Almost every political commentator in America has now written at least one piece attempting to explain the mystery of Donald Trump’s appeal. Most have dealt with the man’s demeanor, his talent for attracting media coverage and his disdain for party and intellectual elites. Some of these I find cogent.
The thing I find most distinctive about Trump, though — and perhaps it’s at least a component of his success so far — is the structure of his language.
Everybody senses that Trump doesn’t speak like other politicians. But how is his speech different, exactly? Is it just the swagger, the dismissive tone and clipped accent? Maybe in part. Trump does seem emotionally engaged in a way none of his competitors do; he is perpetually annoyed — exasperated that things aren’t as they should be — but somehow also good-humored about it. (Chris Christie and John Kasich seem perpetually annoyed, too, but there is nothing funny or cheerful about their versions.)
To get at what makes Trump’s language different, take a look at the shape of his sentences. They don’t work the way modern political rhetoric does — they work the way punchlines work: short (sometimes very short) with the most important words at the end.
That’s rare among modern politicians, and not simply because they lack Trump’s showmanship or comedic gifts. It’s rare because most successful modern politicians are habitually careful with their language. They are keenly aware of the ways in which any word they speak may be interpreted or misinterpreted by journalists and partisan groups and constituencies and demographic groups.
And so in important situations — situations in which they know a lot depends on what they say or don’t say — their language takes on (at least) two peculiar characteristics. First, their syntax tends to abstraction. They speak less about particular things and people — bills, countries, identifiable officials — and more about “legislation” and “the international community” and “officials” and “industry” and “Washington” and “government.”
Second, their sentences take on a higher number of subordinate clauses and qualifying phrases — “over the last several years,” “in general,” “in effect,” “what people are telling me,” and so on. This is the kind of language you use when you’re aware that your words might be misinterpreted or used against you.
When used well, it conveys competence and assures listeners that the speaker thinks coherent thoughts and holds reasonable positions. It suggests that the speaker cares about the truth of his claims. But politicians are frequently too careful with their language, and this conscientiousness can begin to sound like deceit or cowardice. When they rely too heavily on abstractions, when they avoid concrete nouns, when all their statements seem always hedged by qualifying phrases, they sound like politicians, in the worst sense of the word. To my ear, anyway, Hillary Clinton sounds this way almost all the time.
Whether used well or poorly, however, the language of a typical modern politician has a distinctive sound to it. It sounds complex and careful — sometimes sophisticated, sometimes emotive, sometimes artificial or over-scripted, but always circumspect and inevitably disingenuous.
Trump’s language is from another rhetorical tradition entirely.
Consider his hour-long media availability on Sept. 3, just after he’d signed a “loyalty pledge” that he wouldn’t run as a third-party candidate if he loses the nomination. Some of his answers last only a few seconds, some are slightly longer, but almost all consist of simple sentences, grammatically and conceptually, and most of them withhold their most important word or phrase until the very end.
Trump’s sentences end with a pop, and he seems to know instinctively where to put the emphasis in each one.
Near the beginning of the news conference, he says: “I don’t need money. I don’t want money. And this is going to be a campaign, I think, like no other. I’m not controlled by lobbyists. I’m not controlled by anybody.”
This is not the language of a typical politician.
Someone asks Trump about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s remark that he, Christie, didn’t need the chairman of the Republican National Committee to meet with him in order to beg him to sign a loyalty pledge. Another politician — a politician wanting to take a shot at Christie — might have answered, “Well I’m not sure why anybody would need Governor Christie to sign a loyalty pledge, given his standing in the polls right now.”
That would have gotten a chuckle. But Trump worded his answer far better: “Well, you don’t have to be met when you’re at 2 percent.”
His comedic instinct, I think, told him it was worth some awkward wording at the beginning of the sentence (“you don’t have to be met”) in order to put the words “2 percent” at the very end. Pop. Hardy laughter.
Trump’s lengthier answers, too, involve mostly short, grammatically uncomplicated sentences, with very few of the complicating phrases you hear from an ordinary politician who’s trying hard not to say something obviously false or stupid. Oftentimes his answers, when transcribed one sentence per line, read like free verse poetry. Asked a question about Jeb Bush, for instance, Trump replies:
“Jeb Bush is a very nice man.
“I’ll be honest; I think he’s a very nice person.
“I think he’s a very low-energy person, and I don’t think that’s what the country needs.
“I hear that he’s going to spend a lot of money on negative ads on me, and honestly — look, he’s getting the money from special interests.
“He’s getting the money from lobbyists and his donors.
“And they’re making him do it because he’s crashing in the polls.
“So I don’t know what’s gonna happen.
“If he spends $20 million or $25 million on negative ads, I don’t know.
“I know that my life will continue.
“I just don’t know.
“I mean, nobody’s ever spent money on ads against me.
“But he probably has to do that, although it would not be the way I would do it.”
His sentences get even shorter when he lapses into his campaign boilerplate. Politicians do this all the time. When the question is general enough, they move quickly from answering it to expatiating on general themes. But when Trump does it, his sentences contract to little more than a subject, a verb, and usually a direct object. Most range between five and fifteen syllables.
“Our country could be doing much better.
“We have deficits that are enormous.
“We have all bad trade agreements.
“We have an army that the head [Gen. Raymond Odierno] said is not prepared.
“We have a military that needs help, and especially in these times.
“We have nuclear weapons that — you look at “60 Minutes” — they don’t even work.
“The phones don’t work.
“They’re 40 years old.
“They have wires that are no good.
“Our country doesn’t work.
“Everybody wins except us.
“We need victories in this country.
“We don’t have victories anymore.
“Our country will be great again, but right now our country has major problems.”
The words themselves are mostly preposterous. Other than “We have deficits that are enormous” and the one about Odierno, they range between laughable exaggeration and nonsense. What makes them effective in their way is that they don’t sound like political speech. Politicians in modern democracies just don’t talk this way.
Trump makes no effort — or seems to make no effort — to measure the effect of his propositions on different constituencies. He seems genuinely unaware that anybody might try to pick them apart. He makes no effort to hedge his statements or phrase them in such a way that they are at least defensible. Indeed, you don’t feel you’re listening to a politician at all. You feel you’re listening to a man who has rejected the conventions of electoral politics altogether — someone who’s opted out of the whole charade.
The result, for probably the great majority following politics, is alternately comical and horrifying.
But for people who’ve grown weary of politicians using vague and convoluted language to lull or impress their listeners, to preserve their options and to avoid criticism, Trump sounds refreshingly clear and forthright.
I don’t share their view, but I find it hard to blame them.
Barton Swaim worked for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, from 2007-10. He is author of “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics.”