Responsible reporters in the media normally transcribe political speeches so that they can accurately report them. But Donald Trump’s discourse style has stumped a number of reporters. Dan Libit, CNBC’s excellent analyst, is one of them. Libit writes, “His unscripted speaking style, with its spasmodic, self-interrupting sentence structure, has increasingly come to overwhelm the human brains and tape recorders attempting to quote him.”
Trump is, simply put, a transcriptionist’s worst nightmare: severely unintelligible, yet incredibly important to understand.
Given how dramatically recent polls have turned on his controversial public utterances, it is not hyperbolic to say that the very fate of the nation appears destined to come down to one man’s application of the English language, and the public’s comprehension of it. It has turned the rote job of transcribing into a high-stakes calling.
Trump’s crimes against clarity are multifarious: He often speaks in long, run-on sentences, with frequent asides. He pauses after subordinate clauses. He frequently quotes people saying things that aren’t actual quotes. And he repeats words and phrases, sometimes with slight variations, in the same sentence.
Some in the media (Washington Post, Salon, Slate, Think Progress, etc.) have called Trump’s speeches “word salad.” Some commentators have even attributed his language use to “early Alzheimer’s,” citing “erratic behavior” and “little regards for social conventions.”
I don’t believe it.
I have been repeatedly asked in media interviews about Trumps use of language. So far as I can tell, he is simply using effective discourse mechanisms to communicate what he wants to communicate to his audience. I have found that he is very careful and very strategic in his use of language. The only way I know to show this is to function as a linguist and cognitive scientist and go through details.
Let’s start with sentence fragments. It is common and natural in New York discourse for friends to finish one another’s sentences. And throughout the country, if you don’t actually say the rest of a friend’s sentence out loud, there is nevertheless a point at which you can finish it in your head. When this happens in cooperative discourse, it can show empathy and intimacy with a friend, that you know the context of the narrative, and that you understand and accept your friend’s framing of the situation so well you can even finish what they have started to say. Of course, you can be bored with, or antagonistic to someone and be able to finish their sentences with anything but a feeling of empathy and intimacy. But Trump prefers to talk to a friendly crowd.
Trump often starts a sentence and leaves off where his followers can finish in their minds what he has started to say. That is, they commonly feel empathy and intimacy, an acceptance of what is being said, and good feeling toward the speaker. This is an unconscious, automatic reaction, especially when words are flying by quickly. It is a means for Trump to connect with his audience.
The Second Amendment Incident
Here is the classic case, the Second Amendment Incident. The thing to be aware of is that his words are carefully chosen. They go by quickly when people hear them. But they are processed unconsciously first by neural circuitry—and neurons operate on a thousandth-of-a-second time scale. Your neural circuitry has plenty of time to engage in complex forms of understanding, based on what you already know.
Trump begins by saying, “Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment.” He first just says “abolish,” and then hedges by adding “essentially abolish.” But having said “abolish” twice, he has gotten across the message that she wants to, and is able to change the Constitution in that way.
Now, at the time the Second Amendment was written, the “arms” in “bear arms” were long rifles that fired one bullet at a time. The “well-regulated militia” was a local group, like a contemporary National Guard unit, regulated by a local government with military command structure. They were protecting American freedoms against the British.
The Second Amendment has been reinterpreted by contemporary ultra-conservatives as the right of individual citizens to bear contemporary arms (e.g. AK-47s), either to protect their families against invaders or to change a government by armed rebellion if that government threatens what they see as their freedoms. The term “Second Amendment” activates the contemporary usage by ultra-conservatives. It is a dog-whistle term, understood in that way by many conservatives.
Now, no president or Supreme Court could literally abolish any constitutional amendment alone. But a Supreme Court could judge that certain laws concerning gun ownership could be unconstitutional. That is what Trump meant by “essentially abolish.”
Thus, the election of Hillary Clinton threatens the contemporary advocates of the Second Amendment.
Trump goes on: “By the way, and if she gets to pick [loud boos]—if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Here are the details.
“By the way,” marks a parallel utterance, one that does not linearly follow from what was just said, but that has information relevant to what was just said.
“And” here marks information that follows from what was just said.
“If she gets to pick…” When said the first time, it was followed immediately by loud boos. The audience could finish the if-clause for themselves, since the word “pick” in context could only be about Hillary picking liberal judges. Trump goes on making this explicit, “if she gets to pick her judges…”
“Gets to” is important. The metaphor here with “to” is “Achieving a Purpose Is Reaching a Destination” with the object of “to” marking the pick. The “get” in “get to” is from a related metaphor, namely, Achieving a Purpose Is Getting a Desired Object. In both Purpose metaphors, the Achievement of the Purpose can be stopped by an opponent. The “if” indicates that the achievement of the purpose is still uncertain, which raises the question of whether it can be stopped.
“Her judges” indicates that the judges are not your judges, from which it follows that they will not rule the way you want them to, namely, for keeping your guns. The if-clause thus has a consequence: unless Hillary is prevented from becoming president, “her judges” will change the laws to take away your guns and your constitutional right to bear arms. This would be a governmental infringement on your freedom, which would justify the armed intervention of ultra-conservatives, what Sharon Angle in Nevada has called the “Second Amendment solution.” In short, a lot is entailed, in little time on a human timescale, but with lots of time on a neural timescale.
Having set this up, Trump follows the if-clause with “Nothing you can do, folks.” This is a shortened version in everyday colloquial English of “There will be nothing you can do, folks.” That is, if you let Hillary take office, you will be so weak you will be unable to stop her. The “folks,” suggests that he and the audience members are socially part of the same social group, as opposed to a distant billionaire with his own agenda.
Immediately after “nothing you can do,” Trump goes on: “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is.”
“Although” is a word used to contrast one possible course of events with an opposite possibility. Trump has just presented a possible course of events that is threatening to ultra-conservative Second Amendment advocates. “Although the Second Amendment people” calls up the alternative for those who would act violently to protect their Second Amendment right.
“Maybe” brings up a suggestion. “Maybe there is” suggests that there is something the “Second Amendment people” can do to prevent Hillary from taking office and appointing liberal judges who would take away what they see as their constitutional rights.
“I don’t know” is intended to remove Trump from any blame. But it acts unconsciously in the opposite way. It is like the title of the book I wrote, Don’t Think of an Elephant. The way the brain works is that negating a frame activates the frame. The relevant frame for “Second Amendment people” is use of arms to protect their rights against a government threatening to take away their rights. This is about the right to shoot, not about the right to vote. Second Amendment conservative discourse is about shooting, not voting.
The point here is that Trump’s use of language is anything but “word salad.” His words and his use of grammar are carefully chosen, and put together artfully, automatically and quickly.
Trump never overtly used the word “assassinate.” He says he was just suggesting that advocates of the Second Amendment vote, and was being sarcastic. A sarcastic invocation to vote would sound very different. A sarcastic invocation to vote might be, “The American way to change things is to vote. But maybe you care so much about shooting, you won’t be able to organize to vote.”
He didn’t say anything like that. And he chose his words very, very carefully.
Believe Me! Some People Say…
People in the media have asked me about Trump’s use of “Believe me!” and “Many people say” followed by a statement that is not true which he wants he audience to believe. Why does he use such expressions and how do they work in discourse?
To understand this, one needs to look at the concept of lying. Most people will say that a lie is a false statement. But a study by linguists Linda Coleman and Paul Kay pointed out more than 30 years ago that the situation is more complex. If a statement happens to be false, but you sincerely believe it is true, you are not lying in stating it. Lying involves a hierarchy of conditions defining worse and worse lies. Here is the hierarchy:
- You don’t believe it.
- You are trying to deceive.
- You are trying to gain advantage for yourself.
- You are trying to harm.
As you add conditions in the hierarchy, the lies get worse and worse.
Though this is the usual hierarchy for lies, there are variations: A white lie is one that is harmless. A social lie is one where deceit is general helpful, as in, “Aunt Susie, that was such a delicious Jello mold that you made.” Other variations include exaggeration, flattery, kidding, joking, etc.
Lying is a form of uncooperative discourse. But most discourse is cooperative, and there are rules governing it that the philosopher Paul Grice called “maxims” in his Harvard Lectures in 1967. Grice observed that uncooperative discourse is created when the maxims are violated. Grice’s maxims were extended in the 1970s by Eve Sweetser in a paper on lying.
Sweetser postulated a Maxim of Helpfulness:
In Cooperative Discourse, people intend to help to help one another.
She then observed that there were two models used in helpful communication.
I. Ordinary Communication
If people say something, they are intending to help if and only if they believe it.
People intend to deceive, if and only if they don’t intend to help.
II. Justified Belief
People have adequate reasons for their beliefs.
What people have adequate reason to believe is true.
Though this model does not hold for all situations (e.g., kidding), they are models that are used by virtually everyone unconsciously all day every day. If I tell my wife I saw my cousin this morning, there is no reason to deceive, so I believe it (Ordinary Communication). And since I know my cousin well, if I believe I saw him, then I did see him (Justified Belief). Such principles are part of our unconsciously functioning neural systems. They work automatically, unless they become conscious and we can attend to them and control them.
Trump uses these communication models that are in your brain. When he says “Believe me!” he is using the principle of Justified Belief, suggesting that he has the requisite experience for his belief to be true. When those in Trump’s audience hear “Believe me!” they will mostly understand it automatically and, unconsciously and via Justified Belief, will take it to be true.
When Trump says, “Many people say that…” both principles are unconsciously activated. If many people say it, they are unlikely to all or mostly be deceiving, which means they believe it, and by Justified Belief, it is taken to be true.
You have to be on your toes, listening carefully and ready to disbelieve Trump, to avoid the use of these ordinary cognitive mechanisms in your brain that Trump uses for his purposes.
Is He ‘On Topic’?
Political reporters are used to hearing speeches with significant sections on a single policy issue. Trump often goes from policy to policy to policy in a single sentence. Is he going off topic?
So far as I can discern, he is always on topic, but you have to understand what his topic is. As I observed in my Understanding Trump paper, Trump is deeply, personally committed to his version of Strict Father Morality. He wants it to dominate the country and the world, and he wants to be the ultimate authority in this authoritarian model of the family that is applied in conservative politics in virtually every issue area.
Every particular issue, from building the wall, to using our nukes, to getting rid of inheritance taxes (on those making $10.9 million or more), to eliminating the minimum wage—every issue is an instance of his version of Strict Father Morality over all areas of life, with him as ultimately in charge.
As he shifts from particular issue to particular issue, each of them activates his version of Strict Father Morality and strengthens it in the brains of his audience. So far as I can tell, he is always on topic—where this is the topic.
For five decades, Trump has been using all these techniques of selling and trying to make deals to his advantage. It seems to have become second nature for him to use these devices. And he uses them carefully and well. He is a talented charlatan. Keeping you off balance is part of his game, as is appealing to ordinary thought mechanisms in the people he is addressing.
It is vital that the media, and ordinary voters, learn to recognize his techniques. When the media fails to grasp what he is doing, it gives him an advantage. Every time someone in the media claims his discourse is “word salad,” it helps Trump by hiding what he is really doing.
‘Regret’ or Excuse
One day after the above was written, Trump made a well-publicized statement of “regret.”
“Sometimes, in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing.
“I have done that.
“And believe it or not, I regret it.
“And I do regret it, particularly where it may have caused personal pain.
“Too much is at stake for us to be consumed with these issues.…”
He did not give any specifics.
What we have just seen is that he chooses his words very carefully. And he has done that here.
He starts out with “sometimes,” which suggests it is a rare occurrence on no particular occasion—a relatively rare accident. He continues with a general, inescapable fact about being a presidential candidate, namely, that he is always “in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues.” The words “heat” and “multitude” suggest that normal attention to details like word choice cannot operate in presidential campaign. In short, it is nothing he could possibly be responsible for, and is a rare occurrence anyway.
Then he uses the word “you.” This shifts perspective from him to “you,” a member of the audience. You too, if you were running for president, would naturally be in such uncontrollable situations all the time, when “you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing.” It’s just a matter of choosing the “right words.” This means he had the right ideas, but under natural, and inevitable attentional stress, an unavoidable mistake happens and could happen to you: “you” have the right ideas, but mess up on the “right words.”
He then admits to “sometimes” making an unavoidable, natural mistake, not in choosing the right ideas, but in word choice, and putting yourself in his shoes, “you say the wrong thing”—that is, you are thinking the right thing, but you just say it wrong—“sometimes.”
His admission is straightforward—“I have done that”—as if he had just admitted to something immoral, but which he has carefully described as anything but immoral.
“And believe it or not, I regret it.” What he is communicating with “believe it or not,” is that you, in the audience, may not believe that I am a sensitive soul, but I really am, as shown by my statement of regret. He then emphasizes his statement of personal sensitivity: “And I do regret it, particularly where it may have caused personal pain.” Note the “may have caused.” No admission that he definitely DID “cause personal pain.” And no specifics given. After all, they don’t have to be given, because it is natural, unavoidable, accidental, and so rare as not to matter. He states this: “Too much is at stake for us to be consumed with these issues.” In short, it’s a trivial matter to be ignored—because it is a natural, unavoidable, accidental mistake, only in the words not the thoughts, and is so rare as to be unimportant. All that in five well-crafted sentences!
Note how carefully he has chosen his words. And what is the intended effect? He should be excused because inaccurate word choice is so natural it will inevitably occur again, and he should not be criticized when the stress of the campaign leads inevitably to mistakes in trivial word choice.
But there is a larger effect. Words have meanings. The words he carefully uses, often over and over, get across his values and ideas, which are all too often lies or promotions of racist, sexist and other un-American invocations. When these backfire mightily, as with the Khan family, there can be no hiding behind a nonspecific “regret” that they were just rare, accidental word choice mistakes too trivial for the public to be “consumed with.”