We begin with a question and answer from Martin Longman, writing in the Washington Monthly:
How do you say that someone is a billionaire but he’s not an elite?
Well, you can say that if the billionaire talks at your level and your level is not elite. Many people might not realize that Trump is resonating with them in large part because he doesn’t use any hifalutin language that makes them feel inadequate in some way, but at least some of them are aware of this and don’t mind mentioning it as one of things about Trump that they find appealing.
Strangely, it makes them want to have a beer with him even though he doesn’t drink beer and claims to have never touched a drop of alcohol in his life. It makes them think that he understands and cares about their problems even though Trump was a millionaire by the time he was eight years old and has shown no sincere signs of caring about anyone but himself in his entire life.
It might be exasperating for college graduates, but Trump’s mangling of the English language and his fifth grade way of expressing himself has helped him form a strong bond with a lot of people who actually want a president that doesn’t challenge them intellectually.
The secret may be that Donald Trump is a man of few words, words he pounds out in endless streams of intolerance, resentment and sheer malice.
The numbers tell an interesting tale
Consider the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease Formula, and the associated Automated Readability Index and the Fog Count.
Back in the 1970s, the U.S. Navy grew concerned that technical manuals used to train sailors were too complex for trainees, so they looked for ways to evaluate texts. They took the three measures and modified them after evaluating the accessibility of existing texts based on tests of recruits at four naval training facilities.
The tests went on to become so popular that they’re now integrated into software programs like Microsoft Word.
Basically, the test focus on two areas, the was actually developed for the military in the 1970s as a way to check that training materials were appropriate and could be understood by its personnel. It is used as a measurement in legislation to ensure documents such as insurance policies can be understood.
There are a number of competing algorithms. They use different approaches, but all try to do one of two things, measuring the text according to the educational grade level needed to grasp the content of a text, and a second measure, reading ease. Which sets the grade level according to nationwide statistics.
Factba.se is the free consumer version of commercial software developed by FactSquared designed to process texts, PDFs, video, and audio to and anaylze the resulting data.
They turned their skills on the verbal output of Trump and his nine memediate predecessors and discovered that Agent Orange is unique, speaking at the lowest grade level, using both the smallest vocabulary and words of the fewest syllables:
In terms of word diversity and structure, Trump averages 1.33 syllables per word, which all others average 1.42 – 1.57 words. In terms of variety of vocabulary, in the 30,000-word sample, Trump was at the bottom, with 2,605 unique words in that sample while all others averaged 3,068 – 3,869. The exception: Bill Clinton, who clocked in at 2,752 words in our unique sample.
The following graphics from the Factba.se report tell the tale.
First up, the grade level attainment needed to understand the pronouncements of fifteen consecutive Chief Executives [click on the images to enlarge]:
And next, two charts reflecting [top] the average number of syllables in words employed presidentially and [bottom] the size of the vocabularies deployed:
If you think that’s his natural vocabulary you’re wrong, Trump uses repetition, short sentences, he repeats himself constantly ad uses the most basic form of a word instead of nuances. Our tendency is to think that consumers are becoming more. . .well read and want the cold hard facts. But simplicity is actually more memorable, more comprehendible and more compelling to the decision processing part of our brain.
In other words, Trump is following a rule also developed, like those used to create those charts we’ve just seen, by the U.S. Navy, and more than a decade earlier, the KISS Principle, for “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”
Some observations from academia
Then consider this, from a 7 January 2017 Washington Post story:
Trump is a “unique” politician because he doesn’t speak like one, according to Jennifer Sclafani, an associate teaching professor in Georgetown University’s Department of Linguistics.
“He is interesting to me linguistically because he speaks like everybody else,” said Sclafani, who has studied Trump’s language for the past two years. “And we’re not used to hearing that from a president. We’re used to hearing somebody speak who sounds much more educated, much smarter, much more refined than your everyday American.”
Sclafani, who recently wrote a book set to publish this fall titled “Talking Donald Trump: A Sociolinguistic Study of Style, Metadiscourse, and Political Identity,” said Trump has used language to “create a brand” as a politician.
“President Trump creates a spectacle in the way that he speaks,” she said. “So it creates a feeling of strength for the nation, or it creates a sense of determination, a sense that he can get the job done through his use of hyperbole and directness.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an American-born Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University, is an expert on bombastic authoritarianism, evident in countless academic papers and a shelf full of books on the subject [including the forthcoming Strongmen: How The Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall].
In a 4 November 2016 New Yorker interview, she compared Trump to Benito Mussolini, the vigorously verbose Il Duce:
“These people are mass marketers. They pick up what’s in the air,” Ben-Ghiat said. The film reel was to Mussolini as Twitter is to Trump. “They give the impression of talking directly to the people,” she said. They can be portentous and relentlessly self-assertive. In a way, authoritarians have to be, Ben-Ghiat explained, since they’re selling a paradox: a savior fashioned as the truest, most authentic expression of the masses. Trump summed it up baldly at the Convention: “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.” The authoritarian makes the contradiction fall away, like an optical illusion.
She expanded on her views in an 10 August 2016 essay she wrote for the Atlantic
Italians learned in the 1920s what Americans are learning in 2016: Charismatic authoritarians seeking political office cannot be understood through the framework of traditional politics. They lack interest in, and patience for, established protocols. They often trust few outside of their own families, or those they already control, making collaboration and relationship building difficult. They work from a different playbook, and so must those who intend to confront them.
The authoritarian playbook is defined by the particular relationship such individuals have with their followers. It’s an attachment based on submission to the authority of one individual who stands above the party, even in a regime. Mussolini, a journalist by training, used the media brilliantly to cultivate a direct bond with Italians that confounded political parties and other authority structures and lasted for 18 years.
Trump also cultivates a personalized bond with voters, treating loyalty to the Republican Party almost as an afterthought. It’s why he emphasizes the emotional content of his events—he “feels the love,” or fends off “the haters.” Early on, he introduced a campaign ritual more common in dictatorships than democracies: an oath pledging support to his person, complete with a straight-armed salute. Securing this personal bond is a necessary condition for the success of future authoritarian actions, since it allows the leader to claim, as does Trump, that he embodies the voice and will of the people.
Mussolini’s rise to power also exemplifies another authoritarian trait America has seen during this campaign: The charismatic leader who tests the limits of what the public, press, and political class will tolerate. This exploration begins early and is accomplished through controversial actions and threatening or humiliating remarks toward groups or individuals. It’s designed to gauge the collective appetite and permission for verbal and physical violence and the use of extralegal methods in policing and other realms. The way elites and the press respond to each example of boundary-pushing sets the tone for the leader’s future behavior—and that of his followers.
Implications and lessons learned
As President with strong Congressional support and a stacked Supreme Court, the real estate developer and pop culture figure has used his ill-gotten gains to forge a populist cultural phenomenon.
He grasps the art of the unifying message, spelled out in visceral barroom language, rather than the bureaucrat phrases so often mouthed by his opponents.
Trump wasn’t going to do a restructuring of the roles and hierarchies of federal agencies. No, he was vowing to drain the swap, three short syllables that were o so memorable.
Like 20th Century fascist leaders, he flies across the realm, holding rallies, selling uniforms to make his followers readily recognizable — both to themselves and to others. Instead of Hitler’s Brown Shirts and Mussolini’s Black Shirts, TrumpTrolls sport red MAGA hats. But the leaders of all three groups hail followers who beat journalists.
In a system already rigged against folks who feel power should be based in the people, rather than in corporations and financial giants and the plutocrats who reap all those ever-grander and increasingly offshored profits.
To combat Trump and the system that put him in office, the Left needs a unifying, simply yet powerfully expressed message: Public good trumps private profit, and the Americans whose labor produce so much of that wealth are entitle to a greater share.
We need to recognize that soaring economic disparities create anger and uncertainty, states of arousal that make us vulnerable to manipulation, a task made easy by website cookies, email records, telephone tracking, television sets with embedded systems to spy on viewers, omnipresent surveillance cameras — just of tools available to governments, politicians, lobbyists, and others eager to find ways to identifying and manipulating our vulnerabilities for the private profit of the privileged phew.
As skilled general and rulers of old lined realized, your worst enemy is the best teacher, and Donald J. Trump is a pedagogical prodigy for those who would only listen and learn.
How about a first simple message to Dirty Don:
Kick Him Out!