When Donald Trump goes off script, transcribing him can be a challenge. As someone covering him during this campaign, I can attest to this. When he’s speaking off the cuff, his rambling remarks can be full of digressions and hard-to-follow tangents. He often jumps to an entirely new thought before finishing his previous one.
Consider this Trump comment on the Iran nuclear deal during a campaign rally in South Carolina on July 21, 2015. Try to follow the train of thought here:
Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, okay, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I'm one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you're a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me — it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what's going to happen and he was right — who would have thought?), but when you look at what's going on with the four prisoners — now it used to be three, now it’s four — but when it was three and even now, I would have said it's all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don't, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years — but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.
Trump’s simple message — "the Iran deal is bad for the United States" — was interrupted by musings on his uncle’s education, his own education, the power of nuclear energy, prisoners, the intelligence of women, and the negotiating prowess of Iranians, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Slate even called on the public to help diagram it.
Others have noticed this as well. "His speeches are full of non sequiturs," says Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a Calvin College historian who has done a comparative study of Trump and Hillary Clinton’s speaking styles. It’s a completely different style from nearly any other politician you normally see on a big stage.
So I was curious if professional linguists and historians could help us figure out what makes Trump unique. Are there any precedents for this speaking style? Is it coherent? Is there a reason it appeals to certain people?
There were lots of disagreements on this front, but one thing stood out: Trump’s speeches aren’t meant to be read. Their seeming incoherence stems from the big difference between written and spoken language. Trump’s style of speaking has its roots in oral culture. He rallies people through impassioned, targeted conversation — even if it doesn’t always follow a clear arc. But is it effective? That’s a much harder question.
Why Trump’s speeches are incomprehensible to some — and make perfect sense to others
Only a few of Trump’s big speeches are scripted. At many of his rallies, by contrast, he speaks off the cuff. We get a lot of unscripted moments, with fractured, unfinished sentences, moving quickly from thought to thought.
To some (or many), this style is completely incoherent. But not everyone feels this way. Many people clearly walk away from Trump rallies having seemingly understood what he said.
Why is that? It’s the difference between reading Trump’s remarks and listening to them in real time. University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman has explained this in more detail:
This apparent incoherence has two main causes: false starts and parentheticals. Both are effectively signaled in speaking — by prosody along with gesture, posture, and gaze — and therefore largely factored out by listeners. But in textual form the cues are gone, and we lose the thread.
In other words, Trump’s digressions and rambles are much easier to follow in person thanks to subtle cues.
Trump’s style of speaking is conversational, and may even stem from his New York City upbringing. As George Lakoff, a linguist at UC Berkeley, told me, "[The] thing about being a New Yorker it is polite if you finish their sentences for them. It’s a natural part of conversation."
This may be why Trump’s sentences often seem, in transcript form, to trail off with no ending. "He knows his audience can finish his sentences for him," Lakoff says.
Watching Trump, it’s easy to see how this plays out. He 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.
Yet to many linguists, Trump stands out for how often he deploys these conversational tics. "Trump's frequency of divergence is unusual," Liberman says. In other words, he goes off topic way more often than the average person in conversation.
Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist at University of Edinburgh, argues that there’s more going on than just a conversational, I’ll-let-you-fill-in-the-gaps-style. Trump’s unorganized sentences and short snippets might suggest something about how his mind works. "His speech suggests a man with scattered thoughts, a short span of attention, and a lack of intellectual discipline and analytical skills," Pullum says.
More sophisticated thinkers and speakers (including many past presidents), Pullum argues, are able to use "hypotaxis — that is, embedding of clauses within clauses." Trump can’t seem to do that.
Pullum explains further: "When you say something like 'While Congress shows no interest in doing X, I feel that the American people believe it is essential,' the clause ‘it is essential’ is inside the clause ‘the American people believe it is essential’ which is inside the clause ‘I feel that the American people believe it is essential,’ and so on. You get no such 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."
Trump’s speeches can be appealing because he uses a lot of salesmen’s tricks
Lakoff, for his part, has an explanation for why Trump’s style of speaking is so appealing to many. Many of Trump’s most famous catchphrases are actually versions of time-tested speech mechanisms that salesmen use. They’re powerful because they help shape our unconscious.
Take, for example, Trump’s frequent use of "Many people are saying..." or "Believe me" — often right after saying something that is baseless or untrue. This tends to sound more trustworthy to listeners than just outright stating the baseless claim, since Trump implies that he has direct experience with what he’s talking about. At a base level, Lakoff argues, people are more inclined to believe something that seems to have been shared.
Or when Trump keeps calling Clinton "crooked," or keeps referring to terrorists as "radical Muslims," he’s strengthening the association through repetition. He also calls his supporters "folks," to show he is one of them (though many politicians employ this trick). Trump doesn’t repeat phrases and adjectives because he is stalling for time, Liberman says; for the most part, he’s providing emphasis and strengthening the association.
These are normal techniques, particularly in conversational speech. "Is he reading cognitive science? No. He has 50 years of experience as a salesman who doesn’t care who he is selling to," Lakoff says. On this account, Trump uses similar methods in his QVC-style pitch of steaks and vodka as when he talks about his plan to stop ISIS.
"He has been doing this for a very long time as a salesman — that’s what he is best at," Lakoff says.
People understand Trump on an emotional level
To some extent, Trump's style has been successful — Trump beat out a highly competitive field of lifelong Republicans to become the party’s nominee. He's confident enough to address large crowds conversationally and ad-lib on stage.
That said, his rise can’t be attributed purely to his speaking style. It certainly has a lot to do with what he is actually saying. "If the content were different, I think it would come across as rambling and flabby and ineffective," Liberman says.
In other words, when Trump’s audience finishes his sentences for him, the blanks are filled with sentiments that resonate: fears of joblessness, worries about the United States losing its status as a major world power, concerns about foreign terrorist organizations. Trump validates their insecurities and justifies their anger. He connects on an emotional level, Du Mez says.
"For listeners who identify with Trump, there is little they need to do but claim what they’re entitled to," she says. "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."
In style alone, however, this "emotional" appeal may not be enough to portray a strong leader. As much as the American people look for authenticity and spontaneity in a president, which Trump seems to have mastered, they are also known to value discipline in their leaders.
"Leadership is hard; it needs discipline, concentration, and an ability to ignore what's irrelevant or needless or personal or silly," Pullum says. "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."