From "fake news" to "tremendous success"

Linguists from Mainz University published a collection of investigations into US President Donald Trump's language and style of communication

26 October 2020

The way incumbent American president Donald Trump uses language has long been a trademark of his person – in addition to his iconic hairdo, of course. Among other things, Trump has popularized terms like "fake news" and has not shied away from giving derogatory nicknames to political opponents – for instance "Sleepy Joe" for Joe Biden, his opponent in the upcoming presidential election. In speeches, Trump's style is often that of a storyteller who addresses the audience directly with phrases such as "And I will tell you...". His accounts often remain vague, but he makes sure to emphasize what he is saying by using exaggerations and expressions of absolute certainty. Trump rarely begins sentences with "I think..." or the like. Instead, he prefers to emphasize his standpoint with terms such as "obviously" or "certainly". He frequently uses the familiar kind of US political rhetoric, but with modifications: When defending himself in the face of a scandal, for example, he reverts back to the tried and tested tactic of issuing an apology in the form of a Christian testimonial. Yet, rather than positioning himself as a reformed sinner, Trump characterizes himself as the perennial Mr. Nice Guy, the only politician who fights for the people, before quickly changing the subject and denouncing others as the true sinners. All these and many other observations have now been published in the edited volume "Linguistic Inquiries into Donald Trump's Language. From Fake News to Tremendous Success," edited by Dr. Ulrike Schneider and Dr. Matthias Eitelmann of the Department of English and Linguistics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and published by Bloomsbury Academic.

Schneider and Eitelmann called on linguists worldwide to investigate various aspects of Donald Trump's idiolect. The resulting ten comprehensive analyses have been combined in one volume and include the characteristic features of Trump's speech which differ from that of other politicians with regard to the linguistic tools employed by Trump to convey emotions and the way he tries to control how others perceive him. "We started off with claims made about Trump in the media such as assertions that he speaks in simpler terms than other politicians or that he uses the word 'very' much more frequently," said Schneider. With their volume, she and Eitelmann prove that many of these claims are true: "For example, Trump has a marked tendency to repeat himself and he uses the word 'very' up to eight times more often than other politicians," Eitelmann added. But Trump also uses more subtle stylistic devices such as the definite article 'the' to differentiate himself from groups with which he does not feel connected. Occasionally this results in sentences where content and grammar seem to contradict each other, as in: "I'm doing great with the Hispanics."

A sympton of a general shift in US political communication?

Besides investigating these individual features of Trump’s idiolect, the collection is also devoted to the overarching questions of whether Trump's language is a symptom of a general shift in political communication in the USA or whether Trump can be described as a populist because of his rhetoric. "We can clearly answer the first question in the affirmative," said Schneider. "Over the past few decades, American presidents have increasingly worked to develop the common touch. Trump, with his simple language and tweets, which he uses to immediately communicate decisions to the people, is the most extreme representative of this general trend." According to Schneider and Eitelmann, however, the answer to the second question is more complex: Trump does indeed use populist rhetoric, such as through his use of linguistic means of othering. However, a populist is characterized above all as the prime advocate of the people defending them against a corrupt elite. Trump only partially fulfills this criterion. "His populist rhetoric simply serves to separate friend from foe," Eitelmann pointed out. His friends can include powerful businessmen, for example, while his enemies can be reporters who criticize him but who work for media outlets that are otherwise considered the voice of the common people. In this respect, Trump's populist rhetoric can hardly be seen as an expression of an ideology but rather as a self-serving stratagem to further his personal agenda.