Trump’s Speaking Style

Tara Golshan has an interesting piece at Vox:  Donald Trump’s strange speaking style, as explained by linguists which is worth a read.

I will say that it includes a quote that may qualify for Understatement of the Year:

“His speeches are full of non sequiturs,” says Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a Calvin College historian

Of the passages I found interesting, this one struck me as on point (emphases mine):

Many of Trump’s most famous catchphrases are actually versions of time-tested speech mechanisms that salesmen use. They’re powerful because they help shape our unconscious.

Take, for example, Trump’s frequent use of “Many people are saying…” or “Believe me” — often right after saying something that is baseless or untrue. This tends to sound more trustworthy to listeners than just outright stating the baseless claim, since Trump implies that he has direct experience with what he’s talking about. At a base level, Lakoff argues, people are more inclined to believe something that seems to have been shared.

Or when Trump keeps calling Clinton “crooked,” or keeps referring to terrorists as “radical Muslims,” he’s strengthening the association through repetition. He also calls his supporters “folks,” to show he is one of them (though many politicians employ this trick). Trump doesn’t repeat phrases and adjectives because he is stalling for time, Liberman says; for the most part, he’s providing emphasis and strengthening the association.

These are normal techniques, particularly in conversational speech. “Is he reading cognitive science? No. He has 50 years of experience as a salesman who doesn’t care who he is selling to,” Lakoff says. On this account, Trump uses similar methods in his QVC-style pitch of steaks and vodka as when he talks about his plan to stop ISIS.

And this, which strikes me as quite significant, as clearly there are many who find Trump’s speeches and rallies to be empowering:

In other words, when Trump’s audience finishes his sentences for him, the blanks are filled with sentiments that resonate: fears of joblessness, worries about the United States losing its status as a major world power, concerns about foreign terrorist organizations. Trump validates their insecurities and justifies their anger. He connects on an emotional level, Du Mez says.

“For listeners who identify with Trump, there is little they need to do but claim what they’re entitled to,” she says. “No need for sacrifice, for compromise, for complexity. He taps into fear and insecurity, but then enables his audience to express that fear through anger. And anger gives the illusion of empowerment.”

I would encourage a read of the whole piece.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, US Politics,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. CSK says:

    Thanks; that was very interesting. Trump’s most impassioned defenders will often cite how “plain-spoken” or how “straightforward” he is in his speaking style, when the reality is that nothing he says makes any syntactical sense whatsoever. Palin and her word salad were praised by her supporters for much the same reason.

    I agree that the appeal of Trumpspeak is that his fans can read anything they wish to into it. But I would argue that there’s something further: Most people speak and write badly, so they identify with a candidate who does the same. “He’s just like me!” they say.

  2. JohnMcC says:

    “…(A)nger gives the feeling of empowerment.” That sums up the Tea Party and AM talk radio and several generations of populist (mostly southern) politics as well as the Trump campaign. Wish I’d said that.

  3. Andrew says:

    Knowing and not ignoring Mr. Trump’s past in business and attention seeking endeavors, there is really only one word that comes to mind.

    verb (used with object), bamboozled.

    to practice trickery, deception, cozenage, or the like:
    He bamboozled his way to the top.

  4. Loviatar says:

    Its not just Trump, its the whole Republican party. Their message the past 30+ years (Reagan) has been based upon selling fear and anger.
    – They’ve counted upon the American populace being polite and well mannered in not pointing out that their policies are illogical, unreasonable and not based in any factual reality.
    – They’ve counted upon the press and the political elite blaming both sides for every problem.
    – They’ve counted upon the enabling centrist constantly treating each crazy GOP policy as worthy of serious consideration.

    When you combine the appeal to manners with a snake oil salesmen like Trump, you have the current state of the Republican party. The GOP should have been shouted off the stage after the first Reagan term, it is to our great shame as a country we’ve allowed them any significant political power these past 30+ years.

    de stijl said in first in the Good Bye Peak Oil Hypothesis post.

    “We have an unarguable and illogical premise, but it would be rude of you to point that out. Terribly rude. Your peers would reject you if you were rude to us. Meanwhile, please allow me to try to convert you to my unsupported worldview. It would be rude and intolerant of you not to listen. You are a tolerant person, yes?”

    It’s salespitch 101, but it’s astounding how many people fall for it. The appeal to manners pitch.

  5. Gustopher says:

    I am a bitter, cynical man — I respond to the phrases like “believe me”, “trust me”, “I’m trying to be fair”, and “I’m a nice guy” with a flash of anger.

    This has never really helped me in life. I expect I have been screwed over just as much buying cars, but just from less practiced salesmen.

    Anyway, I have no idea why people don’t immediately see through Trump.

  6. Jen says:

    I found this part to be the most interesting:

    “Trump’s frequency of divergence is unusual,” Liberman says. In other words, he goes off topic way more often than the average person in conversation.

    Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist at University of Edinburgh, argues that there’s more going on than just a conversational, I’ll-let-you-fill-in-the-gaps-style. Trump’s unorganized sentences and short snippets might suggest something about how his mind works. “His speech suggests a man with scattered thoughts, a short span of attention, and a lack of intellectual discipline and analytical skills,” Pullum says.

    This–the incredibly short attention span–has been noted frequently throughout this campaign and was also a key point made by his “Art of the Deal” ghostwriter.

    This is not terribly comforting. One sort of hopes that a president has the ability to follow a complex discussion without having his or her mind wander elsewhere. I’m sure debate prep, which begins this weekend apparently, is going to be fun for his handlers.

  7. CSK says:


    You’re positing that Trump will actually show up for the debates. He’s been claiming for weeks that they’re rigged, which I assume is a set-up for bailing at the last minute.

    But say he does show up on that stage–who’s doing the prepping? Conway and Bannon? They appear to be working at cross-purposes. Conway wants a Trump who appears remotely sane and reasonable and equipped with at least a rudimentary knowledge of foreign and domestic policy. Bannon wants a fill-bore raving lunatic.

    Apparently his advisors–whomever they might be at any given moment–can’t get Trump to read a two-page briefing paper. Palin apparently staggered through the debate with Biden because her handlers got her to memorize the answers to 15 questions. Is that even possible with Trump?

  8. CSK says:


    Why don’t people see through Trump? Beats me. But, as one of his supporters said to me when I asked why she believed anything he said, “Because I want to.”

  9. Hal_10000 says:

    It’s precisely because of salesmen like Trump that I coined my Rule of Expertise Experts don’t constantly reassure you of their expertise; they simply dole out facts and data. Whenever I hear someone saying, “Look, I’ve checked out all the alternatives” or “believe me, this is the best” or anything similar, I run a mile. Been burned too often by people asking for my trust. People who know stuff want you to trust the facts; con men want you to trust them.

  10. CSK says:


    Have you ever noticed how angry the “trust me” folks get when you ask them to the data that would support their claims?

  11. gVOR08 says:

    I’m one who believes how you speak and write reflects how you think. I’m often reminded of reading a comment by somebody years ago who was much impressed, seeing Al Gore in person, that in response to an unexpected question he replied ex tempore not only with properly constructed sentences but well structured paragraphs. The thought process reflected in Trump’s speaking is truly frightening.

  12. Jenos Idanian says:

    So, the Juicebox Mafia at Vox have discovered that Trump speaks like someone trying to persuade others? What a stunning insight! And it only took them about a year to catch up to Scott Adams!

    The Boston Globe analyzed all the speeches from the nominating conventions. Trump’s scored at a grade level of 7.7. In comparison, Hillary’s scored a 5.7.

    For their next trick, they should look at why Hillary’s first instinct to pretty much any situation is to lie and cover up.

    They should, but they won’t.

  13. Steve Verdon says:


    The mark of a good salesman? I would think so, if you can get the buyer to identify with you seems like you’ve sold them crap vodka, dry tough beef, and enrolled in some dodgy classes on how you to can be a millionaire!

  14. Matt says:

    @Jenos Idanian: That article is quite interesting. Including bits like

    In previous off-the-cuff speeches, Trump has spoken at an elementary school level, but this time he was guided by a teleprompter.

    Teleprompter I seem to remember a Republican talking point about that a while back….

    The Flesch-Kincaid test is a common algorithm that gives higher grade levels to texts that use longer words and sentences, which tend to be more complex. A similar analysis during the primary showed GOP candidate rhetoric starting at the 4th grade level and Democrats beginning at 7th grade.

    That article can be easily spun as a positive for the Democratic party..

  15. grumpy realist says:

    @Jenos Idanian: Did that include all the teleprompter assisted speeches or not?

  16. grumpy realist says:

    @Hal_10000: It’s like the old saying: “When someone in business tells me he’s a Christian, I hold on to my pocketbook.”

  17. grumpy realist says:

    @Hal_10000: Just read your essay. Two thumbs up. Yup, there’s a bloody great difference between selling the theory (which should bloody well require good data) and selling the individual.

    Someone who uses his “expertise” to try to sell me the theory has indicated a) he’s lazy, b) he’s a rotten scientist, or c) he’s a con man. None of which inclines me to follow him.

    Now as to why people follow Trump like he’s a Pied Piper even though there’s good historical evidence that he’s simply a BSer?

    People like to be stupid.