“I Have The Best Words.” Trumpspeak And Its Relationship With The Truth
Where do you start when it comes to analysing Trump’s language? If you ask him, he’ll tell you: “I know words. I have the best words.” There have been countless linguistic studies on the man himself already, and those experts would respectfully disagree.
We can all probably do a passable impression of Trumpspeak; ‘thanks’ to his Twitter feed, it is not hard to mimic or parody Trump’s distinctive idiolect. We are used to more polished speakers most of the time, certain world leaders excluded. We are used to speeches that have been crafted in advance. Eloquent speakers can improvise in this polished way as well.
Some linguists argue that Trump’s language is much more ‘normal’ than we might first think. He seems “unique” because he doesn’t speak like a politician; “he speaks like everyone else.” Jennifer Sclafani’s two year study of Trump’s language concluded that although Trump “creates a spectacle” and “a brand” with his language, most of the features we associate with Trumpspeak (“a casual tone, a simple vocabulary and grammar, repetitions, hyperbole and sudden switches of topic”) are merely conventions of “everyday speech.” She adds, “It’s just unusual to hear it from a president speaking in a public, formal context.”
Not all linguists agree. While these spoken language features are typical in spontaneous speech, there are other conventions that are strangely absent. Trump even breaks some of the most basic ‘rules’ of spoken language, notably the cooperative principle. Paul Grice theorised that there are four ‘maxims’ in spoken communication. These are the unwritten rules and the assumptions that we make when interacting with others, and the key to effective communication. The four maxims are quality, quantity, relation and manner. If someone is deliberately not following these principles, then they are not speaking and interacting in a cooperative manner. When Trump breaks the maxim of quality, the reaction is (rightly) fear, disbelief, outrage and lots of headlines.
The maxim of quality:
Try to make your contribution one that is true.
Do not say what you believe to be false.
Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
Leaders sometimes lie, granted. But rarely are the lies so obvious, immediately identified, immediately countered with evidence, and yet still denied.
Here it is essential to distinguish between different levels of ‘untruths’: an untruth may be a deliberate lie, an error, and a delusion. With the latter, the speaker may firmly believe that they are telling the truth. They may pass a lie-detector test, so certain are they of their truth.
Errors happen. Everyone makes the odd mistake here and there, especially in unplanned, spontaneous spoken language. Errors may be accidental or the result of ignorance. When an error is pointed out to us, we have some choices: we can accept the error quietly, we may address it publicly, or we may reject it. If we continue to believe that we were correct, then our error becomes a delusion. If we know we made an error but we persist in repeating it, it becomes a lie.
Deliberately lying in politics is, sadly, nothing new, but its potential can be highly dangerous. Orwell had a lot to say about the insidious potential of lying in politics, and it is entirely understandable for us to jump to the conclusion that Trump has a masterplan to destroy truth and replace it with Trumpian Newspeak in a fascist dystopia. But Trump’s relationship with the truth is more complex than that.
Lawrence Douglas explored some typical features of Trumpspeak in his piece for the Guardian, following Trump’s interview with Time magazine, back in March. Douglas noted that Trump “overwhelmed his interviewer with such a profusion of misstatements, half-truths, dodges and red herrings that one grows dizzy trying to untangle it all.” He analysed Trump’s relationship with the truth, and drew the following conclusions:
In Trumpspeak, a speaker can never be accused of lying if he’s simply repeating the statements of others.
Truthful statements do not necessarily offer an accurate account of events in the world. They provide an approximation or exaggeration of something that might, in theory, have occurred.
Trumpspeak confuses prophecy with honesty. If a news organisation failed to correctly anticipate the president’s win at the polls, Trumpspeak treats this as evidence of the falseness and mendacity of that organisation’s reportage about all of reality.
Belief is a signal of truth. If his supporters believe him, then what Trump is saying must be true.
Trumpspeak places no independent value on truth. The value of speech is to be measured, exclusively in terms of its effects. If a statement gets me closer to my goal, then it is valuable; if it does not, it is worthless.
Douglas points out at the end of his piece that he does not “mean to suggest that Trumpspeak is a conscious construct of the president,” and that, I think, is key to understanding Trump’s flexible attitude to the truth. I do not think this is deliberate. I don’t think this is case of reframing truth, and an Orwellian “destruction of words.” I mean, it’s clearly not working, for a start. Orwell wrote, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” That’s not what is happening here. Trump is not a convincing liar in the slightest.
I think it is more likely that Trump has long believed that the truth is what he says it is. And that this is because he has always had power, not because he is trying to claim power. I think he believes what he is saying, and this means we are firmly in delusion territory. Fake News is anything that threatens his narrative, not because he’s ticking off ‘destroy the media’ from his word domination checklist, but because for once, he is not being told what he wants to hear. Decades of sycophantic support have fed this delusion; it is not easy to speak truth to power. And now he faces countless journalists and broadcasters, whose job it is to do just that. World leaders do the same. Renowned experts do the same. Here is the emperor who has just been told that he’s been walking around naked. Of course he’d rather believe he’s decked out in the snazziest new fashions. To do that, he must discredit the experts, the journalists, the broadcasters and even other world leaders. All of them threaten his understanding of truth.
So much for the maxim of quality, then. But Trump flouts the other maxims too. He does not make his speech as informative as he needs to. He drifts from the topic at hand. But the other really worrying area of Trump’s spoken language is where he flouts the maxim of manner. This fourth maxim refers to lucidity, clarity and precision. If we are following the cooperative principle, we should avoid ambiguity and obscurity, we should be brief, and we should be orderly.
In Sharon Begley’s article on Trump’s language for STAT, she opens with an example of a spontaneous utterance that, well, you can see for yourself:
It was the kind of utterance that makes professional transcribers question their career choice:
“…there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself - and the Russians, zero.”
When President Trump offered that response to a question at a press conference last week, it was the latest example of his tortured syntax, mid-thought changes of subject, and apparent trouble formulating complete sentences, let alone a coherent paragraph, in unscripted speech.
Where Begley’s article takes the analysis of Trumpspeak further is in her exploration of how Trump “was not always so linguistically challenged.”
In interviews Trump gave in the 1980s and 1990s, he spoke articulately, used sophisticated vocabulary, inserted dependent clauses into his sentences without losing his train of thought, and strung together sentences into a polished paragraph, which — and this is no mean feat — would have scanned just fine in print.
So what’s changed? It could be stress, or emotional upheaval. It could be strategic; “maybe Trump thinks his supporters like to hear him speak simply and with more passion than proper syntax.” But Begley isn’t convinced that it’s just that.
Research has shown that changes in speaking style can result from cognitive decline. (….) For decades, studies have found that deterioration in the fluency, complexity and vocabulary level of spontaneous speech can indicate slipping brain function due to normal aging or neurodegenerative disease. (…) Although [none of the experts STAT consulted] said [Trump’s] apparent loss of linguistic fluency was unambiguous evidence of mental decline, most thought something was going on.”
This isn’t the first time researchers have analysed the language of a president in this manner, either:
Researchers have used neurolinguistics analysis of past presidents to detect, retrospectively, early Alzheimer’s disease. In a famous 2015 study, scientists at Arizona State University evaluated how Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush spoke at their news conferences. Reagan’s speech was riddled with indefinite nouns (something, anything), “low imageability” verbs (have, go, get), incomplete sentences, limited vocabulary, simple grammar, and fillers (well, basically, um, ah, so) — all characteristic of cognitive problems. That suggested Reagan’s brain was slipping just a few years into his 1981-1989 tenure; that decline continued. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994. Bush showed no linguistic deterioration; he remained mentally sharp throughout his 1989-1993 tenure and beyond.
If you can bear to, have a look at this video and ask yourself whether you think this is a man who is deliberately lying, consciously performing, or merely believing his own delusions.
There’s nothing I can add to this pic.twitter.com/QJW3ukhXUG— Stephen Fry (@stephenfry) October 13, 2017
George Orwell once said, “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” There are deliberate deceptions that must be addressed, of course, perpetrated by Trump’s official and unofficial allies. But with Trump himself, we are not so much in a time of deceit as we are in a time of delusion, and therefore telling the truth becomes a revelatory act. To tell Trump the truth is to reveal what has been hidden from him for decades. It is to tell the emperor that he is naked. Revelations can fall on deaf ears; they can be painful. But we must keep presenting an honest reflection rather than feeding the delusion. Like Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’, we are “not cruel, only truthful”; it’s time for Trump to take a long, hard look at himself.
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