Trump and Obama

Differences and Similarities in Communication Styles

2018.02

Trump and Obama: Differences and Similarities in Communication Styles
Trump and Obama
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1. Introduction

Barack Obama and Donald Trump are as different as any two successive presidents that America has ever had. Obama is an advocate of progressive ideas such as globalization, tough environmental regulations, and gun control; Trump a proponent of conservative concepts such as American exceptionalism, climate change denial, and gun rights. The differences between the two presidents are not just limited to their political positions. While Obama is a scholarly politician who was once the editor of the Harvard Law Review, Trump is a bold and brash billionaire who once starred in his own reality TV show. Unsurprisingly, the way they write, speak, and communicate is radically different. Obama is an eloquent and gifted communicator with excellent writing and speaking skills who pens most of his own speeches. Trump is a direct communicator who uses simple words to get his message across and cares little about proper grammar, punctuation or syntax. Yet, the two share something major in common in the way they communicate. Both Obama and Trump were elected as political underdogs – as challengers to the establishment who were elected based on hopeful promises of political change. As such, the communication styles of the two presidents are surprisingly similar when examined in-depth. In terms of their communication styles, Obama and Trump - both of whom use language to paint themselves as powerful leaders with the ability to individually challenge Washington – are the most confident presidents in American history.



2. Trump’s unusually simple diction

Trump is arguably the most unconventional writer and public speaker to have ever become the president of the United States. His unconventional style is immediately apparent from his particularly simple choice of diction. Trump is much more limited in his range of vocabulary than previous presidents. He virtually never uses words that poorly educated Americans – a demographic Trump makes sure not to leave behind – could have trouble understanding. Many politicians frequently use policy jargon and sophisticated words. Trump, on the other hand, always elects for simple, widely-understood vocabulary instead. In his campaign announcement speech, Trump’s most frequently used words were the following: “I / they / you / Trump / very / great / he / China / said / me / money / going / Mexico / big / nice / stupid”. All of those words are simple words that virtually anyone who speaks English can understand. His favorite word, was “I”, and his fourth most frequently used word was his own name.

In comparison, Jeb Bush – former candidate for the 2016 Republican nomination, former governor of Florida, and the younger brother of George W. Bush – had most frequently used words such as: “state / strategy / government / create / president / standards / federal / regime / budget / forces / agenda / strategic". Words such as “regime”, “federal”, “strategic” and “agenda” are words that are used extremely frequently when politicians discuss government policy. Jeb Bush, a well-established and well-connected politician who Trump characterized during the Republican primaries as being deeply entrenched within the Republican establishment, used more sophisticated and varied diction, much more similar to the diction of the average American politician than Trump’s.



3. Trump’s empty words and intensifiers

In terms of adjectives and adverbs, Trump typically uses words which have been described as being “empty”. Trump uses adjectives and adverbs that are only intended to emphasize, not to actually describe a particular detail. Trump is well-known for his frequent and repeated use of words such as “great”, “wonderful”, “amazing”, “the best”, and “bigly”. Instead of using adjectives and adverbs which describe a particular detail or characteristic, Trump uses adjectives and adverbs which are simply meant to magnify and emphasize.

Trump also enjoys emphasizing his empty adjectives yet again. One of the hallmark features of Trump’s communication style is his extremely liberal use of intensifiers, which Trump often repeats many times in a single sentence. Intensifiers are words which are used to make adjectives stronger, such as “very”, “extremely”, and “really”. Trump can be frequently heard promoting something with phrases such as “very, very, very wonderful” and “so, so amazing”. His liberal use of repetitive intensifiers gives the impression that he has complete conviction in what he is saying. By constantly emphasizing his points, Trump makes it clear that there is no doubt in his words.



4. Trump’s love of exclamation marks and capital letters

Trump’s penchant for emphasis also extends into punctuation. Trump frequently uses exclamation marks in his writing (e.g. “Sad!” “This is McCarthyism!” “I will send in the Feds!”), most notably on Twitter, his most preferred avenue of communication. Trump uses exclamation marks far more often than the average Twitter user, let alone the average politician. Trump averages twice as many exclamation marks on Twitter compared to the mean. Trump also uses capital letters quite frequently, capitalizing entire words and sentences to get his point across. As words and sentences written in all capital letters are meant to symbolize shouting or screaming, many of Trump’s tweets give the impression that he is outraged. According to a critical Washington Post article, “a personification of the Trump Twitter voice would not look like Trump himself … it would be someone on the verge of a hysterical breakdown or a profound religious awakening”.



5. Trump’s freewheeling syntax

Trump’s use of syntax, like his use of diction and punctuation, breaks conventions. Trump’s syntax is fundamentally conversational in nature. While most politicians tend to write and speak in complete, well-formed, grammatically sound sentences, Trump enjoys using run-on sentences and sentence fragments. His use of run-on sentences – sentences where two or more independent clauses are connected improperly without the appropriate punctuation – is most pronounced in his public speaking, where Trump enjoys speaking in a “stream of consciousness” style that has been described as “rambling”. In a 2016 speech, Trump gave a speech in which there was a run-on sentence that was a whopping 285 words long. The sentence starts with the following: “Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, 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, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!” The sentence continues on for another 183 words without stopping.

Trump’s love of sentence fragments, incomplete sentences that lack subjects, predicates, and/or completely articulated ideas, is also immediately apparent in that same sentence. “Good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart” is an example of a sentence fragment. Trump frequently does not bother to complete his sentences. He simply throws out concepts and emotions in their most basic linguistic forms – single words and sentence fragments. Trump’s style of speaking and writing carries a distinct and consistently casual and conversational tone, whether he is giving a speech in front of Congress or tweeting. Trump’s unconventional use of syntax has a very simple explanation. Trump clearly does not care about keeping up appearances when communicating; he only cares about saying what is on his mind. Though run-on sentences and sentence fragments are the opposite in the sense that run-on sentences are lengthy and overly complicated while sentence fragments are short and overly simple, they both serve a common purpose for Trump in that neither require much thought or caution. Trump’s idiosyncrasies in syntax stem from the fact that he is simply saying whatever he wants to say, whenever he wants to. By using run-on sentences and sentence fragments, Trump does not waste time trying to find the right way to say something.



6. Criticism and support for Trump’s unconventional style

Trump’s unique way of communication has certainly drawn some attention. He may be the first American president ever to speak so freely without worrying about meeting conventional expectations placed on the grammar and diction of politicians, let alone American presidents. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s speaking and writing style has been the subject of much criticism, especially after he took office. Many of Trump’s critics argue that Trump is too casual in the way he communicates and that he must carry himself with more dignity when addressing others as POTUS (President of the United States). Some people say that Trump’s rambling stream-of-consciousness style makes it difficult to understand what he is saying, since he cares so little about proper grammar and syntax.

While Trump’s freewheeling style may not be appropriate for the heads of state of many, if not most countries of the world, his style has actually been very effective in America – at least to the 63 million Americans who voted for him in the election. Simple language is particularly important and effective in American politics. According to a 2003 study, a surprising 40% of Americans only have “basic literary skills”, and even those who are well-educated prefer to read below their education level. Simply put, many Americans are either not equipped or do not care to hear ornate language and prefer politicians to keep it simple when speaking and writing. Considering the fact that Trump’s language is arguably one of the simplest in the history of American presidents, it makes sense that Trump’s language has actually worked well with many voters. Trump’s supporters not only have no trouble understanding Trump, but also find Trump’s direct and confident style refreshing, trustworthy, and true to his image as a [1] straight-shooting anti-establishment political figure. Trump’s conversational style differentiates him from the vast majority of politicians, most of whom speak and write in a carefully rehearsed and calculated manner. As such, his spontaneous and conversational style of writing and speaking, limited range of diction, and attention-grabbing punctuation have served him well, portraying him as an honest and authentic politician who has no qualms about saying whatever he wants whenever he wants – someone the common American can understand and trust easily. According to one of Trump’s supporters, his supporters appreciate the fact that “Trump does not talk to them like they’re stupid”. The reading level of politicians’ speeches is deliberately set a low bar, typically between the 6th and 8th grade levels, and it is said that an 8th grade level is the most appropriate. Trump’s speeches are set between a 4th and 5th grade level, similar to the speeches of George W. Bush, a president who appealed to voters as a [2] relatable politician. Barack Obama’s speeches, on the other hand, were rated at an 8th grade level.



7. Obama – polished and eloquent

Compared to Trump, Obama is much more polished as a speaker and a writer – and also more conventional in his style. Obama is an excellent writer who “takes an unusually hands-on approach to his speech writing, more so than most politicians”. According to one of his former staff members, Obama is the “the best speechwriter in (Obama’s speech writing team), knows what he wants to say and generally says it better than anybody else would." A senior speechwriter on Obama’s team said that Obama was “probably the most gifted writer in the White House since Lincoln or JFK”. Obama has written two books and pens the bulk of his own speeches. As such, there is no surprise that Obama’s grammar and syntax are essentially perfect. Obama almost never uses sentence fragments, nor does he go off on long, rambling run-on sentences. His prose is well crafted and flows quite smoothly. His diction is varied and sophisticated. In one of his speeches – which he authored himself – Obama said the following about racism: "The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made.... But what we know—what we have seen—is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope—the audacity to hope—for what we can and must achieve tomorrow." As is apparent from that sample, it is extremely difficult to nitpick problems from Obama’s speeches and writing. Obama’s language is both powerful and refined, and there is little question that he was one of the most eloquent speakers in Washington during his time as POTUS.


8. The upside and downside of eloquence

In fact, Obama’s exceptional talent in writing and speaking played a crucial role in his rise to national stardom and the presidency. Obama’s famous [3] keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention “…became a touchstone of national unity and a soaring manifesto of hope that would form the foundation of his 2008 presidential campaign”, according to the New York Times. Before the 2004 keynote, Obama was yet largely unknown to the American public. With this keynote, Obama was instantly catapulted into the national spotlight, with multiple news outlets commenting that it was one of the greatest keynote addresses of all time. Like he did with the vast majority of his speeches, Obama had written the speech himself. Obama’s talent for writing and speaking was a major positive factor in his political career, but Obama has also been criticized as relying on that talent too much. According to one magazine article, “…most perilously, Obama believes more strongly in the magic of words, especially his own, than perhaps any of his recent predecessors. His default option is to give a speech, and he's maybe too prolific at doing so, since a disproportion of words to deeds is what ultimately undermines a politician”. The article goes on to state that “… this belief that the president can swoop down and save the day with a game-changing speech has become a cornerstone of the administration's political strategy”. Simply put, some believe that Obama relies on language too much and too often. Instead of taking action – his critics allege – Obama chooses to talk. In a similar vein, his critics argue that Obama may be a little too eloquent for his own good. An article from the New Republic, a conservative publication, accuses Obama of speaking to Americans “as if they were children”. He has been accused of being “condescending … refusing to give simple answers to questions”, and his answers have been described as being “maddeningly long” and “devoid of specifics”. Obama’s critics argue that Obama is overly verbose and unwilling to give simple answers, too intent on explaining himself as if he does not trust the listener to understand him correctly. The article goes on to say that “Obama may indeed often be the smartest guy in the room, but he doesn't need to remind people that he is … we are adults, too”. While some people appreciate Obama’s sophisticated style of communication, others are turned away by it, as they believe it to be signs of condescension and disingenuousness.


9. Surprising similarities

Trump and Obama are clearly extremely different, both in their political beliefs and their use of language. However, the two do have something unique in common, at least in the way they write and speak. The rhetoric of the two presidents are the most self-referential of all-time when compared with that of past presidents. “Self-referential” in this context refers to the use of first-person pronouns such as “I”, “me”, “my”, and “mine”. Obama ranks number two all-time, 69% more self-referential than the historical average. Trump ranks number one at 89% greater than the average. Trump refers to himself twice as much as Gerald Ford, the third most self-referential president in history. Simply put, Obama and Trump refer to themselves in their rhetoric more than any other previous president, and by significant margins at that.

That is not the only similarity between the rhetoric of the two presidents. Trump and Obama rank number one and two out of American presidents in “measures of tenacity” – measures which account for their use of words such as “must” and “need” as well as “will” and “shall” which call for action and/or connote confidence and totality. In other words, measures of tenacity indicate how much the speaker is demanding the audience to take action and/or how confident he is. Obama’s language was roughly 45% greater in measures of tenacity than the presidential average, and Trump’s was even greater than Obama’s. Only Obama and Trump’s averages measured substantially higher than the average. In measures of self-reference and tenacity in presidential rhetoric, Obama and Trump are unequivocally unique – no other president in American history comes close to the two.



10. Strong American leaders

Is there something to be gleaned from these surprising similarities between these two radically different presidents? Although Obama and Trump ran on two completely different political platforms, both promised change in Washington. In three consecutive elections from 2008 to 2016, American voters chose to elect a president who promised sweeping changes to the deeply rooted bureaucracy of American politics. As different as the two are, they are surprisingly similar in that they ran – and were elected – as outsiders to the Washington establishment who could shake up Washington. Obama and Trump projected an image of themselves as lone challengers to a massive organized bureaucracy. Their appeal as candidates and presidents were vested primarily in their individual characters, beliefs, and abilities. As such, their highly self-referential rhetoric reinforces the idea that they are, as individual leaders, the answers to the nation’s problems, and the highly tenacious nature of their rhetoric falls in line with their vision of bringing change to Washington. When accepting the Republican nomination, Trump said: “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it”. Just a few days into his first term in 2009, Obama told the Washington Post: “I’m the one who brings change – it is my vision, it is my agenda”.

Today, Americans politics are arguably more polarized than it has ever been. A recent survey reports that, “…for the first time in surveys dating to 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party”. As the [4] partisan divide between liberals and conservatives continues to grow, Washington has been paralyzed by partisan squabbling. Both parties spend an inordinate amount of time and effort in obstructing the other, and political progress has become quite slow as a result. Four in five Americans are critical of Congress, with partisan gridlock being the most common reason. While 37% of Americans were distrustful of the legislative branch (the Senate and the House of Representatives) in 1998, a whopping 64% of Americans in 2017 said that they did not trust the executive branch – a twofold increase. 50% of Americans in 2017 said that they do not trust politicians in general, compared to 35% in 1998.



11. Conclusion

As Americans’ trust in American politics and politicians continues to plummet, American voters have yearned for a strong leader who can bring about change in Washington and lead America past the dysfunction that paralyzes Congress. In a 2016 survey, a majority of Americans picked “strong leadership” as what they wanted to see most from the president. The self-centered and self-assured communication styles of Obama and Trump were intended to satisfy this demand, and they have undoubtedly played a crucial in role in leading the two men to the presidency. While Obama and Trump communicate in two completely different ways, they both communicate in a way that projects an image of themselves as the powerful leaders whom the American people have been waiting for.



How different are these two leaders in how they communicate, and how similar are they? What do their similarities say about modern American politics? Please discuss this topic with your Ringle tutor.

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