On May 3rd Donald Trump won the Indiana state primary and has been cited as the Republican parties presidential nominee. Although this won’t become official until the Republican National Convention in July both Ted Cruz and John Kasich have dropped out of the race leaving Trump uncontested. Meaning, come November your choice for president will either be Donald Trump or, most likely, Hillary Clinton. This is a far cry from just a year ago when most people regarded Trump’s bid for the presidency as a joke that would soon fizzle out. However, he has managed to successfully market himself as a different type of presidential candidate: from his accessibility to the media, to his rallies characterized by violence (that he encourages). One most notable difference is the outlandish, and frankly ridiculous, immigration policies he plans to initiate if he becomes president: building a wall on the Mexican border (that Mexico is going to pay for), deporting every single illegal immigrant living in the United States (no small order) and killing the families of Muslim terrorists in the United States (because that will make us so much better than them).
Clearly what Donald Trump says rakes in the viewers as well as the voters, but Trumps appeal is more than what he says, it’s how he says it. According to the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, a test that assigns grade levels to speeches based on word and sentence length, Donald Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level. In comparison Hillary Clinton speaks at a seventh and almost eighth-grade level, and Bernie Sanders speaks at a tenth-grade level. Speaking at a fourth-grade level means that Trump is mostly using one and two syllable words to comprise short, simple, sound bite sentences. A breakdown analysis of a couple of Trump’s one-on-one interviews by Mark Yoffe Liberman for a ThinkProgress article found that some of Trump’s most used words were “I,” “Trump,” “very,” and “money.” Apparently he is sticking to what Central Connecticut State University’s linguistics professor Helen Koulidobrova calls high-frequency words; simple words that are learned at an early age, heard throughout a persons life and, therefore, do not require a lot of thought to be processed by the brain.
I met Professor Koulidobrova at her office on the first day of spring and in true New England fashion, it snowed. Inside DiLoreto Hall I was greeted by a barefoot linguist and offered tea. After declining the tea and cueing up YouTube, we sat back to watch Nerdwriter1 break down one of Donald Trump’s answers during a Jimmy Kimmel interview. In one minute he found that Trump delivered a 220-word answer comprised of 172 one-syllable words; thirty-nine, two-syllable words; four, three-syllable words (three of which were the same word—“tremendous”), and two, four-syllable words. Nerdwriter1 broke down Trump’s sentence structure as both simple and purposefully incoherent. He ended the video with a plea for people to take a closer look at Trump’s words.
Professor Koulidobrova was quick to correct the video’s mistakes. Nerdwriter1 said that Trump doesn’t use complex sentences or independent clauses. “He uses independent clauses all the time because independent clauses are what make a sentence. But making a complex sentence would be to have an independent clause with a dependent clause, and that he doesn’t do. Everything he said is a bunch of simple sentences, and those are by definition independent clauses.” But how did these simple sentences and high-frequency words win him the nomination?
“Part of the answer lies in the simplicity of language,” Koulidobrova said. “I think the main point, for political campaigns in general, is if you want people to be listening, your ideas are very important, obviously. But if you don’t want to alienate your particular base, then you need to know about linguistics. You need to know about how people process language. You need to know how they respond to particular vocabulary.” For instance, speaking at a fourth-grade level means that people who don’t have a high literacy rate can easily understand what Trump is saying. “He speaks in technically (from the linguistic point of view), simple sentences. So that’s just subject, verb, object. What that does, is it allows your brain to process and follow the speech a little bit easier than if it were more complex.” Another factor is word frequency effect. Trump often repeats key words, like “problem,” causing a neurolinguistic link to anchor in the listener’s mind.
“The word ‘hate’,” Koulidobrova slapped her hand down hard on her leg to demonstrate the punch monosyllabic words carry. It’s punchy, but the word ‘problem’,” a softer slap to demonstrate a bi-syllabic word’s impact, “is punchy in a somewhat different way. It’s very English, if you will; there are two syllables in the word, and English prefers multi-syllabic words. English shows where the stress falls and it’s clear about that in a bi-syllabic word with a rise and fall in it, as in the word ‘problem.’ In the video, he doesn’t say ‘cause,’ he says ‘root cause’ to perhaps have you stretch a little and give you a second to digest this word instead of just a punch that you could miss because it just came and went.” Feet propped up on her desk, Professor Koulidobrova wrapped her hands around the warm mug of tea held between her knees. “So, there’s a processing effect here: he uses simple sentences in terms of syntax, and therefore, allows the brain to digest them a little easier. There is also a literacy effect, which means his vocabulary and the kind of syntax he uses, however simple, is what you find in the low literacy texts. That makes people remember. It sticks in the brain. Which means, if you are not taking the time to think about what you are hearing, or don’t know how to read very well, and if you don’t listen to anything else, all you hear are these frequent things floating in your brain precisely because they are easy to hold on to mentally. That’s what’s going to be in your head.”
Trump works hard to ensure that certain words get embedded in people’s minds, which is why his speech comes off as incoherent and jumbled. “English, like many languages, structures its sentences in the following way – there’s a topic, and then there’s a comment. The topic part is sort of old information, and the comment part is what someone wants you to pay attention to. I’m certain the people who work for Trump know this, and therefore, they recommend that he places additional focus on structuring his sentences this way. What he says at the beginning of the sentence is going to be significantly less important then what he says at the end of the sentence because that is how English speakers process the sentence as it comes at them. To remain true to that kind of a frame, you do whatever you have to do to the inside of the sentence (even if you turn it into an ungrammatical sentence), to make certain that the last thing that people hear is the thing you want them to remember. In the video Trump says, ‘You can’t solve a problem until you find out what’s the root cause.’ However, the sentence, ‘You can’t solve a problem until you know what the root cause is,’ would have been grammatical instead. He made the sentence ‘bad’ only to make sure that he ended with the word he needed to make us think about. He manipulates language. Literally, he turns language ungrammatical so that he could get some other things done.”
When political candidates speak, they do more than answer questions or make statements. They are selling themselves with words, and Trump has a mind for business. “From my stand point,” Koulidobrova said, “if you mess with syntax you can tell your audience, ‘I understand that sometimes you might say things that are not proper but I’m one of you and I also don’t say things that proper, and that’s all right. I’m here with you and you don’t need to be literate; you don’t need to read much because I’m here for you. I’m one of you. I will represent you. And not only am I one of you, but you can also be like me because that’s how you talk and that’s how I talk. But look where I am now, so maybe if you work hard and make all those obstacles disappear, then you too can make the same kind of money I’ve made.’”
Most polling has found that the average Trump supporters are older white men without college degrees who earn less than the historical Republican voter. “These are the people without strong reading skills, people traditionally labeled as not having strong critical thinking skills, and who may or may not have graduated high school. They have been told over and over that they are not using English properly in some way. Educating yourself is hard and painful, and you learn things about the world you may not like so much. So the mentality is, ‘If I don’t have to do any of that, and my candidate says I’m just fine the way I am, and in fact he is just like me (just with more money), then there is a chance that I can be just like him.’ Such an approach may win their vote.”
Outside, all the snow had nearly melted away when Koulidobrova set down her empty mug and told me her final thoughts on the candidate that has kept the pundits guessing the entire election cycle. “A lot of people have said a lot of things about Donald Trump, but you never really know what that man thinks. The way he structures his rhetoric and the things that he does linguistically, I would suspect are pretty well calculated and if that’s true, then you really have no idea what’s behind it.” The things Trump says are indeed well crafted nonsense, but whether he means those words or not only time will tell.