Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders don’t have much in common – other than looking a bit like designs for Muppet Show characters that never quite made it to screen. Politically, they could scarcely be further apart. Oratorically, though, what unites them is more important than what divides them.
Much has been said about Trump’s rhetoric – the New Yorker called it “fervent incoherence”; Susan Sarandon likens it to “your drunk uncle at a wedding” – more than a little of it applies to Sanders. Both are out of the drawer marked “shouty populist” and both have used that to blindside their their parties’ respective political establishments.
Bernie’s style of delivery, though, is a thing completely his own – not the Trump pomp and swagger so much as the finger-jabbing of a hoarse New Yorker remonstrating with a taxi driver who has just run over his foot.
I don’t say Mr Sanders is wrong about the world, by the way; still less do I intend to imply that he’s no more than an antimatter Donald Trump. My prime interest here is not his politics, but the form and style of his speech-making.
Here’s a man who – agreeing with the 17th-century rhetorician John Bulwer that gesture is “the palm and crown of eloquence” – really speaks with his hands. Just look at that finger: it’s a small marvel. He jabs it at the aud-ience with ev-ery stressed syll-able, and – when he’s at a rolling boil – ends any given sentence by sweeping his whole hand briskly across and out to his right as if to say: done, dismissed, no questions, point made.
Cadence-wise, many of his sentences sound almost exactly the same. They are a long pile-driving sequence of strong (often trochaic) stresses – jab, jab, jab – followed by an outro of unstressed syllables accompanied by that sweep. So, at a recent rally in St Paul, Minnesota, he told his audience: “Peop-le are sick and tired of es-tab-lishment pol-itics and es-tab-lishment economics …”; “To-geth-er we are going to raise the min-imum wage to a liv-ing wage: fif-teen bucks an hour …”
The aggressive style he adopts is one well suited to anaphora – AKA repeating yourself. His celebrated speech on democratic socialism, delivered in November, opened by inviting us to imagine what Franklin D Roosevelt saw when he looked at the nation in January 1937:
He saw tens of millions of its citizens denied the basic necessities of life. He saw millions of families […] He saw millions denied education […] He saw millions lacking the means […] He saw one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished … and (jab) he (jab) acted (jab) …”
He went on to anchor eight successive paragraphs in that speech with the words “today, in America …”, and the same number with the phrase “democratic socialism means …”
He is, for the purposes of his campaign, a salesman of what he elsewhere calls “the simple truth”. It does not seem to me a coincidence that one of the most shared YouTube videos from the Sanders campaign is a three-minute assemblage called: In 180 Seconds You Will Be Voting For Bernie Sanders.
Anybody who can sell his candidacy to be in charge of a nuclear-armed nation of 300 million people in 180 seconds is presenting, to say the least, a pretty stripped-down argument.
Actually, what he’s saying is subtly at odds with his angle of attack. He’s the anti-establishment politician making a case for the efficacy, or potential efficacy, of a political establishment; arguing that neither markets nor global climate are unbuckable forces of nature: “The problems we face did not come down from the heavens. They are made. They are made by bad human decisions. And good human decisions can change them.”
In this emphasis on collective human agency he resembles his predecessor Barack Obama – but where Obama peddled what Sarah Palin calls his “hopey-changey stuff” in the historic high style, Bernie Sanders does so like a man thumping the table in a bar; which, eight years on and in a rather different America, may be exactly what’s called for.
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