How Donald Trump uses language, and why we can’t stop listening.

The Accidental Brilliance of Trump’s Speaking Style

The Accidental Brilliance of Trump’s Speaking Style

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 2 2016 5:57 AM

Trump’s Tower of Babble

It may sound like gibberish, but there’s an accidental brilliance to Trump’s style of speech.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Open Door Christian Academy on October 28, 2016, in Lisbon, Maine.
Donald Trump speaks at a rally on Friday in Lisbon, Maine.

Sarah Rice/Getty Images

For some of us, Trump’s language is incendiary garbage. It’s not just that the ideas he wants to communicate are awful but that they come out as Saturnine gibberish or lewd smearing or racist gobbledygook. The man has never met a clause he couldn’t embellish forever and then promptly forget about. He uses adjectives as cudgels. You and I view his word casserole as not just incoherent but representative of the evil at his heart.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.

But it works. Vast swaths of Americans find themselves in Trump’s verbal thrall, nodding along as his mind empties its baleful, inchoate contents out through his mouth and into the world. In a business in which what you say holds incredible sway with those who are going to decide whether to hire you, this rambling weirdo has overachieved to the point of being a Clinton scandal away from the presidency.

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Why? What’s the secret to Trump’s accidental brilliance? A few theories: simple component parts, weaponized unintelligibility, dark innuendo, and power signifiers.

Despite the often-complicated work they do, Trump’s speeches are built from basic, readily understood elements. One analysis, citing loosely woven sentences and a cramped, simplistic vocabulary, found that he talks just below a sixth-grade reading level, compared with the eighth- to 10th-grade reading levels at which his competitors speak. Another paper discovered that 78 percent of the words Trump deploys are monosyllabic. (Sad!) Trump’s most avidly used term is I, followed by Trump, very, China, and money.

Simple sentences and one-cent words may not win admiration from the Walter Paters of the world, but they do aid comprehension, which increases their processing fluency and makes them ring true, even when they’re not. What’s more, as Evan Puschak has discussed, Trump tends to place the most viscerally resonant words at the end of his statements, allowing them to vibrate in our ears. For instance, unfurling his national security vision like a nativist pennant, Trump said:

But, Jimmy, the problem
I mean, look, I’m for it.
But look, we have people coming into the country
that are looking to do tremendous harm….
Look what happened in Paris.
Look what happened in California,
with, you know, 14 people dead.
Other people are going to die,
they’re badly injured, we have a real problem.
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Ironically, because Trump relies so heavily on footnotes, false starts, and flights of association, and because his digressions rarely hook back up with the main thought, the emotional terms take on added power. They become rays of clarity in an incoherent verbal miasma. Think about that: If Trump were a more traditionally talented orator, if he just made more sense, the surface meaning of his phrases would likely overshadow the buried connotations of each individual word. As is, to listen to Trump fit language together is to swim in an eddy of confusion punctuated by sharp stabs of dread. Which happens to be exactly the sensation he wants to evoke in order to make us nervous enough to vote for him.

Trump is a prolific user of discourse markers. These are the signpost wordswell, OK, so—that add emotion or shape to a statement without changing its meaning. As linguist Jennifer Sclafani points out, most politicians practice talking with discourse markers in order to sound intimate, authentic, or unstudied; the signals can also subtly deflect a question by faking some kind of logical continuity between it and the response. (“What do you think about single-payer health care?” “First off, I believe that our families matter.”) Like Obama or Clinton, Trump uses discourse markers to project folksiness or spontaneous feeling. (“Honestly, she should be locked up.”) In his mouth, though, these tokens hedge and redirect of their own volition, as if no one is driving the conversational car.

Some of Trump’s extra words can seem to reroute the candidate down a track he may not have anticipated: “That is a mainstream media nonsense that is put out by her because you know, frankly, I think the best person in her campaign is mainstream media.” Others serve as handmaidens for his deranged asides. “That’s called business, by the way,” Trump said, pausing in the middle of evading a debate question about his specific tax evasion to defend tax code chicanery generally. His compulsive qualifiers sometimes act as crutches and cloaks. (“I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be.”) Or he gets caught up in whorls of intensification: “And the Clintons know it. And they know it very well.” Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has suggested that Trump exploits prefaces like “people are saying” and “I’ve heard many times” to burnish his credibility. Yet the sheer number of not semantically meaningful words he uses implies something else: that he is too distracted by the pleasure and theater of vocalizing to deliver any actual substance. Regardless of his familiarity with the topic at hand, Trump will luxuriate in all the “let me tell you”s he can possibly throw into his sentences to draw attention to the fact that he’s talking. Of course he employs a ton of discourse markers: Trump as a political force is all discourse marker, no discourse.

And it works. The unplanned detours and intentional, nerve-fraying vagueness; the emotional chiaroscuro of ominous terms set afloat in nonsense, like a word salad where the lettuce leaves are nightshade—they work. Even the ornamental wordstuff gives Trump an air of authority.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a campaign rally at the Bank of Colorado Arena on the campus of University of Northern Colorado October 30, 2016 in Greeley, Colorado.
Trump holds a campaign rally on Sunday in Greeley, Colorado.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Trump is unconventional, and he’s unconventionally adept at the blunt force transmission of fear and rage. Consider his reliance on dog whistles and buzzwords. Trump returns again and again to “radical Islamic terror,” as if the incantatory phrase presented an argument in itself. Urging his supporters to monitor polling places in urban districts, he said: “Go down to certain areas. … Make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times.” Certain areas. Other people. Leaving things provocatively undefined is a powerful strategy, allowing people’s fantasies to swirl into the gaps between his words. But it’s also the legacy of a lifetime of being coddled and agreed with. In a world where everyone shares your perspective, there’s no need to belabor the racist claims behind your allusions.

In a politician, such a complacent imagination poses real dangers. Trump’s is a language of tribal signaling, not education or communication, because he is a candidate who cannot fathom viewpoints different from his own. This sense of presumptuousness is breathtaking; to his followers, it is also intoxicating. It connects to the theory that disenfranchised people are supporting Trump against their own interests because he represents a seductive idea of power.

Perhaps his egotism also produces the incoherent word stroganoff so many linguists have already written about. Take Trump’s rambling reply, during the first debate, after the moderator pressed him on his initial support for the Iraq war: “When I did an interview with Howard Stern,” Trump began, “very likely the first time anyone’s asked me that, I said, very likely, I don’t know, maybe, who knows, essentially. I then did an interview with Neil Cavuto, we talked about the economy is more important, I then spoke to Sean Hannity, which, everyone refuses to call Sean Hannity, I had numerous conversations with Sean Hannity at Fox, and Sean Hannity said, and he called me the other day!”

This is not an answer; it is what you dictate into your Notes app after you’ve downed two Nyquil. Trump’s inability to master hypotaxis, the embedding of clauses within clauses—his tendency to keep elaborating on a single, incomplete clause until he runs out of steam—may, as University of Edinburgh language specialist Geoffrey Pullum told Vox, betray “scattered thoughts, a short span of attention, and a lack of intellectual discipline and analytical skills.” But to me, that absence of self-command suggests more than mere flightiness. Trump’s narcissism has convinced him that he doesn’t need to finish the statement, even if he could (which he can’t). Either the rest of the world’s brains already thrum along to his thoughts, or their diverging ideas and opinions don’t matter.

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And that conviction, in turn, makes him a compelling presence, someone whose voice you want to lean in and hear. When Trump acts like a winner, even and especially if he sounds like a loser, the listener starts wondering whether he knows things she doesn’t. She feels uncertain. Luckily, the candidate is there to promise—in exaggerated, Manichean terms—an end to her ambivalence and uncertainty. It’s a genius scam, another way that Trump uses his speaking style to provoke the very negative feelings he cites as reasons to elect him. His angry, incompetent oratory tweaks us out; then he paints himself as the man to restore order and rightness to our crooked lives.

Trump, in short, has perfected the rhetoric of fake power. Some might argue he’s performing for political gain, but I believe in Trump’s razor: The dumbest explanation is generally the correct one. The candidate can’t help who he is; can’t disguise his failings of intelligence or empathy; is succeeding via fateful accident in which his unique and diabolical traits have synced up perfectly with a smoldering, racially and economically alienated GOP electorate. But that doesn’t absolve him of playing on our fears with long, slender pianist’s fingers. It doesn’t justify his bullying repetitions, manipulative cues, rhetorical gaslighting, clausal manspreading, and bogus authority markers. Trumpspeak may be effective. Yet it is far from OK.

What’s left to consider? I am loath to bring up Trump’s paralipsis. Everyone says his appeals to popular wisdom drive him or her crazy. And look, he talks like a gangster, like absolute scum. All contempt and thundery fulmination, you know it, he knows it, it’s terrible. Then suddenly he’s your best friend. Teasing, wheedling, funny—a tremendous entertainer, just tremendous. But president? Look at him. Look at his words. You tell me what you think. I don’t think so—I don’t think so.