Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Putting Donald Trump’s speaking style under the microscope

Nerdwriter dissects Trump’s sentences to reveal a style that makes his utterances different from normal politicians.

The persistence of the Trump phenomenon continues to make many political pundits, who thought they knew how the rising and falling of a presidential candidacy was supposed to work, grasp for understanding.

One recent and novel and — I thought — pretty cool attempt at Trumpology (which is a word I just made up to refer to the science of trying to pierce the mystery of Donald Trump’s large and still-enduring appeal to a plurality of Republicans) consisted of transcribing a Trumpian utterance and analyzing how his speech patterns are different from those of more typical candidates.

It comes to us from a site called Nerdwriter where a guy I believe is named Evan Puschak posts smart, short videos. This one, titled “How Donald Trump Answers a Question,” takes a fairly typical Trump expostulation from an interview with Jimmy Kimmel and puts the curious (but apparently effective) Trumpian speaking style under the microscope.

On Dec. 17, shortly after Trump announced his call for a ban — at least temporarily — on any Muslims coming into America, the Donald went on the Kimmel TV show and Kimmel asked: “Isn’t it un-American and wrong to discriminate on people based on their religion?” (The audience briefly responds to Kimmel’s question with applause.)

Article continues after advertisement

Trump then speaks for one minute, uttering 220 words justifying and explaining his proposal. You’ve heard the elements of the justification several times by now. What the Nerdwriter does is post the sentences on the screen and dissect then for the things that make Trump’s public statements different from those of normal politicians.

It starts with Nerdwriter’s observation that typical politicians “seem hyperaware that their words will be picked apart and used against them,” which I took to be code for the suggestion that they seem to be choosing their words so carefully that you suspect they aren’t really saying what they mean.

Trump, writes Nerdwriter, “as a lifelong salesman, has a huckster’s knack for selling a feeling even if the ideas that in fact underscore it are spurious, racist or just plain incomprehensible.” Trump’s strange semi-coherence is one of the ways that he comes across as unbound by political correctness.

He also keeps it very simple. According to Puschak’s analysis of this one Trumpian statement, 78 percent of the 220 words are words of just one syllable; 39 more are just two syllables, and only four words are three syllable long (and three of those four are “tremendous”). The two longest of the 220 words clock in at four syllables, one of which is “California.”

Trump has a tremendous knack for structuring sentences that — even if he has to torture normal sentence structure to make this happen — end with a short, punchy word. These sentence-enders  — in this case, “problem” several times; also “dead,” “die” and “injured” — play to the fears of the audience and reinforce the idea that the country has serious problems that others neglect but that Trump understands and isn’t afraid to call by name — and that the country needs a blunt, politically incorrect guy like Trump to confront.

Nerdwriter concludes that: “If you are an American citizen, who has — for years — listened to politicians sound sophisticated while accomplishing nothing, you might just be primed for something that is everything they are not.