His tweets are notorious, his speeches snappy: Although US President Donald Trump is not necessarily known as eloquent, his rhetoric reaches millions of Americans. The two Mainz linguists Ulrike Schneider and Matthias Eitelmann, in collaboration with linguists from all over the world, have published an anthology that reveals the rhetorical tricks and peculiarities in the republican’s language. In an interview with ntv.de they also explain what he wants to say with his body.
ntv.de: Short sentences, simple language, a lot of repetitions – this is known about Trump’s style of speech: What else defines his rhetoric?
Matthias Eitelmann: Trump’s language was often referred to as that of a fifth or sixth grader. This assumption is based on a test that primarily measures the legibility of written texts. From a scientific perspective, spoken language cannot be compared with written language. In this respect, such general assumptions should be treated with caution.
So is Trump’s rhetoric better than its reputation?
Eitelmann: Not necessarily. One can say that Trump uses simple language and tends to repeat patterns. In this way he can convey his message to the audience very easily – even if it is often empty of content.
Anyone who follows Trump’s campaign appearances might think that he is just talking about it – without a common thread. How well considered is his language?
Ulrike Schneider: He often has a teleprompter. Then the text is prepared by his staff and of course very carefully considered. But he likes to deviate from it. When he does that, he repeats himself more strongly. But he has tried out a lot of things that seem like indolent speech in his election campaign speeches.
Trump’s interviews are – literally put on paper – often hardly legible. Why do his followers still like to listen to him?
Schneider: It works a bit like a conversation between friends. There is often a moment when you have to laugh and say: “If someone from the outside would hear that now!” In the Freundeskreis we are all privy to it. We know what we are talking about and how something is meant. An outsider can often no longer follow this. When a president talks to me like that, it creates closeness – a sense of community.
They think it makes him more approachable.
I agree. It’s an exciting effect. Up until 100 years ago, politicians tried to use a very eloquent syntax – especially in the big, important speeches. These transcripts were incredibly complex. This is something we would rather expect in written language today. Presidents used to speak to invited guests – the educated elite. It was only when the radio came on that you realized that you had to speak to the people. So the speeches were tailored to the people. It was no longer primarily a matter of conveying competence, but rather being closer to the people. This trend has continued with television. With his tweets, Donald Trump is the most extreme continuation of this change today. He tries to express his closeness to the people using a medium that seems to send his messages unfiltered, and using a language that is closer to that in the pub than what one is otherwise used to from politicians.
In the book, you discuss Trump’s inflationary use of the definite article “the”. He also says “very” eight times more often than other politicians. What is he doing with it?
Schneider: These are two very different principles. “The” is about using the definitive article in combination with groups. It makes a difference whether I say, “Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas” or “Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas”. The latter suggests much more strongly that it is a homogeneous group to which one does not belong: in the case of “the Muslims” everyone is equal. You are the other. Trump does this not only often with ethnic minorities (such as “the Hispanics” or “the African-Americans”), but he also says “the Democrats”. But what he rarely says is “the Republicans”. So he doesn’t use the article by accident. There is a linguistic system behind it.
Eitelmann: Intensifiers like “very” are usually used to underline a message. What makes Trump’s use of the word so unusual is that he uses it with quantifying adjectives – for example with “many” for “very many people” – or with non-gradable adjectives: “dishonest” or “true”. I cannot really exaggerate the terms “dishonest” and “true”. That Trump does it anyway shows the special emotionality of his language. He also likes to use other intensifiers like “totally” together with negative adjectives to underline his attitude towards people or institutions.
Trump was often accused of inciting people with his good-bad rhetoric to violence against those who think differently. How justified do you think that is?
Eitelmann: This demarcation between good and bad, black and white, can be seen very clearly in his rhetoric. This is typically populist: Trump emphasizes the contrast between the elite and the people, although he relates this very much to himself. He is the one who fights against the elite – as the savior of the people.
Schneider: For Trump, the elite is a political one, not a financial one – because he belongs to it himself. He doesn’t attack her, he gives her tax breaks. And he is also rather skeptical of the educational elite, especially when it comes to corona findings. But this system is permeable. Individual journalists, whom he initially rated very positively, brought a report that did not suit him – and suddenly they were given a negative nickname and were counted among the elite. Who is a friend and who is an enemy can change very quickly.
Still, you don’t think Trump is a flawless populist. Why not?
Schneider: Trump makes use of this standard rhetorical pattern of a clear good and bad. He says, for example, that urgent action is required to restore an earlier, unspecified, glorious state. But he does not do all of this ostensibly for the people, but for his own election success.
If you look at the current phase of the election campaign: Do you have the impression that Trump has further developed his language?
Eitelmann: He’s sticking to his tried and tested strategies – and taking them to new extremes. These strong demarcations, his nicknames for opponents, the rejection of scientific opinions in favor of anecdotal storytelling are still his means of choice.
You describe him as a storyteller.
Eitelmann: This is evident again and again in the discourse on environmental policy. Trump denies that there is climate change. He discredits all scientific findings and instead talks about what he has seen with his own eyes. For example, he himself was in burning forests and found that poor forest management was the cause of the fires. He wraps that up in nice anecdotes, replacing science in her ivory tower.
What do you think of the way he addresses his supporters in the corona pandemic? He often calls the virus the “China Virus” …
Schneider: In addition to the political elite, “the others” from whom Trump wants to distance himself can of course also be people from outside. Calling the coronavirus “China Virus” is useful here. That makes the virus something strange, un-American. There is also an interesting symbolic image in Trump’s handling of his own corona disease: as a leader, he has to present himself as extraordinary on the one hand because he wants to be elected. On the other hand, the strong division between the elite and the people means that he usually has to work in order not to be assigned to the wrong side. Trump even presents himself as a kind of incarnation of the people. His physical body stands for the people. After his corona infection, he now presents it in his speeches as if he had gotten through the disease with minimal symptoms and that means for the whole of America: It’s not that bad at all. According to the motto: If I’m fine, everyone else is fine too.
That reminds a bit of his appearance on the balcony of the White House when he was visibly gasping for breath. What does his body say when Trump says nothing more?
Schneider: As linguists, of course, we primarily look at his choice of words. But Trump is talking about his body – even before Corona. The earlier debates about the size of his hands or his hairstyle may have seemed ridiculous at first, but they fit into the image of his physical body as a symbol of his politics: if his body is weak, his politics are weak too. So he must argue that he is perceived as strong. That’s why he gets involved in this body discussion.
And it helps him not to have to become content.
Eitelmann: The content is not Trump’s strength. He does not argue factually or empirically. For this reason, such debates are more of a template for him to swivel over to emotional topics.
Judith Görs spoke to Ulrike Schneider and Matthias Eitelmann.