He gave his first press conference in 168 days, but last Wednesday, Donald Trump broadcast a rhetoric that was less President-elect and more one-man-brand. However, many commented on the composure and restraint of Trump in the press conference, frequently absent from his Twitter feed. Whilst his speech was certainly more polished, some linguistic quirks from Trump’s speech last year on the campaign trail are “a tricky” to shake off.
Despite criticism of Trump’s syntax, word choice and flow of his delivery, he resonates with the people through the simplicity of his language – and this is not a negative critique. In the footsteps of other prominent political figures, presenting yourself as a man or woman of all the people through a smaller vocabulary and a more informal register ensures you can reach all said people.
With just three days until Trump’s inauguration, I decided to dust off my linguistic cap and examine Trump’s Linguistic style in his press conference, politics aside.
“It’s going to be totally awesome”
Ok, I didn’t pull the quote from Wednesday’s press conference, and it is unlikely it pops up in other speeches from the President-elect. However, the grammar involved in this two-word collocation is something Trump evokes again and again. Let’s totally focus on “awesome“. An innocent adjective at first glance, it is simply used to provide further description of the object or subject it refers to. What is different about adjectives such as awesome, however, is that their semantic meaning over time has been diluted through overuse. As a result, they are “empty” adjectives which don’t add much in the way of semantic meaning compared to “blue” or “curious”. Rather, they are there to either soften the force of a sentence or provide emotional emphasis.
Taking that into account, spot the favourite empty adjective, “beautiful”. Appearing four times in the speech, Trump applies the adjective to his inauguration ceremony, his politics and the door within the controversial wall he aims to build once in office.
“The 20th is going to be something that will be very, very special; very beautiful.”
If Trump had a preferential empty adjective, he is also fond of the adverb of degree, “very”, which appears 81 times and “great” to a lesser extent within the press conference. The overuse of these adverbs can suggest the speaker is intentionally trying to put too much emphasis on a point and might be detrimental in persuading an audience. However, the President-elect swims against the normative political discourse tide with ease. This approach strengthens the association of a message through repetition. According to University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman, Trump doesn’t repeat phrases and adjectives just because he is stalling for time but rather to provide emphasis on his points. Take a look at the adjective “careful” in the quote below.
I am extremely careful. I’m surrounded by bodyguards. I’m surrounded by people.
And I always tell them — anywhere, but I always tell them if I’m leaving this country, “Be very careful, because in your hotel rooms and no matter where you go, you’re gonna probably have cameras.” I’m not referring just to Russia, but I would certainly put them in that category.
And number one, “I hope you’re gonna be good anyway. But in those rooms, you have cameras in the strangest places. Cameras that are so small with modern technology, you can’t see them and you won’t know. You better be careful, or you’ll be watching yourself on nightly television.”
I tell this to people all the time. I was in Russia years ago, with the Miss Universe contest, which did very well — Moscow, the Moscow area did very, very well.
And I told many people, “Be careful, because you don’t wanna see yourself on television. Cameras all over the place.”
Trump’s Non-Verbal Modality
Research suggests that when a person’s nonverbal communication jars with what they are saying, an audience tends to focus more on visual cues rather than the speaker’s content. According to Linguist Jennifer Sclafani (Atkins 2015), Trump is “turning political discourse into reality TV”. Pay attention to his most frequent hand gesture. Utilising a big, open-palm, with a double-hand downward motion mimics his big personality, making himself physically wider. Compare this to Obama’s go-to gesture, the precision-grip. Obama keeps this hand gesture small, low and close to the body. This may be viewed as a kind of gestural highlighting that indexes an underdetermined ‘focus’ effect, getting “straight to the point”. On the other hand, Trump occupies a larger gestural space depending on his immediate environment when referring to himself. Interestingly his gestural performances in pre-election debates of opponents such as Clinton were enacted in small gestural spaces (Hall, 2016).
Visual cues or natural codes as stated by Tim Warton (2003) point the audience in a certain direction and can help “fill-in-the-blanks”. Trump’s delivery can sometimes be disjointed, resulting in greater cohesiveness when watching a speech as opposed to reading the transcript.
“This apparent incoherence has two main causes: false starts and parentheticals. Both are effectively signalled 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.”
Help, There’s a Third Person in my Relationship!
Speaking in third person, also known as illeism, places Donald Trump alongside the likes of Pelé, Salvador Dali and Bob Dole. Whilst the temerity of displaying an apparent narcissistic flair does little to quash his sceptics, illeism is not a phenomenon new to Trump. It made an appearance in 2009 during Miss World.
“In the old days, you got what you got. Now, Trump picks them. It makes a big difference.”
In last week’s press conference, Trump brings out illeist Trump when defending his relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset, not a liability”
Transferring a human relationship onto the schema of business and finance, Trump reiterates and draws attention to his background as well as the importance of its success. We could even take it one step further and map the United States and Russia as countries onto Trump and Putin respectively. He is, therefore, stressing the importance of a positive cross-country alliance.
Whilst there is no one reason for the use of the third person in general, consider this psychological explanation. A study by Koss et al. in 2014 found that referring to yourself in the third person compared to “I” in a stressful situation helped you to perform better. This was due to creating emotional distance from the speaker and the subject, which in turn encouraged them to be more self-motivating and calmer. However this was more focused on self-talk, an introspective dialogue, a subject thinking aloud to themselves for example, such as “Ok Sarah, you’ve got this!”
Koss states that use of the third person in conversation as in Trump’s case constitutes a different phenomenon. I believe here, that by putting himself into a third person, “Donald Trump” here constitutes more of a brand. It depersonifies his physical state, packaging his “yuuge” personality and attributes into a marketable and quotable entity. This resonates with a comment from Linguist George Lakoff who states, “he has been doing this for a very long time as a salesman — that’s what he is best at.”
(Feature Image: Trump, Gage Skidmore )