Every presidential transition also involves a change in the regime of language. This year the juxtaposition between the outgoing and incoming regimes is especially stark, something President Obama’s evening farewell address followed by President-elect Trump’s press conference the next morning vividly depicted. However, underlying their many obvious differences, they both employ the common rhetorical device of repetition—Obama to inspire and affirm shared values, Trump to peddle insults peppered with gratuitous modifiers.
In his address, Obama demonstrated his familiar composure marked by effective use of timing, repetition, and storytelling, a style well-documented by Geneva Smitherman and H. Samy Alim. The next morning, Trump demonstrated his own style marked by, as Kira Hall, Donna M. Goldstein, and Matthew Bruce Ingram point out in their analysis of his campaign’s success, visual excess and hyperbole. The stack of manila folders placed on the table next to the podium, which Trump theatrically pointed to as evidence—visible, physical evidence—of his efforts to distance himself from business interests epitomizes that visually-oriented, gesturally-rich style.
Presidential styles personify characters from American life. If George W. Bush was the cowboy and Barack Obama the professor, then it seems Donald J. Trump will be the schoolyard bully or, to be slightly more generous, the American snake oil salesman. Out goes the orator-in-chief and in comes the entertainer-in-chief. Yet, as anthropologists like Hall, Goldstein, and Ingram implore us to consider, merely studying the economical, sociological, and psychological dimensions of Trump’s appeal while ignoring the discursive elements of this new language regime will yield an incomplete understanding of what makes Trump’s spectacular show so compelling regardless of whether it’s seen as pleasing or offensive.
On the surface—and, let’s be honest, from the perspective of the intellectual elite that serves as the foil to Trump’s populism—the two styles seem to have little in common. Intellectuals love Obama in large part because he talks and acts like one of us. He’s a law professor who provides carefully considered statements marked by coherence, cohesion, and nuance: he embodies the rhetorical style taught in every first-year college writing class. In contrast, Trump is that first-year student that can’t seem to provide a coherent answer to the essay prompt.
Yet, both draw on the common rhetorical device of repetition within and across speech events—even as they implement this device in different ways and to different ends. Obama excels at this, as evidenced by the inspirational “Yes, We Can” slogan used throughout his campaign and revisited in his farewell address. Trump also excels in his command of this rhetorical device, as evidenced by his use of repetition in his large corpus of derogatory tweets.
A few weeks before the November election, The New York Times published a complete list of “The 282 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter.” Of course, it didn’t take long for the list to turn incomplete. The list was last updated on December 6 to include “The 289 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted.” The Times actually began tabulating the insults in January 2016 after culling through and categorizing over 4,000 tweets Trump made since he launched his presidential bid in June 2015. When the project first launched, The Times reported it had “found that one in every eight [tweets] was a personal insult of some kind.” As of the last update, the list contained 2,268 discrete quotes.
These tweets provide insight into the new regime of language in the White House. Insults, by their very nature, accord with the schoolyard bully persona, but these tweets also epitomize the rhetorical moves of the snake oil salesman—the language of advertising at its slimiest. Trump summarizes these moves through the words of his ghostwriter in his book, The Art of the Deal, “I play to people’s fantasies… People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and it’s a very effective form of promotion.”
Indeed, the list of Trump’s tweets compiled by The Times is rife with hyperbole and exaggeration. He achieves this through the use of repetition of gratuitous modifiers and intensifiers.
Here’s the formula. Start with a small set of nouns. Trump’s favorites include clown, disaster, dope, dummy, joke, liar. Next, layer on the hyperbole and exaggeration by adding a needless modifier. Notably, adjectives far outnumber nouns in the list. Contrary to William Strunk’s advice to writers about using adjectives sparingly, snake oil salesmen must pile on the modifiers to punctuate the emotional appeal. Trump’s preferred adjectives range from absolute to zero. In between are bad, biased, boring, corrupt, crazy, crooked, disgraceful, disgusting, dumb, failed, failing, false…incapable, incompetent, ineffective…and, of course, sad, stupid, terrible, weak.
The perspective on language inspired by Mikhail Bakhtin in The Dialogic Imagination underscores the compulsion to repeat that underlies all language use. Instead of linguistic creativity yielding unbridled variation, we typically make use of limited variations on a common theme. Trump’s tweets excel at this variation-on-a-theme approach. Take, for example, one of his most frequently used nouns: disaster. Variation occurs around this theme through the use of modifiers to produce insults such as “a complete disaster,” “a total disaster,” “a horrible disaster,” “a foreign policy disaster,” “a formula for disaster.” You get the point.
The final step is to sprinkle intensifiers—semantically vacuous adverbs—over the message to enhance its emotional impact. Trump’s most often tweeted intensifiers are (in order of popularity) very, totally, so, really. He also likes 100% as an intensifier, as in “100% fabricated,” “100% made up,” “100% owned by her donors,” “100% CONTROLLED” (with ALL CAPS used to amplify the volume of the message).
Using this formula, we might anticipate a Trumpian retort to this column in 140 characters: “Biased and 100% irrelevant. Has zero credibility. Written by a failing dopey writer. Knows NOTHING! What a clown. Don’t read #TrumpedUpWords.”
Adam Hodges is a linguistic anthropologist specializing in political discourse. His books include The ‘War on Terror’ Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality (2011, OUP), and his articles have appeared in Discourse & Society, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Language & Communication, and Language in Society.