Donald J. Trump’s Inaugural Address had moments of what we could call rhetoric. The bit about the kid in Detroit and the kid on the “windswept plains of Nebraska” — black and white, get it? — looking up at the same night sky. Overall, though, there was the air of a diligent adolescent trying to put something down on paper but not quite hitting the mark. “America is totally unstoppable” sounds like a schoolyard brag. “We will bring back our borders” — where did they go? The “very sad depletion of our military” — it’s impossible to imagine Barack Obama, or even George W. Bush, phrasing it that way in a written speech.
His audience liked the applause lines, as they always do. But it’s hard to resist laughing at Trumpian syntax. I am given to indulging in it with a finger of bourbon after long days. My favorite so far is this insight from a South Carolina rally in 2015:
“Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at M.I.T.; good genes, very good genes, O.K., very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, O.K. …”
The truth is that President Trump’s choppy, rambling self-expression is not so exotic. A great many thoroughly intelligent people talk more like Donald Trump than they might know. What’s new is that someone who talks like this in public has become the president of the United States. Yet it isn’t surprising, and if we are not to spend the next four to eight years alternating between exasperation and confusion as he sounds off, we need to learn a new way of listening.
The false starts, jumpy inserts and repetition — speech as montage — are all typical of casual speech as opposed to written language. The endless emphasis (“Believe me,” “big league”) is as well. All humans festoon their talk tic-style with assurances of sincerity such as “really” and “totally.”
The issue is talking versus “speaking,” a more crucial distinction than we have reason to think about until someone as linguistically unpolished as President Trump brings talking into an arena usually reserved for at least an attempt at speaking.
One major concern: His barking style lends itself to expressing casual hatred too easily. Also, Mr. Obama had much less room to be “authentic.” Mr. Trump has the privilege of talking as he pleases with no concern for how he sounds. He can string his impressions together as they come, while a black politician who sounds too “street” gets only so far. (Hillary Clinton, too, was boxed in, by gender. If she had used traits associated with the casual speech of women she would have been branded as trivial.)
Mr. Trump’s come-as-you-are speaking style was part of his appeal, making the scion of a wealthy New York family seem relatable to someone in the rural Plains. In its power, it can sound as if he were asserting, “Yes, I can!” However, the truth is more mundane than that. Linguistically, it’s less that Mr. Trump deliberately pulled something off than that he didn’t have to even try to do anything beyond the ordinary.
Mr. Trump talks the way any number of people would over drinks, and many of us might be surprised to see elements of that style in our own downtime speech if transcribed.
Still, we wonder, what is someone with this after-hours baggy way of talking doing in the Oval Office? The reality is it was only a matter of time. America’s relationship to language has become more informal by the decade since the 1960s, just as it has to dress, sexual matters, culinary habits, dance and much else.
We shed the fedora and the white gloves eons ago. What are the chances we would still cherish “whom”-using oratory?
Today, when newscasters announce that we’re “headin’ into some chilly weather” and blogs publish headlines like “An Intriguing, Totally Not Recommended Method for Clearing Your Earwax,” we hear casual speech as “real” — a realness that no one expected of a Franklin D. Roosevelt or even a Lyndon B. Johnson. Mitt Romney, with his perfectly square speaking style complete with “gosh’s,” lost in 2012 partly because he sounded what used to be called “presidential” but now translates to many as stiff. Meanwhile, part of Barack Obama’s visceral appeal was his ability to summon up black preacherly cadence. Imagine Mr. Romney or John McCain trying to get any music out of “Yes, we can!” the way Mr. Obama did.
We could have seen it coming that a president would be unabashedly semi-articulate. George W. Bush’s election despite his prolific malapropisms was a first indication that being well spoken was a much lower priority for Americans in choosing a president than it once was. Mr. Bush, however, always gave the impression of at least trying to “speak” rather than “talk,” with a deer-caught-in-the-headlights quality so perfectly captured by Will Ferrell on “Saturday Night Live.” Sarah Palin was a kind of next step, blithely unconcerned with her swivel-tongued syntax and yet revered by millions.
It wasn’t going to be long before someone came along as unembarrassed to orate while inarticulate as Ms. Palin, while also getting higher in office than she did. With President Trump, the saloon-style speech is baked in. His career has never given him a reason to even pretend to speak rather than talk; he reportedly doesn’t read, and he lacks introspection — none of this bodes well for carefully considered self-expression. It would be surprising if this president weren’t a Twitter addict: The 140-character limit creates a way of writing that, like texting, diverges as little as possible from talking.
Because it is novel that someone in the Oval Office can’t be bothered with trying to be articulate, President Trump’s speaking style is throwing off the news media. All understand that his speech is structurally ungraceful. It may be harder to grasp that Mr. Trump, as someone just talking rather than artfully communicating ideas, has no sense of the tacit understanding that a politician’s utterances are more signals than statements, vehicles meant to convey larger messages.
Anthropologists have documented a tribe, the Kuna of Panama, whose chief gives a long speech in elevated terms and is followed by an assistant who explains what the chief said. This sounds exotic to us until we realize that commentaries after the State of the Union speeches are all but the same thing.
This is why Keegan-Michael Key’s “anger translator” routine with President Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2015 worked so well. We essentially never heard Mr. Obama “talk” as president. He always had to be performing, to some extent. And trained to hear politicians this way, the reporter and the pundit assume that Mr. Trump is “speaking” rather than talking. “What did Trump mean by that?” they say, scratching their heads. A Trump aide retorts, “The tweet speaks for itself.” That sounds trivial or deflective, until we understand that it makes perfect sense for someone who is just talking.
So how should we listen to this man daily for years? First, we have to realize that his talking style isn’t as exotically barbaric as it looks on the page — the oddness is that it winds up on the page at all. And second, we have to understand that his fans’ not minding how he talks is symptomatic of how all of us relate to formality nowadays. Language has just come along with it.
I think of Theodore Roosevelt. While he was quite articulate on all levels, he was an ebullient, ever-curious person, about whom an observer once said, with affection, “You must always remember that the president is about 6.” Linguistically, I listen to the man who is now president as if he were roughly 12 years old. That way, he is always perfectly understandable.
John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia.
De THE NEW YORK TIMES, 22/01/2017
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