Tuesday night on Fox News Channel, White House adviser Stephen Miller made a bold claim: “President Trump’s the most gifted politician of our time, and he’s the best orator to hold that office in generations.”
In search of some historical context about political speech-giving and Trump’s place in that firmament, I reached out to Barton Swaim, who spent three years as a speechwriter for then-South Carolina Republican Gov. Mark Sanford – an experience he wrote about in his critically acclaimed memoir “The Speechwriter.” Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: On Tuesday night, Stephen Miller said this: “President Trump’s the most gifted politician of our time and he’s the best orator to hold that office in generations.” I want to focus in on the “orator” part. Do you agree with Miller’s assessment?
Swaim: No, and somehow I suspect Miller didn’t even intend for people to agree with it. It sounds to me like he’s learned how to troll — to say something so outrageous or confusing or counterintuitive that, indefensible though the statement may be, the conversation takes a turn toward the thing you wanted it to be about. It’s part of the Dictatorship of the Trolletariat we’re living under.
Cillizza: Let’s talk about Trump’s speaking style. How would you describe it? And is it effective from an oratorical perspective?
Swaim: Trump’s not an “orator” in the ordinary or classic sense at all. But the really interesting thing is that lots of people wouldn’t disagree with Miller. How can this be? I think it’s [about] Trump’s way of speaking; there’s something special about the way he expresses what he thinks—something that makes ordinary politicians, even the honest ones, sound insipid and disingenuous.
He’s an anti-orator, Trump is, and I think that’s a major part of his appeal. In 2016, American politics had reached a point at which language had become so gaseous it made you sick. Not that political language will ever be marked by clarity and honesty — political language has never been honest, really —but most of our politicians now speak constantly in a kind of bland, carefully-hedged stream of content-less verbiage. When Trump speaks, there’s a sharpness about it. And he’s not careful. He doesn’t hedge. Those of us who deal with political stuff for a living are so accustomed to political language as it is that we have trouble appreciating just how different and interesting and refreshing Trump sounds to a lot of people.
Take his comments about North Korea yesterday. Any other politician in the same circumstance would have made some totally forgettable remark about how North Korea was “defying the will of the international community” and how “this behavior is unacceptable” and “we condemn these provocations in the strongest terms” and blah blah. Trump wouldn’t know how to talk like that if he wanted to. So he says any North Korean missile strike — what was it?— “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Leave aside your views of what the US should do on North Korea — I happen to agree with the approach of taking much more aggressive tone with Kim because I don’t think Kim understands any other kind of message, but leave that aside. Trump’s language, once again, holds your attention. “Fire and fury”? Where did he even get that?
So we in the commentariat can wag our fingers and shake our heads if we want, but if we don’t grasp how attractive Trump’s rhetorical style is, we’re dumber than we look.
Cillizza: Does the way Trump speaks – and gives speeches – remind you of anyone in and out of politics? Why or why not?
Swaim: No. I’ve never heard anything like it. The cadence of course is New York, but not like respectable political New York – he doesn’t sound like [Sen. Chuck] Schumer or [former Mayor Rudy] Giuliani or somebody. To me – and I’m not from anywhere near the Northeast, so maybe I don’t know – he sounds like a New York cabbie. Aggressive, irreverent, impatient, a little mean. People who sound like that just aren’t in politics, right?
Cillizza: How central to being a successful president is being a good-to-great-public speaker? And has that changed over the years?
Swaim: American politics doesn’t reward oratory. British politics does – it’s something to do with parliamentary culture, maybe. It always makes me a little sad to notice how many British politicians are capable of writing decent books. Our politicians are good at a lot of things, but stringing words together just isn’t one of them, and never has been. Barack Obama was an exception, obviously, although even he tended more and more toward bland abstraction over time, to the point at which he sounded boring and predictable at the end of his second term.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “Donald Trump is a ________ speaker.” Now, explain.
He’s a physical speaker. I don’t know exactly what I mean. Maybe I mean it the way football commentators refer to some players as “physical.” You hear that and think, “physical”? What, as opposed to “spiritual”? But I think they mean the player is aggressive with his whole person when he plays — there’s no carefulness or worry about accuracy. They just hit and hit hard. That’s Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Or as Stephen Miller would grandly call it, oratory.