Tonight, President Donald Trump will deliver his State of the Union address. There’s a ton of good reporting about what he might say (and how it will be received).
But besides the “what” of Trump will say, I also wondered about the “how.”
To that end, I reached out to Edward Schiappa, a professor of Rhetoric & Media at MIT where he is also the John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Let’s start simple: How would you describe President Trump’s speaking style?
Schiappa: Cicero described three styles of speaking – the Grand, Middle, and Plain, based on vocabulary, sentence structure, manner of delivery, and sophistication of the ideas expressed. The Grand style is rarely used by US presidents in the past 100 years, but John F. Kennedy’s inaugural and Ronald Reagan’s Challenger eulogy are in that tradition. Most presidents aim for the Middle style, which Cicero suggests avoids ornateness but is still “pleasing” to the audience.
Trump’s speaking manner falls into the Plain style. He speaks bluntly, uses a limited vocabulary, and his syntax varies between tortured (when speaking extemporaneously) to simple (when scripted). An example of his limited vocabulary is his over-reliance on the word “very” to modify simple adjectives. Instead of “awful” or “terrible,” he says, “very bad.” Instead of “excellently” or “effectively,” he says, “very well.” Instead of “outstanding” or “exceptional,” he says, “very good.” Isocrates said that one’s words reveal the quality of the speaker’s thinking, in which case we would need to infer that Trump’s plain style indicates simplistic thinking.
Cillizza: Does he do anything rhetorically different in a formal speech like SOTU versus a speech at a campaign rally?
Schiappa: He should. We will see if he does soon enough. His campaign-rally style is bombastic and not unlike a carnival barker, as Barack Obama once described Trump. The success of a campaign rally is how much of an emotional response the speaker can whip up. The audience at a rally is not there to think. In contrast, SOTU speeches to Congress and the nation are far more somber and deliberative events, even if they are punctuated by emotional appeals. Once the speech is given, I predict that the more like a rally speech it is, the more criticism it will receive as a SOTU speech.
What is similar between the SOTU and Trump’s rally speeches is that they are carefully managed events. Since Reagan, presidents have become more sophisticated in using “human props,” for example. I anticipate Trump will continue this particular tradition.
Cillizza: How different is Trump’s speaking style in a speech like the SOTU than his presidential predecessors? And in what ways specifically?
Schiappa: Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, in their classic book, Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words, devote a chapter to the rhetorical functions of the SOTU. They identify three recurring argumentative features: a public meditations on values, assessments of information and issues, and policy recommendations. Based on what we saw in the 2018 SOTU address, Trump will champion the values he favor, such as “America First.” And he will provide his assessment of information and the issues facing the nation, though his record of mendacity will no doubt send fact-checkers scurrying. And he will make policy recommendations, of course.
While the functions of the SOTU are likely to be followed in general, the substance will be distinctively Trump. For example, the Congressional Research Service’s account of the SOTU notes that second and third year SOTU typically devote 10% of the speech to touting the accomplishments of the administration. I suspect that figure will be higher this year.
It is also traditional that the SOTU strives for some degree of bipartisanship. This is a tactical choice because presidents rarely can enact policy without both parties’ cooperation. The news today is full of predictions about whether Trump can deliver his call for comity. We shall see soon enough.
Cillizza: Is it possible for Trump to go to a different rhetorical level in his SOTU? Should he even want to?
Schiappa: He should want to, if he wants any chance of working with Congress or improving his approval ratings. Frankly, I do not think it is possible for him to do so. Every indication is that what we see with Trump is what we get, and I do not see his intellectual abilities and his speaking skills changing at this stage of the game.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “Donald Trump’s speaking style reminds me of _____________.” Now, explain.
Schiappa: “A petulant adolescent.”
John McWhorter, a respected linguistics professor at Columbia, described Trump’s speaking style as “oddly adolescent,” and I concur. Trump’s vocabulary is limited (one account even declared he speaks like an 8-year-old), his knowledge of the world is frighteningly narrow, he lies constantly to get his way, he is a thin-skinned bully who lashes out at any criticism, and his narcissism reminds me of an adolescent who has not yet discovered there are other people in the world who matter.