Anyone who reads through or watches a handful of Donald Trump’s interviews with the media will immediately come to the conclusion that he doesn’t speak like your average politician. Trump has a different way of speaking – in terms of phrasing, vocabulary, mannerisms, and temperament – than any other modern presidential candidate. Most of his supporters love it. To them, it’s a refreshing change of pace from listening to the usual smooth and polished rhetoric of career politicians, often filled with empty words and promises. He’s down to earth. He gets them.
To others (myself included), Trump’s way of speaking appears to fall down on the other end of the spectrum – so unpolished and so disconnected that it lacks any coherence and substance altogether.
Back in March, when the presidential primaries were still underway, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute (LTI) compiled the candidates’ vocabulary and grammar from their speeches to find which grade level each of them spoke at. According to the press release:
A readability analysis of presidential candidate speeches… finds most candidates using words and grammar typical of students in grades 6-8, though Donald Trump tends to lag behind the others.
Another previous study by the Boston Globe found that Trump typically speaks at around a 4th-grade level (4.1 on their scale). For comparison, Ted Cruz was 8.9, Rubio was 8.6, Kasich was 4.7, Bernie Sanders was 10.1, and Clinton was 7.7. Apart from Kasich, most of the final contenders were at least two grades above Trump in their level of speaking.
While some Trump supporters have reacted to this as evidence that Trump is “down to earth” or “talks like one of us,” it really seems to serve as evidence of Trump’s deficits in his ability to communicate his thoughts and intentions clearly. Some of Trump’s rhetoric can almost come off as so basic and simplified that it feels like a parody of itself. For instance, from the Boston Globe:
By every criteria in the algorithm, Trump is speaking at the lowest level. He used fewer characters per word in his announcement speech, fewer syllables per word, and his sentences were shorter than all other candidates.
His vocabulary is filled with words like “huge,” “terrible,” “beautiful.” He speaks in punchy bursts that lack nuance. It’s all easily grasped, whether it’s his campaign theme (“Make America Great Again”), words about his wealth (“I’m really rich”), or his disparagement of the Washington culture (“Politicians are all talk, no action”).
He dismisses his opponents with snippy sound bites that, if polls are to be believed, have been devastatingly effective — such as when he labeled Jeb Bush “low-energy.”
Whether or not one is a fan of Trump’s simply-worded rhetoric and basic vocabulary, the fact remains that a presidential candidate is required to talk about important and complicated issues that require a high level of grammatical precision to communicate. A presidential candidate has to speak about the economy, trade, alliances, geopolitics, and social issues. Each of these categories comes with its own set of vocabulary that a presidential candidate would be wise to understand and learn to utilize. When a candidate like Trump speaks about a highly-sensitive issue, a single slip of the tongue or an error in syntax can potentially communicate a message opposite of the one intended – and when that person is a contender for the position of President of the United States, those errors can have consequences. And this isn’t even touching on the fact that Trump appears to have a compulsion to speak his mind without weighing the impact of his words. For instance, Trump’s comments about NATO on July 21st caused a great deal of panic among some of our allies:
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump sent alarm rippling through Eastern Europe after he said the U.S. would only defend NATO states attacked by Russia if those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us,” his strongest comments to date on the military alliance’s future if he enters the White House.
Anyone running for president should recognize that a pledge to dishonor a trusted alliance will potentially lead to destabilization and panic, and is likely a type of rhetoric that is unwise to throw out offhandedly in an interview.
However, Donald Trump’s juvenile speaking level and tendency to not weigh his words is only part of the issue. Having a simple vocabulary is not necessarily a bad thing in every circumstance. The LTI study above found that George W. Bush communicated at a 5th-grade speaking level, which was slightly below Trump’s in that study. However, most people would agree that although Bush was not the most skilled orator in modern presidential history, he was still able to reach a level of clear and substantial communication that Trump fundamentally lacks. This has to do partially with the syntax of Trump’s speech. For those who are unfamiliar, syntax refers to the way in which words are arranged in a sentence in a way that makes for clear communication.
Trump often appears to have troubles stringing together his thoughts in a way that communicates them clearly and effectively. While the offhanded speeches Trump gives at his rallies are not all that substantive and insightful, one can usually understand what he’s trying to talk about. However, as soon as Trump is asked by an interviewer to explain one of his positions on, say, a foreign policy issue, there is no knowing what might come out of his mouth. Sometimes he can stumble his way through an answer that will make at least some sense to listeners, but more often than not his answer sounds like a jumbled string of filler words and go-to phrases. Take, for instance, Trump’s recent interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC. Stephanopoulos asked Trump about his and his campaign’s softening of the GOP platform on Ukraine:
STEPHANOPOULOS: They took away the part of the platform calling for the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine to defend themselves.
Why is that a good idea?
TRUMP: Well, look, you know, I have my own ideas. He’s not going into Ukraine, OK?
Just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right?
You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?
TRUMP: OK, well, he’s there in a certain way, but I’m not there yet. You have Obama there. And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama, with all the strength that you’re talking about and all of the power of NATO and all of this, in the meantime, he’s going where — he takes — takes Crimea, he’s sort of — I mean…
STEPHANOPOULOS: But you said you might recognize that.
TRUMP: I’m going to take a look at it. But, you know, the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were. And you have to look at that, also.
While one might be able to make some sense of what Trump is trying to say after reading through his response a couple of times and parsing things out, his answer sounds like incoherent nonsense on the first read-through. Trump’s response seems to be composed of one part ignorance of the issue at hand and one part complete inability to communicate his thoughts in a coherent way.
If this type of interview response were given by another presidential candidate, we could assume they were having an off day or were distracted by indigestion. But Trump doesn’t just give this kind of answer occasionally. Most of his interview responses sound like this. Imagine President Trump trying to speak to another powerful world leader, completely unable to form coherent sentences. That should be enough to keep you up at night.