Eloquence in the Age of Trump

by Kit Toda

‘There’s a huge myth surrounding eloquence,’ writes David Crystal. 'It’s thought to be only for the gifted, or for the great and the good on prominent public occasions. All books on eloquence reinforce the myth, because they want to show the artistic heights that homo eloquens can reach.’ He admits that ‘I’m no different. My chief illustrations have been of well-known figures talking at important events.’

Crystal does himself some injustice; there is a slight but significant difference in stress between The Gift of the Gab and other books on eloquence. Despite his use of famous speeches, his is less a study into the art of eloquence and more an instruction manual with direct, concrete advice. Chapter headings like ‘How long have I got?’ and ‘Who am I talking to?’ signal clearly which specific issues and techniques will be considered. If he reinforces the myth, he also explicitly emphasises that anyone can attain the gift. But what is this gift?

Our criteria for what constitutes eloquence may vary a little and has adapted somewhat over time (we are increasingly likely to make accusations of pretentiousness, for example), but there has never been a huge reversal in its definition. Crystal himself suggests a seven-point list: ‘fluent’, ‘personal’, ‘appropriate’, ‘heightened’, ‘clear’, ‘memorable’ and ‘reactive’.

‘[F]or me’, he writes, ‘top marks for eloquence would go to anyone rated highly on all seven points.’ Barack Obama is one of them: his ‘Yes we can’ victory speech occupies a central role in this book as an exemplar of rhetorical excellence. But after November's shock presidential election result, it is impossible not to compare Obama’s oratory with that of America’s next president. For many, the election of Trump has sent a great crack running through our assumptions of the world. To theorise about eloquence might appear somewhat trivial in comparison to this global shudder of horror. It is, however, central to understanding what has happened.

Trump has been a presidential candidate like no other. Yet it was this very difference that won him the election. And one of the reasons for this difference is that he spoke like no other. Obama is eloquent – his political enemies, far from grudgingly admitting this, made use of it. The gift of the gab can be a gift with a sting – as Crystal readily acknowledges, ‘Fantastic political eloquence has its critics’:

If you are too eloquent, your opponents will accuse you of being facile, glib, only a wordsmith. ‘It’s time for action from the man of words’ said a headline in the Telegraph (18 January 2009), and the writer went on: ‘Barack Obama has a remarkable gift for oratory, but does it mask a fatal indecisiveness?’ The criticism was repeatedly made throughout his administration.

But the leap from the ‘fantastic political eloquence’ of Obama to Trump’s mangled soup of half-started phrases and interjections is certainly one to induce vertigo. Trump was frequently accused of talking ‘nonsense’ about foreign policy, about the economy, about healthcare – but the nonsense starts before this. His speeches make little syntactical sense. Slate magazine sarcastically referred to him as the ‘ever-eloquent Republican presidential candidate’, while calling for help diagramming a particularly unstructured sentence by him. I quote a shorter extract:

….you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, 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—….

This bears no resemblance to any received definition of eloquence. Yet the people in his rallies went wild. If we judge from results, Trump’s speeches are highly successful. Does this mean he is eloquent? If so, one has to ask again: what is eloquence? The Gift of the Gab (which was published in May of 2016 long before the presidential election result and presumably written before Trump’s rise) makes a point which might partially explain Trump’s rhetorical success against all the rules:

The proverbial wisdom of generations takes up the theme. Never trust eloquent people. Don’t believe what they say. Words won’t get a job done.
The danger is present for anyone who tries to speak well, not just politicians. It’s possible for a wedding speech to sound insincere, or a lecture to sound thoughtless, if it’s spoken in too smoothly loquacious a manner. It can also place a strain on the listener. As Blaise Pascal said, ‘Continuous eloquence wearies.’
When we talk to each other in daily life, our language is spontaneous, unplanned, informal. It’s not carefully crafted, as it would be in a formal speech or when reading a prepared text. We hesitate, repeat ourselves, leave sentences loosely connected and unfinished, avoid being absolutely precise, and add tiny remarks—they’re often called ‘fillers’—that tell our listener we’re working out what to say or how to say it.

One of the defining moments of the Republican primaries was when Marco Rubio repeated the same sentences, word for word, four times during a debate. Rubio humiliated himself. He gave himself away as a man who panics and falls back on prepared soundbites, which implies not just incompetence but, worse, insincerity. If Obama is an exemplar of eloquence, then Rubio is an anti-exemplar for the ‘carefully crafted’ speech as trap.

But what, then, is Trump? Is he an example of ‘sounding natural’ taken to an extreme? However incoherent or even abusive Trump’s speech is, one can at least say this: he could not make the same type of oratorical mistake as Rubio.

Unsurprisingly, given the amount of coverage Trump has received, there have been some attempts to grapple with the mystery of Trump’s speech style. Mark Liberman at the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania has contributed many posts on the linguistic aspects of the presidential election on their Language Log blog. In one he draws particular attention to Trump’s ‘propensity for repetitive rhetoric’, providing a graph which demonstrates the substantial difference between the ‘lexical exhibition’ of Trump versus the other four Republican candidates in the CNN debate. (Cruz, Rubio, Bush and Fiorina all displayed a similar breadth of vocabulary in their speech while Trump’s vocabulary was significantly narrower.)

Liberman’s research has been cited by a number of articles, most notably ThinkProgress, which also asked him to compare, in detail, the speeches of Jeb Bush and Trump. He found that not only does Trump have a smaller vocabulary, he generally uses shorter, less complex words. A Washington Post article reports on another academic study, which found that Trump’s grade level in readability (vocabulary + grammar) was lower than all the other 2016 candidates. (His grammar score was, however, higher than that of George W. Bush although Bush had a significantly higher vocabulary score.)

But what does this all mean for our definition of eloquence?

In response to the Slate magazine call to diagram the speech quoted above, Geoffrey K. Pullum at LanguageLog trenchantly denied that there was ‘any structure in there to diagram’, adding that he thinks that Trump has ‘barely a coherent thought in his head.’ Liberman, however disagrees.  ‘In my opinion’, he writes, Pullum has ‘been misled by a notorious problem: the apparent incoherence of much transcribed extemporized speech, even when the same material is completely comprehensible and even eloquent in audio or audio-visual form.’ He states that the extract is ‘entirely comprehensible and in the context of the speech as a whole, even eloquent.’

John McWhorter, an associate professor of English at Columbia agrees, claiming that Trump is, quite simply, ‘extremely articulate’. ‘Oh not in the conventional way’, he admits immediately. But he makes a strong case for the ‘narcotic’ appeal of colloquialism, the impression it can give of being ‘real’ and ‘sincere’ – the other side to David Crystal’s warning that ‘smoothly loquacious’ speech can sound insincere.

Crystal’s solution to this problem is to give the impression of spontaneity:

Judicious pauses, along with a cautious use of other features of everyday speech, can enhance eloquence by helping to hide its artifice and to introduce a linguistic empathy with the audience, who instinctively identify with them, because they recognize them from their own daily conversational experience. But the operative words are ‘judicious’ and ‘cautious’.

But there is nothing ‘cautious’ in the way Trump normally uses choppy syntax, unfinished sentences, interrupted thoughts, unnecessary repetition and other signs of what could generously be called ‘spontaneity’. It is very far from the ‘judicious pauses’ that Crystal approvingly identifies in the recording of Obama’s speech.

In fact, both Liberman and McWhorter, despite controversially asserting that Trump is ‘eloquent’ or even ‘extremely articulate’, also suggest that his speech bears a close resemblance to that of someone completely drunk. Liberman links to a satirical YouTube clip of ‘Drunk Trump’, saying it comes ‘pretty close’ to his rhetorical style, while McWhorter writes, ‘This is the way you talk over beer (or under the table).’ Are we really to accept then, that something very like incoherent drunken repetitiveness can be called ‘eloquent’ and ‘articulate’?

No. However much Trump’s speeches stirred the crowds and won him the most powerful position in the world, we cannot be made to believe that this lack of fluidity and clarity is the new eloquence. Crystal’s meticulous and engaging analysis of ‘what really lies behind the “gift of the gab”’ cannot be so easily repudiated in the face of a seeming exception. But I am being unfair – my difference in opinion to that of Liberman and McWhorter is, I suspect, more a question of vocabulary than anything else. As McWhorter writes, Trump’s ‘linguistic power’ is an ‘antipower’. Where he writes ‘extremely articulate’, I would say, rather, ‘extremely effective’. Rhetoric is merely the practice of speaking effectively, in a way that influences people. Trump is not eloquent, but he has a command of rhetoric that has proven terribly effective with a large section of the American populace.

Notwithstanding my earlier remark that Trump spoke like no other, it is true that his rhetorical style ‘isn’t coming out of nowhere’. As McWhorter writes, Trump ‘is part of an America that has gone ever more “cazh” when it comes to public language since the 1960s.’ Crystal recognises the same trend:

What struck me more than anything else was the oratorical shift in the use of conversational features from the time of Asquith to that of Blair. I heard none in the Asquith speech—presumably a reflection of the greater formality of discourse used in the days of early radio recording—but many in the speeches and interviews of recent times.

(Casualness itself can, of course, come across as desperate and inauthentic – the mocking title of Michael Ashcroft’s biography of David Cameron, Call Me Dave pays testament to this.)

When I set my students to study Orwell’s Politics and the English Language followed by ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra’, one of them made the acute observation that although both concerned the abuse of language in political speech, the nature of the abuse was oppositional. Orwell appeared to think that the only thing we must defend against in political discourse was the euphemistic ‘inflated style’, one that substitutes ‘pacification’ for ‘huts set on fire with incendiary bullets’ and ‘a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant’ for ‘I believe in killing off your opponents.’ He warns against pretentious language and advocates simplicity.

Casualness in political speech is something that Allen Ginsberg railed against in ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra’ (1966), where he indignantly and repeatedly quotes Robert McNamara’s admission that he made a ‘Bad Guess’ in the early stages of the Vietnam War. Ginsberg was, of course, not yearning for a bygone age of rhetorical formality, rather he was appalled by the trivialising casualness of the language used to signify something which resulted in ‘Flesh soft as a Kansas girl’s/ ripped open by metal explosion.’ It is horror masked by rough informality instead of pretentious diction. McWhorter identifies a similar danger but takes it further, suggesting that his casualness ‘makes his racist biases go down easier,’ adding that ‘just about anything goes over more easily from someone talking in a way that sounds sincere because of its form – or, more specifically, a lack thereof.’

I doubt if this is really the case. Vague casualness can mask the ugliness that lies behind it. The casual word ‘trolling’ for example, when used to describe sending rape threats, euphemises the crime. It benefits from the word’s informal vagueness, its association with a bit of hilarious teasing collected in Buzzfeed articles illustrated with cat gifs. But does the following sort of language, this ‘antipower’, make racial (or sexist) biases go down easier?

I do business with the Mexican people, but you have people coming through the border that are from all over. And they're bad. They're really bad. You have people coming in, and I'm not just saying Mexicans — I'm talking about people that are from all over that are killers and rapists, and they're coming into this country.

If I were running ‘The View’, I’d fire Rosie O’Donnell. I mean, I’d look at her right in that fat, ugly face of hers, I’d say ‘Rosie, you’re fired.’

The fact is, these comments did not go down easily – the comment about Mexicans in particular elicited a huge negative reaction. An even just slightly more subtle form of racism or sexism – the dog-whistle politics of birtherism or expressing false concern over how Hillary Clinton becoming a grandmother may affect her fitness for office, for example – usually make ugly biases ‘go down easier’ than the blatant nature of many of Trump’s comments. It is no accident that the Front National in France has gained huge advances in elections since they dissociated themselves from the blatant racism of Jean-Marie Le Pen and started presenting themselves as the party that will ‘protect’ French ‘national identity’.

Following the election, a Frenchwoman I know ironically suggested that Dominique Strauss-Khan, seeing that rape allegations were no barrier to holding office, will plan his return to politics. It was bitter satire but it makes an important point. The countless controversial statements Trump made, his mocking of a disabled reporter, the rape and sexual assault allegations, the recording of his boasting about sexual assault – all this would have sunk almost any other candidate. But somehow, for Trump, all it did was feed the fire; it merely strengthened his position. It boosted his image as an anti-establishment renegade battling against a conspiracy set up against him by the Washington elite and their cronies in the liberal media. As with his rhetoric, the rules somehow did not apply.

We have seen, in recent weeks, Trump appointing Steve Bannon, the editor of Breitbart as strategist. We have seen the ‘alt-right’ for whom Breitbart provides a platform, explicitly revealing themselves as Nazis, complete with Hitler salutes. We can see that Trump appeals to and rehabilitates the extreme right into the mainstream. McWhorter says that ‘Trump talk’ may be ‘a predictable manifestation of the pathway from 1890 to 2016,’ but it is less a logical conclusion than a logical extreme. Perhaps the extreme nature of his casual style is merely a reflection of the extreme nature of his politics.

Given the prominence given to Obama’s oratory in this book, it is worth remembering that there were many eloquent denunciations of Trump’s extremism. Clearly, eloquence alone was not enough. Can we emulate Trump’s ineloquence, his ‘antipower’ instead? It seems doubtful. Unlike eloquence, which has rules and characteristics, Trump’s ineloquent yet devastatingly effective oratory is not something that would necessarily work for anyone else. If Trump has the ‘gift of the gab’, it is not one we’ve seen before, at least not at such political heights. While there are precedents to his casual style, his ‘sincere’ ineloquence, Trump remains an exception or perhaps, more terrifyingly, a pioneer in the new acceptance of bigoted drunken bar talk as high political discourse.

David Crystal's The Gift of the Gab: How Eloquence Works is published by Yale University Press.