The Alluring Language Of Donald Trump

28/09/2016 12:48
Carlos Barria / Reuters

Effective rhetoric is instrumental in achieving political success. One need only look back to ancient Greek times, and Plato's historical adage that rhetoric 'is the art of winning the soul by discourse' to evidence the inherent presence, and power, of language in politics. Amongst his many business ventures, it appears likely that Trump may have glanced at Plato's philosophy, for his produced rhetoric - expertly crafted with multiple rhetorical techniques to appeal to populist desires and advance his media image- is one of the crucial aspects that underpin his unheralded ascent to the very forefront of global politics.

It is fundamental to understand the most significant facet of Trump's language - the use of hyperbole. Through gross exaggeration of his capabilities, aims, and events around him, Trump instantly attracts attention (irrespective if positive or negative) and gradually progresses his image toward the fore of American politics.

Examples of such ad populum phrases are abundant. His claim that the United States has a "$500 billion a year trade deficit with China" was an over-exaggeration and has been debunked several times. In a November rally, Trump exaggerated the number of Syrian refugees that Obama wished to accept twenty-fivefold. Claims that 'thousands of Muslims' paraded New Jersey streets has never been verified and has yet to be witnessed by anyone other than the accuser. Through the act of 'securitizing' aspects such as immigration and nuclear threat with emotive language, Trump makes these issues unquestioned and manifest, viewing all global affairs solely through the lens of American interests. Exaggerating foreign threats, Trump's curt pledges to 'fix' problems abroad through the use of brute force (another rhetorical device known as ad baculum) instantly appeals to an American voter whose latent fears about dangers overseas have been augmented by Trump.

Trump's espoused rhetoric need not be anywhere near valid to benefit his campaign. Over-exaggerating and scaremongering current issues- whether immigration, economy or political establishment - taps into an underlying and inherent fear held by many the populace. This vessel of fear opened, simple assertions of his ability to remedy the problem- manifested in succinct and unsubstantiated statements such as 'I will build a great wall...we're bringing your business back...I will bring jobs back from China'- crafts his image into a highly competent, proactive and effective leader; a saviour from the 'ills' which afflict the U.S. Omitting jargonizing and complicating his vocabulary, simple and universally comprehensible words increases his appeal through 'striking a chord' with disenchanted members of the population; his informal style contributing to his overall image as a political outsider and as an 'authentic' candidate. Abounding in his speeches is the short, yet crucial, word 'we'. Inclusive language ('we will make America great again') forms a collectivity between Trump and the public, and evidences Trump's transcending from the removed political elite to the lives of ordinary Americans.

Undoubtedly divisive and brash, Trump's language is carefully calibrated to garner maximum media attention whilst simultaneously attempting to amass large amounts of populist support. Indeed, studies show that politicians that use high-intensity, emotional language in exigent circumstances gain the most support. That research highlights the historical tendency for U.S. presidential candidates to use the language of a 6th-8th grader (years 7 to 9 as a UK comparison) during a campaign evidences not only the efficacy of, but also perhaps the very reason for, Trump's simplicity. An antithetical ideology but similar technique, counterpart Bernie Sanders also deployed emotive and non-sophisticated language in his campaign to strike the appropriate resonance with a section of the electorate whose level of education may not have matched his.

Language is fundamentally ingrained in politics; a tool with which politicians can persuade the public with their declaration of power. Brazenly deployed, his very admission of sensationalism in his 1987 book The Art Of The Deal is all-telling:

"The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts."

Regardless of subjective opinions of Trump, his clever self-publicism and continuous emotivity through diction evidences a spectacular ascent from eccentric outsider to prime Republican candidacy. Self-proclamations of great aptitude (verging on hubris), unsupported claims, emotional pledges and oftentimes rash ad hominem putdowns of his opponents create an aura of charisma and confidence that evidently appeals to masses of Americans - encapsulating both the super-wealthy and disenchanted working classes. To return to ancient Greek axioms, Plato's summary of the power of language is almost an epitome of current events:

"If a rhetorician and a doctor visited a city, and they had to contend in argument before the Assembly as to which of the two should be chosen as doctor, the doctor would be nowhere, but the man who could speak would be chosen if he so wished."

Unrelenting self-belief and gumption have propelled his climb to the centre of American politics, crafted rhetorical allure and bravado may well make him the next U.S. president.

Thomas Smith