Thursday, December 29, 2016
There are many reasons why I am confused and mortified by the election of a classless boor like Donald Trump to the office once held by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, but one of the most puzzling reasons is this: forgetting for a moment the outright lies, the insults, and the veiled threats, why do people take this man seriously when he can't even speak in complete sentences?
Other people smarter than I am have wondered the same thing, and I found an interesting article on Vox by Tara Golshan that helps to explain it: Donald Trump’s Strange Speaking Style, As Explained by Linguists. It's a very interesting article and, although it references linguistic theories, it's not full of off-putting scientific mumbo-jumbo and is worth your time to read.
To summarize up front, Trump's style reflects the difference between written and conversational spoken language, and relies on a shared cultural background with audiences that allow listeners to "fill in" the gaps in his remarks from their own experiences. As the article points out,
"(Trump) makes vague implications with a raised eyebrow or a shrug, allowing his audience to reach their own conclusions. And that conversational style can be effective. It’s more intimate than a scripted speech. People walk away from Trump feeling as though he were casually talking to them, allowing them to finish his thoughts."
Such a speaking style can be very effective when the speaker may not want to be held to his words as explicitly spoken, such as Trump's vague quasi-threat against Hillary Clinton in a speech delivered in North Carolina in August, 2016 ...
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks ... Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”
The sentence was rambling, incomplete, not terribly grammatical, and did not contain any explicit threat against Senator Clinton. However, because of the social and political culture shared by Mr Trump and his audience, listeners concerned about the supposed erosion of their gun rights would be able to connect the dots and understand the subtext of the message: You have a gun. You know what you can do.
Mr. Trump's style is also effective because it employs time-tested advertising techniques with which he, as a businessman, is very familiar and comfortable. When he doubles down, repeating a statement proven to be false, he relies on the technique of repetition to embed his version in the listener's mind. And when he ignores the complexity of major issues by reducing them to simple, bumper-sticker statements ("drain the swamp," "crooked Hillary," "build the wall"), he relies on the technique of over-simplification that encourages belief and trust and crowds out unwanted questions.
Another of his gifts is the ability to connect with his audiences on an emotional, rather than an intellectual level. As Dr Kristin DuMez, an historian, notes in the article,
"For listeners who identify with Trump, there is little they need to do but claim what they’re entitled to ... No need for sacrifice, for compromise, for complexity. He taps into fear and insecurity, but then enables his audience to express that fear through anger. And anger gives the illusion of empowerment."
These are the key words in that last quote: "no need for sacrifice, for compromise, for complexity." Mr. Trump uses language that appeals to the gut, not to the brain, and encourages his followers to believe in the ends without thinking inconveniently hard about the means.
Donald Trump is not a stupid man, although I believe he is a mendacious and venal one, and I believe his use of language underscores the reasons we should be wary of him as president. As Dr Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist from the University of Edinburgh, points out in the article,
"His speech suggests a man with scattered thoughts, a short span of attention, and a lack of intellectual discipline and analytical skills ... You get no ... organized thoughts from Trump. It's bursts of noun phrases, self-interruptions, sudden departures from the theme, flashes of memory, odd side remarks. It's the disordered language of a person with a concentration problem."
And this, of course, also helps to explain Mr. Trump's use of Twitter as his communications medium of choice. A message limited to 140 characters does not allow for nuance or complexity, and is nothing more than a gut-level bumper sticker that the True Believers can flesh out as they will.
The bottom line, from Dr Pullum, is this:
"Leadership is hard; it needs discipline, concentration, and an ability to ignore what's irrelevant or needless or personal or silly. There is no sign of it from Trump. This man talks honestly enough that you can see what he's like: He's an undisciplined narcissist who craves power but doesn't have the intellectual capacity to exercise it wisely."
And that is how I approach the transfer of power in this country on January 20th - hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.
Have a good day. Be here tomorrow for the announcement of the final Ass Clown awardee of 2016. More thoughts then.