Rhetorical reviews

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Negative reviews of Donald Trump's rhetorical style are all over the place. A small sample might start with Gary Schmidgall, "What would Shakespeare make of Trump?", The Chronicle Review 2/7/2016:

The current campaign’s race to the bottom of the rhetorical barrel, of course, has been led by Donald Trump. Did you know "trumpery" was Shakespeare’s word for fancy garments or showy rubbish?

We can add Lucy Ferris, "Diagramming Trump", Chronicle of Higher Education 8/7/2015:

This isn’t fancy syntactical footwork on Trump’s part. It’s just bad rhetoric.

Or Stephen Henderson, "Trump, 'The Princess Bride' and Plato, or how to abuse rhetoric", Detroit Free Press 4/9/2016:

Trump’s rhetorical style […] so easily dismisses complexity and nuance and embraces fluid but incompatible dichotomies of harsh brutality and feel-good optimism.

Simplistic speech is a hazard of the campaign trail, which by nature eschews details for slogans, nuance for battle cries. But Trump's sins are excessive. […]

Rhetoric matters, not least because it reflects thought — or it should. Used wisely, rhetoric can make complex ideas understandable or rally people behind a common cause. But absent guiding morality or philosophy, Plato wrote, rhetoric is nothing but empty words.

It's certainly true that Trump's style is instantly identifiable. Consider this recent example:

So I watch Bernie —
he wins, he wins, he keeps winning, winning, winning —
and then I see, he's got no chance,
they always say he has no chance.

Why doesn't he have a chance?
Because the system is corrupt, and it's worse on the Republican side,
because I'm up millions of votes on Cruz —
millions, I don't mean like I'm up by two votes,
I'm up millions and millions of votes,

I'm up by hundreds and hundreds of delegates.
I go to Louisiana, I win Louisiana,
and I say isn't that beautiful, I love the people, I sent them a note,
thank you very much I love you Louisiana,
then I find out that I get less delegates than Cruz,
because of some nonsense going on.

No, I'm telling you,
and I say this to the R.N.C. and I say it to the Republican party,
you're going to have a big problem, folks,
because there're people that don't like what's going on.
You know, they don't like what's going on.

We've got a corrupt system —
it's not right, we're supposed to be a democracy;
we're supposed to be-
we're supposed to be, you vote and the vote means something, alright?
You vote and the vote means something.

But it seems to me that any dispassionate observer, whatever their opinion of the content, would have to admit that this is powerful and effective rhetoric. It's more informal and less consequential than this:

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 if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

But the techniques are similar.



  1. David L said,

    April 16, 2016 @ 6:03 pm

    There's something familiar about Trump's style, when you lay it out as you have:

    The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

    I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

    [(myl) Good catch. After all,

    I will make the true poem of riches,
    To earn for the body and the mind whatever adheres and goes forward and is not dropt by death;
    I will effuse egotism and show it underlying all, and I will be the bard of personality.


    Let others ignore what they may,
    I make the poem of evil also, I commemorate that part also,
    I am myself just as much evil as good, and my nation is — and I say there is in fact no evil,
    (Or if there is I say it is just as important to you, to the land or to me, as any thing else.)
    I too, following many and follow'd by many, inaugurate a religion, I descend into the arena,
    (It may be I am destin'd to utter the loudest cries there, the winner's pealing shouts,
    Who knows? they may rise from me yet, and soar above every thing.)


    The main shapes arise!
    Shapes of Democracy total, result of centuries,
    Shapes ever projecting other shapes,
    Shapes of turbulent manly cities,
    Shapes of the friends and home-givers of the whole earth,
    Shapes bracing the earth and braced with the whole earth.


  2. AntC said,

    April 16, 2016 @ 6:44 pm

    hmm I'm not convinced about a comparison with a carefully scripted speech from over 60 years ago. Political speech has been steadily getting more informal since the TV age, and especially the Reality TV age and the twittersphere.

    In Trump's rhythms – considered as pure music without the sense of the words – I keep hearing Hitler's demagoguery (sorry). Not being much of a speaker of German, it's mostly the rhythm I hear there, and the word/phrase repitition. It's the repeated short cadences building to a crescendo.

    Is there some less impressionistic way to measure that? Did Hitler's actual delivery involve more repitition than the published words? I guess we'd need to control for German typically using longer words.

    There must be other demagogues to compare to, but I wouldn't include the long, rambling chunks of political theory of a Castro, say.

    [(myl) I looked at a couple of specific examples of Hitler's oratory, for example here, and it did not seem similar. The repetitive cadences are not there at all. And Hitler's rhetorical rhythm seems much more like what Trump says about Cruz, he "has a five second intermission between sentences".]

  3. AntC said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 12:37 am

    Thanks Mark for taking me seriously. [I am trying to fight back my revulsion for everything Trump is, as opposed to what he says; and focus on how he says it.]

    Funny! I checked a few examples on YouTube before posting, which confirmed by hypothesis ;-)

    Yes there is a notable 'intermission' between H's phrases. Presumably for the preceeding crescendo to finish echoing around the PA system.

    In that link at about the 1:20 to 1:40, there's repetition of 'people' (Volk); then repetition of 'never' (nimmer); each with a particular cadence. The 'nimmer's are particularly punchy.

    In contrast, Churchill's delivery seems almost flat. The beginning of that speech (before where you quote) is indeed a lot of bad news (the evacuation from Dunkirk). When we get on to the inspirational part (which in my mind's ear is the epitome of bulldog-British), in fact Churchill continues with the drawn-out cadences. Nothing heroic; just more blood sweat and tears and anguish. He was addressing the House at a turning point in a national crisis. I guess he could not but be solemn.

    What you quote is punctuated as one big sentence. The 'we shall fight …'s are strong. But even if we applied a more modern style, the 'if' onwards is hung about with qualifying phrases and parenthetical intrusions. Not effective as rhetoric.

  4. Ken Miner said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 7:59 am

    A while back I thought: who does Donald Trump remind one of on the positive side? Teddy Roosevelt. And now Joseph Cummins, author of Anything for a Vote, says the same thing. Of course he adds that Teddy Roosevelt had much more substance to him than does Trump. I think that’s probably correct, but if Trump crashes we will never really know. If he doesn’t, it will have been a “matter of opinion”.
    Cummins’s book, of course, documents the fact that political campaigns of the past have been as bad or even worse than they are now. And there have been candidates as unqualified as Trump. Hell, there probably have been presidents as unqualified as Trump.

    Anyway, FWIW, I looked at some TR speeches. As printed, they show not much rhythm and song. But there are some audio recordings that might be examined.

  5. John Roth said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 8:35 am

    There's a pattern I ran across a long time ago that I call "marking." Where I've seen it, it gives the speech a lot more "punch" than you'd expect, and occasionally embeds other messages into a speech. It's impossible to spot from a transcript and is pretty hard to spot from a recording unless you're looking for it specifically – at least it's hard for me to spot. The times I've done it I've had to go into a light trance where I'm paying attention to only the content that's marked by the emphasis pattern and ignoring the ostensible content.

    I don't know whether that has any relevance to Trump's speeches, and I have no intention of listening to them to find out.

  6. Scamp Dog said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 5:22 pm

    @John Roth

    So what's the pattern? Is it a matter of emphasizing words, with the emphasized words giving a message alongside the ostensible one?

  7. andyb said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 7:15 pm

    "And Hitler's rhetorical rhythm seems much more like what Trump says about Cruz…"

    Flipping around the dial, I heard a pro-Trump talk radio commentator say something like, "Sure, everyone knows Cruz has been studying Hitler's speech techniques." I think he was responding to a guest or caller who was suggesting that Lyin' Ted was following Hitler's "big lie" strategy.

    I'm pretty sure neither of those is actually _true_ (especially since, IIRC, Hitler claimed the "big lie" was an evil strategy used by the Zionists and/or the UK government that only works on stupid people like the English, not a useful strategy for his side). But is it a talking point that's common among the gradually-organizing right-wing-but-anti-Fox community?

  8. andyb said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 8:02 pm

    Seeing "So I watch Bernie" reminded me of something I've been wondering: Has anyone analyzed the way competitors in this race are referring to each other?

    It seems like everyone is on a first-name basis in 2016; they only occasionally use last names, and rarely if ever titles. And even when they use last names, it's often "Cruz", not "Mr. Cruz", which is much less polite.

    In the past, the opposite was true: they mostly stuck to titles, with an occasional last name. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy. Senator… where's the beef? There you go again, Mr. President. The Governor presents nothing but voodoo economics. It's hard to even imagine those lines with Dan, Gary, Jimmy, and Ronald instead. Or even with bare last names.

    It's not completely universal. Donald, Ted, Marco, and Jeb always call each other by first name, and Bernie is always Bernie, but they sometimes call Hillary Clinton or even Mrs. Clinton, and Kasich is always Kasich. And Kasich usually uses last names in return. And when Donald talks about a Ryan stealth candidacy, it's Ryan, not Paul. And Clinton and Sanders seem to use titles or last names for each other, and for Trump and Cruz, far more often than the Republicans—but still, they seem to first-name each other far more often than, say, Hillary and Barrack did 8 years ago.

    But, before asking what the cause is, it would be nice to know if I'm actually right here.

  9. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 17, 2016 @ 8:09 pm

    Trump and Whitman? Good grief!

  10. yet another David said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 11:27 am

    John Roth: Is this the pattern you have observed?

    "The 'voice roll' is a technique used to create a trance-like state in an audience by using patterns that occur at a regular rate, typically 45 to 60 per second.

    "The pattern can be in the use of pauses, emphasis, repetition of a key word or any combination. It may be in the foreground or may be in the background and may even be in time to music. It can run for a short time or for somewhat longer.

    "The voice roll itself may include the key content or this may appear in other ways, from a voice-over to handing around a collection plate. "

    source: http://changingminds.org/techniques/speaking/speaking_tips/voice_roll.htm

  11. Rodger C said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 11:34 am

    "Per second" is sic, but impossible. It appears as "per minute" later on the site.

  12. Rodger C said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 11:34 am

    "Per second" is sic, but impossible. It appears as "per minute" later on the site.

  13. BZ said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 1:02 pm

    I haven't studied what the candidates call each other, but here are some impressions and my reasoning:
    Hillary (To differentiate from Bill)
    Bernie (He calls himself this. Also his "feel the Bern" slogan)
    Trump or Donald Trump (Donald alone seems ambiguous. Duck? Rumsfeld?)
    Cruz (Ted is too common a name. See however "lying Ted")
    Kasich (John is also too common)

  14. andyb said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 2:01 pm

    @BZ: That all sounds sensible, but it doesn't seem to correspond to what they actually call each other, or what the mainstream media calls them, or what Fox calls them, or what angry online ranters call them. It's like reasoning "Nobody abbreviates Vice President to Veep because it sounds too belittling"—sure, that makes sense, but since everyone actually does abbreviate it to Veep, and did so even when we had a strong Veep like Cheney, it's obviously not a helpful explanation of anything.

    Plus, who's going to confuse Donald Duck with Donald Trump? Sure, they both swing wildly between manic optimism and insane fury with little in between, brag to such an extreme that it's more nonsensical than implausible, and are famous for dishing it out but not taking it. But only the former has a law in a major democracy that prevents people from voting for him for every election.

  15. ajay said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 6:04 am

    "When we get on to the inspirational part (which in my mind's ear is the epitome of bulldog-British), in fact Churchill continues with the drawn-out cadences. Nothing heroic; just more blood sweat and tears and anguish. He was addressing the House at a turning point in a national crisis."

    He was actually talking into a microphone in a studio. There are no recordings of Churchill addressing the House; it wasn't wired for sound and broadcast until decades later.

    And in fact the recordings were often not made until years later; his Battle of Britain speech ("Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few") was only recorded in 1951. http://www.bbc.co.uk/schoolradio/subjects/history/ww2clips/speeches/churchill_the_few

  16. AntC said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 12:20 am

    Thanks @ajay, I didn't know that. So both my and Mark's observations are invalid. I'd assumed he was addressing the house, because he says "Sir" [ie Mr Speaker] at a couple of points. Come to think, there were no "Hear, hear"s in the background.

    Strange not to edit the speech (even a little) for the studio.

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