By Noah Merrin
The day: Thursday, 11th January. The venue: the Oval Office. During a meeting on immigration reform, President Trump questioned why the US was granting Temporary Protected Status to citizens of “shithole countries”.
His comment incited international condemnation and caused a diplomatic firestorm that is still engulfing the White House. But is this statement simply the natural corollary to Trump’s presidential campaign, during which he rejected the linguistic norms that we have come to expect from our politicians? If so, is there something new to learn about the power of language in politics?
Although Trump’s vocabulary and linguistic complexity (or simplicity) are unprecedented in presidential terms, Trump’s core support base seems to be going nowhere. In fact, they seem to be enjoying it.
Is this the natural corollary to Trump’s presidential campaign?
Analysis by Factba.se gives a fresh perspective to our understanding of Trump’s speech. According to the online database, which used the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test to measure the complexity of Trump’s vocabulary, his unscripted remarks are at a fourth-grade level.
When compared to that of all previous US presidents stretching back to Herbert Hoover, Trump’s grade level is the lowest. When considering the gaps between each President ranked by these grade levels, Trump has the level of vocabulary most divergent from other presidents.
Nevertheless, his simple, direct language has proven to be popular. As a Channel 4 News report from Johnstown, Pennsylvania discovered, many voters were pleased to see “a balls to the wall kind of guy” in the White House.
Johnstown was once a booming industrial town. It has seen its economy crippled and its population decline by two-thirds due to the closure of mines and factories. It is ripe with the disenfranchised working-class demographic that Trump successfully courted during his campaign for the presidency.
His unscripted remarks are at a fourth-grade level
His promise to return prosperity to America by challenging establishment elites in Washington was consistently delivered with linguistic simplicity and straightforwardness, which in itself challenged the presidential manner that America had become used to.
His supporter’s “balls to the wall” comment partially reflected Trump’s own crass frankness. Or perhaps it is the other way around.
It seems that Trump is regulating his language according to the speech patterns of his core demographic. Such action demonstrates an ability to bypass established institutions of power and to seek legitimacy from less conventional routes, which was paralleled in his election campaign.
Clinton relied more heavily on established institutions, via her super-PAC, Priorities USA Action – a source from which Trump tapped less than half as much as Clinton. Crucially, according to the Washington Post, the Trump campaign received 26% of its total funds from donations of $200 or less, compared to 16% for the Clinton campaign.
Trump’s speech patterns mirror those of his core demographic
By funding his campaign in this way, Trump was able to make controversial comments, especially during the Republican primaries, without worrying about losing sponsorship from the establishment.
In fact, his uncompromising rhetoric probably helped him earn significant donations from his grassroots supporters. Unmissably outrageous, Trump’s language guaranteed him coverage in the mainstream media, at no extra cost.
With soundbites of him promising to ‘drain the swamp’, to ‘lock her up’ and a disparate range of other anti-establishment policies echoing throughout America, Trump’s politically incorrect language mirrored his agenda. And his approach worked. He is now president. But, while he was able to successfully seek legitimacy in this way during campaigning, is Trump’s approach still holding up?
Plagued by failure to push policy through the institutions that he once skilfully dodged, and with an average approval rating far below any president, from Kennedy to Obama, at this point in their term, it is not just Trump’s vocabulary that is breaking with precedent. Faced with an immovable, uncooperative establishment, the power of Trump’s language is no longer enough to bring success.
Like Britain in Brexit negotiations, populism faces the difficulty of actually challenging the elites that it regularly denounces. Congress witnessed a very different tone to Trump’s when Harry Truman announced his eponymous doctrine in 1947, which established foreign policy objectives that defined much of America’s action during the Cold War.
If Trump wishes to reach similar heights, he will have to mediate not only his action, but his language too.
On 13th January 2017, Trump tweeted in bold, exclamative fashion: “AMERICA FIRST!”
With 149K likes, his supporters certainly listened. Did Washington?
Photo credits: IoSonoFotaUnoCamera, via Flickr and Creative Commons.