Donald Trump’s habit of playing fast and loose with the English language in order to make self-aggrandising claims is routinely decried as damaging the office of president, but new research suggests his linguistic linguine is right on trend.
A detailed analysis of US presidential speeches from 1789 to 2018, augmented by similar analyses of Australian, British and Canadian political oratory, positions President Trump at the leading edge of a rhetorical evolution that has been underway since 1900.
Since that time, say researchers led by Kayla Jordan from the University of Texas at Austin in the US, presidents and prominent politicos have progressively sacrificed analytical material and replaced it with assertions of confidence and high status – a form of content dubbed “clout”.
Analytical thinking can be detected in speeches through the use of articles and prepositions – words that condition and describe concepts and the relationships between them.
Speeches rich in clout, by contrast, are marked by words associated with intuitive thinking – a lot of adverbs and auxiliary verbs, for instance – as well as references to confidence, status and the frequent use of the first-person pronoun.
It doesn’t take too much time to conclude that Trump’s pronouncements fit the latter definition very well, but, Jordan and her colleagues argue, the trend towards clouty content has been increasing in US presidential output since the turn of last century.
A similar trend in the speeches of many foreign leaders has been evident since around 1980 – although less so, surprisingly, among successive British leaders.
The researchers say that their analysis reveals that Trump is “lower in analytic thinking and higher in confidence than almost any previous American president”.
However, they caution, that does not mean that he can be “seen as a departure from long-standing political norms”.
“Closer analyses of linguistic trends of presidential language indicate that Trump’s language is consistent with long term linear trends, demonstrating that he is not as much an outlier as he initially seems,” they conclude.
Such a finding is hardly, perhaps, a source of comfort. Jordan and her colleagues suggest that it might even be an example of the American people getting the president they most want.
“Taken together, the trends discovered in this research suggest that voters may increasingly be drawn to leaders who can make difficult, complex problems easier to understand with intuitive, confident answers,” they write.
“The findings confirm that President Trump and leaders like him did not emerge out of nowhere but rather, that they are the most recent incarnation of long-term political trends.”
The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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