Quantifying Donald Trump's rhetoric

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David Beaver & Jason Stanley, "Unlike all previous U.S. presidents, Trump almost never mentions democratic ideals", Washington Post 2/7/2017:

The central norms of liberal democratic societies are liberty, justice, truth, public goods and tolerance. To our knowledge, no one has proposed a metric by which to judge a politician’s commitment to these democratic ideals.

A direct way suggested itself to us: Why not simply add up the number of times those words and their synonyms are deployed? If the database is large enough, this should provide a rough measure of a politician’s commitment to these ideals. How does Trump’s use of these words compare to that of his presidential predecessors?

At Language Log, the linguist Mark Liberman graphed how unusual Trump’s inaugural speech was, graphing the frequency of critical words used in each of the past 50 years’ inaugural speeches — and showing how much more nationalist language, and how much less democratic language Trump used than did his predecessors.

We expanded this project, looking at the language in Trump’s inaugural address as well as in 61 campaign speeches since 2015. We compared that to the language used in all 57 prior inaugural speeches, from George Washington’s on. The comparison gives us a picture of Trump’s rhetorical emphases since his campaign began, and hence of his most deeply held political ideals.


  1. Quantifying Donald Trump's rhetoric • Zhi Chinese said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 3:12 pm

    […] Source: Language Quantifying Donald Trump's rhetoric […]

  2. Brian K said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 4:35 pm

    Regardless of my opinions of Trump's policies, I am curious why we are willing to assume an actual link between selected word frequencies and democratic ideals. Although ridiculous claims about the use of "I" in presidential speeches were false, another (more potent) criticism is that the only study of the topic showed a "near-zero" correlation between use of "I" and narcissism.

    This is a delightful breakfast experiment, but it is not national news.

    [(myl) We can't connect word choices reliably with what politicians and other public figures believe, much less what they practice, because hypocrisy. But it's fair to connect word choices with what people want us to think they believe — the concepts they choose to feature in their marketing.]

  3. Brian K said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 4:37 pm

    It appears that my HTML link was stripped. Here is the article I was referring to: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=15355

  4. Guy said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 4:37 pm

    I'm skeptical that you can gauge commitment to ideals by how often they are mentioned in speeches, but I suppose this does show (or at least suggests) something about the sentiments that the politician is targeting and tapping into for support.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 4:59 pm

    There has been nothing in Trump's policies and policy proposals that would suggest to me any deep commitment to democratic ideals. The fact that this is consistent with his choice of words is not startling.

  6. Amy Stoller said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 5:30 pm

    I think Guy has nailed it.

  7. David Morris said,

    February 7, 2017 @ 10:21 pm

    I'm sure Kim Jong-Eun talks a lot about (his particular understanding of) liberty, justice and truth.

    [(myl) English translations of Kim Jong Un's speeches are available here. In his 4680-word 2017 New Year's Address, he doesn't use any form of the words freedom or liberty; he uses justice 3 times (0.64 per thousand words); he uses truth once (0.21 per thousand), and uses korea(n) 24 times (5.13 per thousand).

    In Donald Trump's 1455-word Inaugural Address, he used liberty 0 times, freedoms once (0.68 per thousand words), justice once (0.68 per thousand words), truth 0 times, and america(n)(s) 34 times (23.4 per thousand words).

    FWIW, the correlation of [0 0 3 1 24] and [0 1 1 0 34] is r=0.99. For Obama's two Inaugurals (4534 words total), the counts for the morphemes liberty, freedom, justice, truth, and american are [7 10 2 4 32], which correlates 0.94 with kju and 0.97 with djt. Which I think suggests that correlation of word counts is a pretty blunt instrument. (Though if we compare only the counts for liberty, freedom, justice, and truth, the correlations become 0.41 for kju and djt, -0.88 for kju and bho, and 0.08 for djt and bho…)

    But in any case, it doesn't seem to be true that kju "talks a lot about (his particular understanding of) liberty, justice and truth".]

  8. Mark P said,

    February 8, 2017 @ 11:02 am

    While these linguistic analyses are interesting, some of the informal analyses I have seen of cockpit voice recorders on flights that have crashed indicate that it might be more useful to search in communications from the White House for the words "oh" and "shit."

  9. Kenny Easwaran said,

    February 10, 2017 @ 10:46 am

    It seems odd to draw conclusions about Trump based on a comparison of him to the average of 57 prior presidential addresses across multiple centuries. I was hoping for some more direct comparison of his usages here to other specific individuals in a more recent context. One of their charts in the article includes "all 2012 campaign speeches" and "all 2016 campaign speeches". The numbers for Trump in particular do show some differences from the 2012 campaign, but not nearly as large, and not all in the same direction. I don't know if this is just because Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are just like Trump, or because Obama is actually much more similar to Trump in this regard than the authors seem to be implicating.

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