
and immediately she'll say all right let them build

I find it interesting, by the way, that there was a lot of reaction to Trump's use of the word "shlonged" in another part of the same speech, but little or no reaction to the accusation of corruption in that part that you've just heard.

Mr. Trump then goes on to describe his own imagined interaction with Ford — he of course deals directly with the president of the company:

now here's Trump
now Trump is president
Trump Trump
Trump is now president
president Trump
I owe them-
all I-
you know who I owe I- here- this is the group I owe
I owe these people
I owe these people
so I didn't take any of their money
and by the way you know it's sort of adverse to what I do
these people are coming up especially I've been in first place practically since I
announced, right
for like six months I've been in first place
do you know how many people have come up
darn I'd love to contribute to your campaign
I said I'm not taking money
they said but we'd love to make a major contribution
because if I do you know what's going to happen it's just psychologically even if- it's not- it- deal or any-
it's just a guy gives you five million bucks and he's representing a company
or he's representing China or he's rep-
you know you sort of feel obligated I m- I still really don't think it- but I'm a very loyal person
so I just do it the easy way I don't take it
and it's very hard for me to say no, because all my life I take
I take money, I love money, I take money
now I'm telling these people I don't want your money
I don't want your money
because I know what happens
so now they come to me
and I'll get a call from the head of Ford, nice guy by the way
I think, who the hell knows
right but I think he's a-
wrote me a beautiful letter
and he'll say to me
mister president
we're doing a wonderful thing
I said why is it wonderful that you're building a plant in Mexico
why can't you build that plant in the United States
ideally in Michi- you know ideally I want it in Michigan
but why can't you even if it's anywhere in the United States right
but why can't you build that plant in Michigan
well ba ba ba ba ba ba
after about three seconds I know it's all nonsense
because there's nothing he can convince me on
and I'll say no no no
here's the story
here's the story
I'm a free trader
but this is no good for our country
if you build that plant in Mexico
I'm going to charge you
thirty five percent
on every car truck and part
that you send into our country
every single one
every single car
truck and part
we're going to put a tax of thirty five- and I'm a free trader
but we can't be stupid traders
cause what's happening with China is ten times worse
I mean we have a trade deficit with China five hundred billion dollars a year
and then I listen to Obama
our trading partner — they're no partner
they're ripping us
and I love China they pay me a fortune they buy my apartments
I have them as tenants in my building
I have the largest bank in the world in China
they pay me a lot of rent
how can I dislike China but they're just too smart for our politicians
so here's what happens
so I'll say I want thirty five percent tax
on every car and every truck and every part that comes into this country
and he's going to say
we won't do it
now here's what is probably going to happen
and I have the smartest businessmen in the world many of them are endorsing me
Carl Icahn has endorsed me
a lot of the great ones cause they know I'm like smart this is what I do
so what happens
but this is too easy
I don't need any- but this is too easy
this takes minutes
so what happens is
he'll say probably we can't do that
I'll say don't worry about it
call me whenever you're ready
within twenty four hours I'll get a call
and he'll make one more plea
mister president that's not right
I'll say
thirty five percent
and if you wait another day it's going to forty, okay?
it's true
it's going to forty
and as good and as tough and as smart as they are
here's what he's going to say, has to
and this isn't like ninety nine percent this is a hundred percent
he's going to say mister president
we're going to build our new plant in the United States
right here
well this is the place I'd like to see it
but we're going to build our new- and that's a hundred percent
he may wait a day
he may wait two days
but that's what's going to happen


  1. Nicholas Kapur said,

    December 26, 2015 @ 8:38 pm

    I feel like the most important thing I learned from this post is that if you take transcripts from Trump speeches and remove the punctuation you get incredibly uninspiring poetry.

  2. Ken Miner said,

    December 26, 2015 @ 11:08 pm

    I have to agree with Lewis Turco (The Book of Forms, 1st edition) – "free verse" is nothing but prose, arranged to look like poetry. But I do wonder why ML does it with Trump's perseverations.

  3. Ed Munch said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 7:22 am

    Trump's speeches remind me of Father Coughlin. See "Somebody must be blamed" —

    Trump bundles big lies, noble lies, and deprecations — chops them into tweets — and delivers it all in a train of thought that appears informal and unrehearsed but is possibly very carefully worked out.

  4. bks said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 9:50 am

    An elderly man approaches me as I take notes. He asks what I’m doing. I tell him I’m a professor. “I’ve had my fill of fucking intellectuals,” he says, but he clearly wants to talk. The air fills with “Jingle Bells.”

    “I love Trump,” he says. “He’s not an intellectual. He says he’s going to make America great again, that excites me. I got so excited I went out and bought a tricycle. I can’t hardly walk, but I bought a tricycle on just hope. I got it in August—end of October, 14 miles I was going on it, my Trump hat on backwards, going down the highway.”

    “I just got excited about it,” he says. “The man excites me.”

  5. Milan said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 12:40 pm

    @Ken Miner
    This way of arranging the transcription has the advantage that one doesn't have to make punctuation choices which would heavily affect how the style of the speech is perceived.

    Compare these two transcriptions:

    "We are going to make our country so strong and so powerful and we are going to make our country great again and it's going to be a beautiful beautiful thing to watch, so beautiful."

    "We are going to make our country so strong. And so powerful! And we are going to make our country great again. And it's going to be a beautiful, beautiful thing to watch. So beautiful!"

  6. Rod Johnson said,

    December 27, 2015 @ 2:42 pm

    In this sort of transcription the line breaks indicate intonation groups. This is a convention that in discourse analysis at least as far back as Wallace Chafe's early 90s work and before him back to Harvey Sacks.

  7. richardelguru said,

    December 28, 2015 @ 7:49 am

    Nicholas, I'll definitely be an Oscar to your James over that comment.

  8. Graeme said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 8:37 am

    Tariffs? I heard he was just gonna build a huge wall.

  9. Nerdcore › Trumps Language said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 9:38 am

    […] Toller Clip von Herrn Nerdwriter über Trumps Sprachgebrauch, der sich vor allem in seiner Business-Bullshit-Rhetorik äußert. Das Language-Log hatte neulich ein Posting zu Trump's rhetorical style. […]

  10. Yuval said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 4:08 am

    I heard your "darn" transcription as "Don".

RSS feed for comments on this post