The Rhetoric of Donald Trump


Every successful politician uses language in a distinctive way, and Donald Trump is no exception.

(1) Trump’s campaign slogan is: ‘Make America Great Again!’ The slogan was used by Ronald Reagan in the presidential campaign of 1980. Reagan, like Trump, was known for his comical sound-bites.
The title of Trump’s recent book is:Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again (2015). In other words, America is crippled and Trump is the man to fix it. This is remarkably similar to the rhetoric used in the UK election of 2010 by The Sun newspaper, which ran a series of articles entitled ‘Broken Britain’. This implied that Britain had been ‘broken’ by the Labour government, and that Cameron was the man to fix it.

20151103-trumpTrump has appeared in the US version of The Apprentice for many years, in this TV show the catchphrase is: ‘You’re fired!’ This supports the same narrative. Trump’s supporters wear T-shirts with the message: ‘Obama – you’re fired!’ The message is simple and effective: Obama has failed to run the country, now Trump, the business expert, has to take over and sort things out. Obama is very glamorous, but so too is Trump: he has proved his ability as an expert showman, as the ringmaster of The Apprentice for years. If Trump can preside over a TV show and a property empire, then maybe he can be President, too? To the American public, glamour equals personal credibility (ethos).

(2) Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric stirs the emotions. In terms of classical oratory, he prefers pathos to logos. He uses highly charged negative vocabulary and epithets to describe immigrants. This is bizarre given that America has historically been a country of mass immigration and that the majority of Americans are descended from immigrants. However, the rhetoric of disgust at ‘contagion’ from immigrants provokes fear and implies the need for a strong leader who will ‘stand up to’ ‘the problem’ of immigration. There is an interesting article on the politics of disgust by Alexander Hurst online in New Republic:

Hurst argues that ‘Trump’s success has come not from presenting voters with detailed policy proposals, but from connecting with them on a gut level.’ Disgust is such a powerful, visceral emotion that it effectively bypasses rational thought.

(3) Steven Poole in The Guardian has analysed Trump’s rhetoric and suggests that its main characteristic is its feel-good factor. The key word in Trumpspeak, according to Poole, is ‘so’:

‘Trumpspeak comes close to pure phatic communication: speech with the sole purpose of making the listener feel good, rather than conveying any information. […] Just feel the soaring thrill of the “so”, which efficiently bypasses any ideas of how these things might actually be accomplished.’

Poole’s article shows beautifully how Trump flatters his audience. In one speech in Ohio, Trump said of his policies:

‘It’s all morphed into one big beautiful package. The package is called you, but maybe it’s in the form of me. And you’re going to be so proud, and you’re going to be so happy, and you’re going to win again.’

This is classic advertising technique, using the personal pronoun ‘you’ and blurring it with the pronoun ‘me’. The word ‘morphing’ sets the stage for the transformation. It is not just that Trump is an everyman – more than that, he is ‘you’, but in the form of ‘me’. The pronouns invite the public to assent to this beautiful package in which me becomes you, and you becomes me. In this way, Trump’s victory will be ‘your’ victory. And you will be ‘so’ happy.

(4) Trump is so eloquent that he can even present his four bankruptcies as evidence of his business ability:

It is true that Trump has profited from his bankruptcies because they enabled him to restructure his businesses; this conveniently ignores the many people who lost out because of his strategic bankruptcies. But who cares about that? Trump represents aspiration and ambition. Making money is his priority, and that is something many people can understand.

(5) Arguably, though, the greatest weapon in Trump’s political arsenal is his empathy. While he is tough on Mexicans and Muslims, and sexist towards women, he is can also display empathy. Trump has promised that he would ‘leave Social Security as it is’. This is very unusual for a Republican candidate. Republicans usually insist that if the rich get richer, there will be a ‘trickle-down effect’, and the workers will ultimately benefit. Trump’s unorthodoxy here – his commitment to Social Security, his skepticism about free trade – appeals to working-class American voters. This takes us back to our first point. Just as David Cameron softened the tone of the Conservative Party in the UK election of 2010 with his talk of ‘big society’ and promises to ‘mend broken Britain’, so too Trump has a caring, sharing side. Trump tells voters that America is ‘crippled’: he understands the pain of American workers, and he wants to make them feel great again. In this way, Trump’s apparent empathy and his occasional liberal gestures help to reinforce his personal ethos, and to entice voters away from his Democrat rivals. He certainly is a smooth operator.


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