Stark rhetoric

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Brad DeLong  thinks that the way to understand the appeal of Donald Trump is to see him as a kind of big-city billionaire version of Willie Stark ("Nail 'em up!!!!", 1/21/2016):

Methinks it is time to go reread Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men again… […]

[T]he rise and durability of Donald Trump is a zero/probability event. And, as David Kreps taught me many years ago, rationally-updating one's beliefs in the wake.of a zero-probability event is a… genuinely hard problem. For a zero probability event to happen means that your visualization of the Cosmic All is simply wrong–or it would not strike you as a zero probability event.

However, the herds and hordes of journalists and political scientists are not coming to grips with this. Rather than come to grips with this, they work hard to “save the phenomena” and save their models–analyzing the rise and durability of Donald Trump by making the smallest possible tweaks to what they thought last year. They are not stepping back and absorbing the lesson. They do not want to recognize that the rise and durability of Trump teaches them that what they thought last year was wrong. They do not want to face the reality that they need to pretty much throw everything away and start over.

But if they were willing to throw pretty much everything away and start over, the place to start over is with Robert Penn Warren[.]

Prof. DeLong wants us to think about the content of Willie Stark's cynically populist message to voters. But in reading the passage he quotes, and the material around it, I was struck by a similarity of form, and especially the use of repetition. (See "Donald Trump's repetitive rhetoric", 12/5/2015; "Trump's rhetorical style", 12/26/2015.)

Here's a sample of Willie Stark:

Friends, red-necks, suckers, and fellow hicks.
Yeah, yeah, that’s what you are,
and you needn’t get mad at me for telling you.
Well, get mad, but I’m telling you. That’s what you are.
And me— I’m one, too.
Oh, I’m a red-neck, for the sun has beat down on me.
Oh, I’m a sucker, for I fell for that sweet-talking fellow in the fine automobile.
Oh, I took the sugar tit and hushed my crying.
Oh, I’m a hick
and I am the hick they were going to try to use and split the hick vote.

But I’m standing here on my own hind legs,
for even a dog can learn to do that, give him time.

I learned. It took me a time but I learned,
and here I am on my own hind legs.

Are you, are you on your hind legs?
Have you learned that much yet?
You think you can learn that much?

You ask me what my program is.
Here it is, you hicks. And don’t you forget it.
Nail ’em up! Nail up Joe Harrison.
Nail up anybody who stands in your way.
Nail up MacMurfee if he don’t deliver.
Nail up anybody who stands in your way.
You hand me the hammer and I’ll do it with my own hand.
Nail ’em up on the barn door! And don’t fan away the bluebottles with any turkey wing!

Willie Stark and Donald Trump are not the first or the only speechifiers to use repetition effectively. There's Winston Churchill:

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, …

And Martin Luther King:

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

Donald Trump's repetitions are much less writerly, and in some cases they mainly seem to be a way to fill time in an emphatic way while he composes his next phrase:

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

But at his rhetorical best, the cadences have some of the same effect:

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



  1. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 8:48 am

    Of course, Willie Stark was based on Huey Long, who was well-known for his speeches on the radio.

    [(myl) And in terms of content, Donald Trump is certainly very different from Huey Long, at least the economic aspects represented by Long's "Share Our Wealth" program, which was way to the left of Bernie Sanders.

    Those were the days when the "socialism" in "National Socialism" was more prominent.]

  2. David Taylor, MD said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 9:49 am

    Brad wrot that "[T]he rise and durability of Donald Trump is a zero/probability event."

    Brad might read Terry Prachett's Discworld books, in which a running joke is that any event with an odds of a million to one of happening is guaranteed to happen. I have always read this as a satirical comment on unlikely events populating fiction, but in this case the old adage of truth being stranger(and more unlikely) than fiction may hold….

  3. D.O. said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 9:57 am

    I don't see the similarities. The beginning of the last excerpt is very clear up to the "they said but we'd love to make a major contribution". Then Trump makes a logical leap by omitting something like "But I don't fall for it…" and after that produces some verbiage with clear meaning, but without much overarching structure. And then after struggling for some time to explain how exactly he refuses to take someone's money he concludes with reaffirming the thesis. OK, he repeats "I don't take money" and slight variation of it several (many) times. But it feels less like a rhetorical devise and more like someone who would, say, give a seminar on morphological differences between two species and repeats "morphological differences" many times over.

    All other examples can be described as a "bullet point list" where someone puts a little bullet point before each fragment. For Willie Stark the bullet point is first "Oh, I'm" and then "Nail up". Trump does not use "I don't take money" as bullet points. He sticks the little phrase here and there as it seems convenient to mention. If it is a recognized rhetorical devise, it must be something else.

  4. Bloix said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 12:09 pm

    You're misunderstanding DeLong. His point is that under the models (implicit or explicit) that political scientists and pundits use, the rise of Trump is predicted to be a zero probability event. The fact of his rise is an indication that the models are wrong and must be reconsidered, yet the political scientists and pundits continue to use them.

    Brad is very big on marking one's belief to market – that is, continuously observing how one's models actually perform and revising them accordingly.

  5. JS said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 12:56 pm

    Whatever this means, surely it's not that politicos and pundits really believed a message like the one Trump is delivering would have no audience? If that's the case one can only sjudder at how tragically out of touch they must be. Come to think of it, though, the best thing about this whole Trump story has been watching "conservatives" squirm as they're forced to look the real source of much of their erstwhile popular appeal right in the face. It's some scary sh*t.

  6. Charles Antaki said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 5:52 pm

    On the page, Trump's speech fares far less well than Churchill's, King's or Stark's – presumably because the repetition that he uses doesn't much help the reader to determine tempo and intonation. Churchill, King and Penn Warren, on the other hand, use repeated sentence-openings (We shall fight .., Nail up …, Now is the time…. ) which give a strong steer as to how the talk would sound. I don't suppose Trump or his speech-writers are much concerned about how well the written record will work, so long as the delivery is locally effective.

  7. shubert said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 6:04 pm

    May ask a question?
    vol·un·tar·y vs. com·pul·so·ry
    Why·y vs ·ry ?

  8. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 6:05 pm

    Trump has speech writers? Next you"ll tell me that Palin has speech writers :)

  9. BZ said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 12:59 pm

    Wait, why is "making the smallest possible tweaks to what they thought last year" the wrong thing to do? If I discover a fact that clashes with my belief system, I change my belief system to accommodate the new fact in such a way as to keep my belief system as close to what it was before as possible. Why would I do anything else? isn't that how basic learning works?

  10. Bloix said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 2:22 pm

    BZ- political scientists are notorious for tweaking their models to fit the most recent iteration of data. You can do this indefinitely, so that your model predicts the past better and better. It's like eternally refining your Ptolemaic epicycles, and never getting to Copernicus.

  11. Haamu said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 3:10 pm

    @BZ — What you describe isn't "learning," it's resisting learning. Privileging your model over reality, even after your model has been shown to be flawed? That's how we've ended up with not only epicycles, but young-Earth creationism, "Separate but Equal," subsidies for obsolete industries, and a whole host of other really bad ideas.

  12. BZ said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 4:25 pm

    I see your point, and I now remember reading that a key point in human evolution was when one could generalize from "none of the rocks I've seen are alive" to "rocks as a group are likely not alive". But when you have a model that successfully predicted everything before, but has been contradicted by a single event, you generally don't throw out the model, you recognize the exception, and if possible try to account for it. Hurricane Epsilon, immortalized by xkcd (, is a great example of this. Did they throw out the models, and all of their prior knowledge, when it didn't behave as expected? Were they wrong to continue forecasting dissipation when it didn't materialize day after day? I would say the answer is no.

  13. Has my said,

    January 26, 2016 @ 9:21 am

    Trump as a hurricane that continues to gain strength in defiance of the experts is a wonderful metaphor but a fatally flawed analogy. Meteorologists' models of the atmosphere are many orders of magnitude more sophisticated than most political models of the electorate, the prevailing one of which is a single unidimensional line with the endpoints wrongly defined. Pundits could learn a lot from the relative humility of weather forecasters.

  14. Haamu said,

    January 26, 2016 @ 9:41 am

    Note to self: proofread not just the message, but your name.

    The perils of autocorrect, nicely pulling the thread back to a linguistic focus.

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