By TEDDY WAYNE
Tremendous. Yuge. Sad. Beautiful. Disaster. Horrible. Disgusting. Failing media. Fake news. Believe me. Frankly. Blood coming out of her wherever. I like people who weren’t captured. He’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander. You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Paris is no longer Paris. Fire and fury. On many sides. I have the best words.
I rattled off that abbreviated list of words and expressions instantly recognizable as Donald Trump’s hallmarks in a few seconds, and suspect many Americans could easily add to it. In the past, we remembered politicians’ lines for their rhetorical sweep: Lincoln’s “Four score and seven years ago,” Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you,” Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
But — quick — try to recall anything Barack Obama, one of our most oratorically gifted presidents, said during his eight-year tenure outside of a written speech (and still nothing comes to mind as readily as President Trump’s “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now”). Even Mr. Obama’s abstract “Yes we can” campaign slogan seems to have been crushed by the concrete force of “Build the wall.”
Mr. Trump has lodged his pronouncements in our collective memory like no other public figure in recent history. So quotable is his idiosyncratic communication, and so powerful are the tools with which he conveys it, that he has even altered how the rest of us regard and use certain parts of the language. Many people are saying — to borrow another of his idioms — the words of Mr. Trump, whether or not we like him.
In modern times, our leaders’ boneheaded statements get the most airplay. The quotations we best remember from George W. Bush are his litany of gaffes and inanities (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”). History will remember Bill Clinton not as much for “I feel your pain” as his tortured legal evasion of “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Dan Quayle’s obituary will likely showcase “potatoe.”
For Mr. Trump, it is not his mistakes that captivate us (“covfefe” or his many tweeted misspellings, like “heel,” aside), but his crassness and outlandishness. His critics still cannot believe that someone so vulgar, so circa-1990 Andrew Dice Clay, is one of the leaders of the free world, and his words continue to shock. Asking “Did you hear what Trump said?” or “Did you see what Trump tweeted?” is a near-daily practice — and makes his declarations reverberate in the public consciousness and discourse.
Beyond stewing in debased words and sentiments, Mr. Trump also uses strikingly simple language. Flesch-Kincaid grade-level tests from Politico of his performance from two Republican debates in August 2015 showed him speaking at third- and fourth-grade levels. (Most other candidates spoke at an eighth-grade level.)
Judging from more elaborate vocabulary he has used in past public appearances, his diction now seems partly tailored to less sophisticated audiences, and partly because he holds forth on subjects about which he doesn’t have a firm grasp, something he wasn’t asked much to do in his previous life as a real-estate developer.
Consider Mr. Trump’s 1987 appearance on “Larry King Live,” during which he criticized America’s trade policy. His performance reads as a calmer tuneup for his stump speeches three decades hence: foreigners are taking advantage of and laughing at us, our leaders are fools, America has become a disaster and a violent wasteland.
Many of his verbal tics — “frankly,” “tremendous,” “you look at” — were evident back then. But his overall speech pattern was far more elevated and controlled than it is now. Answering a caller’s question as to why he doesn’t do more “for the hungry and the homeless in New York,” he said, “It’s such a big, big dilemma. You really need federal government assistance. Not even city government. The city governments have to be competent, capable, etc. But you really need the federal government to step in.”
Perhaps not Cicero, but, given a topic mostly within his ken, with a sympathetic interviewer and in a short appearance, Mr. Trump comes off as cogent and lucid, with trisyllabic words like “dilemma” and “competent” naturally tripping off his tongue.
By contrast, here he is in a tangent on uranium in his first unwieldy solo news conference as president on Feb. 16, 2017, after a question about his tendency to label the press as “fake news”: “We had Hillary Clinton give Russia 20 percent of the uranium in our country. You know what uranium is, right? This thing called nuclear weapons, and other things, like lots of things are done with uranium, including some bad things.”
Now, it is true that “things” is a longtime fallback word of Mr. Trump’s; in the ’87 interview, when asked what motivates him, he said, “I like building things. I like building beautiful buildings. I like doing other things. I’ve been doing a lot of other things.”
It is also true that he has talked publicly (and certainly tweeted) nearly ever day since he announced his candidacy, and with that level of exposure, even the most silver-tongued speaker is bound to produce some tarnish.
But the uranium digression, among countless other recent policy statements, demonstrates his bob-and-weave approach: the appearance of continued communication being more important than what’s actually being said.
Another chief tactic in his speech is repetition, which amplifies his sentiment and creates the appearance of some order by lending his sentences a little initial ballast (“a big, big dilemma”) before flying out of control. “Tremendous” is frequently used twice in a row, as is “very.” Another favorite modifier, “so,” often receives double or even triple treatment (on Paris: “So, so, so out of control, so dangerous”).
As with his choice of simple words, repetition drums home concepts: “On many sides, on many sides,” he said of the violence in Charlottesville, Va. “It’s been going on for a long time in our country … it’s been going on for a long, long time.” (The repetition also sometimes suggests a self-consciously unpersuasive speaker who doesn’t trust the force of his words the first time through.)
The combination of basic language and reiteration makes it easier for listeners to remember and recite his sound bites than those of the professorial Mr. Obama, who spoke in nuanced, logically progressing paragraphs.
The media, and the collective online media of individuals, help echo Mr. Trump’s words, too. Television news can’t play enough of his clips; publications love putting his most outrageous statements in big headlines. On Twitter, his unfiltered communiqués are retweeted and embedded and become trending topics.
There are more media outlets and audiovisual devices now than ever, and more people have access to what the president says, instantly, than at any time. He has been given the biggest megaphone in world history, and he can access it whenever he pleases from his cellphone.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Trump’s followers like to parrot him, bashing, say, the “failing media” or the “fake news,” urging him to “drain the swamp” or slandering his former opponent as “Crooked Hillary.” But even his detractors now sometimes speak or communicate much like him — usually with sarcastic contempt, but in his manner nonetheless.
These emulations arrive in a different register from past presidential impersonations, which were mostly about lampooning the foibles of the commander in chief (Will Ferrell’s “strategery,” Dana Carvey’s “Wouldn’t be prudent”) rather than submitting to his linguistic worldview: “huge” and “tremendous,” among others, are difficult not to hear with a Trumpian affect.
The president may not have permanently altered the connotations of these everyday words, but by imitating him, we are trafficking in the discourse of his choosing. As an example of how pernicious this can be, it is now common for liberals to jokingly call something they dislike “fake news.”
It may seem (mildly) subversive to mock the president, but doing so reinforces Mr. Trump’s definition of the words — anything that is critical of him — and obscures its earlier and more widely applied meaning of misinformation that targeted Hillary Clinton and boosted his campaign. The ease with which he co-opted such a charged term through blunt repetition should give us pause for what he may do with other parts of the English language.
For decades, Mr. Trump seemed to measure his value largely by his cultural relevance, whether his name appeared for deals in the business section or dates on Page Six, the gossip column of The New York Post. On that score, he has succeeded beyond any other modern-day figure in making people talk about him.
But what is more remarkable is that he has also started making people talk like him.