It’s not hard to recognize the hallmarks of a speech by President Trump. Part businessman, part politican, part emcee, he adopts phrases and goes back to them over and over again. He punctuates sentences with a smattering of superlatives and decisive adjectives – Great! Wrong! SAD! He makes promises and assurances that are verbal equivalents of the forceful handshake he so often employs.
To help us parse these presidential words, we enlisted the help of Jennifer Sclafani, an associate professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, who wrote a popular piece on Trump for Scientific American.
Said in 26 speeches
“The interpretation of this one depends on the ear of the beholder,” says Sclafani. “To supporters, it likely sounds like a reassurance coming from a president they already trust and believe. To critics, it may sound like a desperate command from a leader who isn’t naturally believable.
“But this phrase – or as linguists call it, a discourse marker – has an interactional function that serves as a cue to his audience.”
During a long speech, a phrase like “believe me” tells the audience to pay attention, and serves to highlight or reiterate a certain point.
Said in 12 speeches
Such phrases “may be interpreted as reassurances as a confident leader or businessman,” Sclafani says. “These constructions … present a positive outlook and optimistic view of what the president can and will accomplish for the nation.”
Said in 9 speeches
“[Trump has a] predilection for speaking in generalities,” Sclafani says. “These general expressions can be seen as having multiple functions, but oftentimes the president uses them to provoke a reaction in his audience – of shock, dismay, or disgust.”
Said in 6 speeches
“Trump tends to talk in personally evaluative terms - both positively and negatively - about his contemporaries. During his campaign, he was better known for his personal insults, but he is also a very complimentary president,” Sclafani says. “HIs compliments, however, tend to be less substantial in terms of touting the complimentee’s professional credentials or abilities, and are rather generally evaluative.”
Said in 8 speeches
“These expressions remind me of what [linguist George] Lakoff refers to as the ‘Strict Father’ model of government, in which the nation is a family and the president is seen as the parent,” Sclafani says. “Conservatives, Lakoff argues, adopt a ‘strict father’ view of the nation-as-family, in which the president-parent is the authoritarian and disciplinarian, but also the protector of the family.”
“I was also struck by the frequency of these expressions occuring in the plural – we vs. I – given that his campaign rhetoric was very ‘I’ (individually) focused,” she adds. “In this sense, since becoming president, one could say that there has been a shift in his language to expressions connoting national unity, whereas his campaign speeches were focused largely on what he could do himself as an individual.”
Said in 6 speeches
This is another example of Trump’s consistent pattern of compliments. If Trump is talking about “incredible,” people, he is most likely talking about the military or law enforcement. Of the six times he’s said the phrase in public speeches, four were in reference to law enforcement, one was in reference to the Navy, and one was in reference to those “who serve our country in uniform.”
Said in 7 speeches
“The exact amount of money is not important to convey his message, as what may sound like ‘a lot’ to some may not to others, depending on their personal economic background,” Sclafani says. “So expressions like ‘a lot of money’ and ‘billions and billions of dollars’ are ways of conveying the idea of an expensive undertaking while not having to provide specifics (which he may not have).”
Said in 5 speeches
“Winning” is one of Trump’s favorite persuasive motifs. Like his use of “beautiful” and “great,” the idea of “winning” invokes an immediate reaction. Winning is good. Winning is what people want to be. It also frames everything as a challenge, a competition to be won, which definitely echoes Trump’s competitive personal nature and business background.
It also harkens back to one of his most iconic campaign moments. At a rally in Albany, New York in April 2016, Trump delivered a passionate acclamation that was full of “win:”
If you are counting, that is 13 “wins” in the span of a few sentences.
What it all means
“In general, Trump’s rhetorical style as president can be seen as an extension of his style as an executive in the business world. This is especially apparent when we compare his style to previous presidents and his opponents in the 2016 election,” Sclafani says.
“By contrast, others come off as overly hesitant, academic, or wonkish. Trump doesn’t bother to get bogged down by details … He presents himself as a visionary type of leader, focused solely on his vision for the future of the country.”