Trump’s speech: ‘Gloomy’. ‘Amazing’. ‘Vile’.

A man of his words: Trump has created a unique linguistic “brand”, according to experts.

Do we need a more presidential Donald Trump? In his State of the Union speech, the president spoke calmly and carefully. People noted the contrast with his usual rhetorical style…

Donald Trump is not a conventional president, but there are traditions that even he keeps. One of those is the annual State of the Union speech.

On Tuesday evening, Trump delivered his first such address to Congress. Over 80 minutes, he summed up the achievements of his first year and presented some rough ideas for his second. Reading from a teleprompter, he stuck to the script written by his team.

To cheers from Republicans, the president spoke of “a new American moment”. He celebrated the booming US economy, his party’s tax reform and victories against Islamic State. He delivered hardline words on immigration, Russia and China. He promised to push for a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan. He mentioned God four times. He called for unity in America.

The result was a rather typical conservative speech, professionally delivered. The Chicago Tribune noted Trump’s “basic restraint”. The Los Angeles Times wrote that he had a “softer tone”. The BBC saw “a smoother Trump”. Fox News praised his “much more optimistic” language.

Trump rarely gives scripted speeches. In fact, his normally blunt, freewheeling style is one of his chief characteristics. He uses a relatively small vocabulary of short, punchy words (see image), which he underscores with big gestures. He repeats himself for emphasis and creates associations between words (think of “crooked Hillary”).

His sentences frequently break off in the middle or jump between topics. In a speech in July 2015, he touched on the Iran nuclear deal, his grandfather’s education, his own education, nuclear energy, prisoners and women’s intelligence — all in the space of a minute.

Trump’s language is often described as “unpresidential” — critics point out that, according to computer analysis, he has the vocabulary of a nine-year-old. Certainly, previous presidents tended to use more formal language. The famously literary Barack Obama was fond of high-flown rhetoric.

Tuesday’s speech was closer to this style. Was it an improvement?

Freedom of speech

Of course, say some. Whatever you think of its message, the speech was clear, measured and full of memorable lines about the greatness of America. It reads as well in print as it sounded in the room. And Trump was rewarded with positive feedback, even from normally hostile media. This could be the moment he becomes a real statesman.

You’re missing the point, reply others. Trump was elected because of his unique style, not despite it. He speaks like ordinary people, full of emotion and digressions. It does not matter that his unscripted speeches read badly — his powerful delivery is meant to be seen and heard. In this sense, he is truly a president for the internet age.

You Decide

  1. Do you prefer Trump scripted or unscripted?
  2. Does Tuesday’s speech mark a turning point in Trump’s presidency?

Activities

  1. Watch the highlights of Trump’s speech in Become An Expert. Then try to rewrite them in Trump’s unscripted style.
  2. Pick a political issue in your country that interests you. Deliver a two-minute speech about it to the class, trying to sound as “presidential” as possible.

Some People Say...

“Rhetoric does not get you anywhere.”

Mel Brooks

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Trump emphasised his “America first” message in the speech. He said that the economy is doing well, which is true; he correctly pointed out that wages are rising and African-American unemployment is falling. But not all his statements were accurate. For instance, his claim that he passed the nation’s biggest ever tax cut is untrue.
What do we not know?
Trump made several pledges in the speech. The biggest was the infrastructure plan; others included a reduction in the price of prescription drugs and support for paid family leave. It is hard to know which of these he will achieve. Details were scarce, and Trump’s success will partly depend on cooperation with Democrats — which may be hard, given the currently tense relations between the two parties.

Word Watch

State of the Union
Every January (except in the first year of his term), the president delivers a speech to both houses of Congress. The idea is to give a snapshot of the economy and outline priorities for the future.
80 minutes
The speech was the third-longest State of the Union address in history. The first two were delivered by Bill Clinton.
His team
The speech was written by Vice-President Mike Pence; Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior domestic-policy adviser; Gary Cohn, the head of the National Economic Council; and H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser.
Islamic State
In the past year, IS lost almost all its territory in Iraq and Syria. But it has not been defeated: terrorism continues to be carried out in its name.
Computer analysis
The analysis looked at the first 30,000 words used by each president since Herbert Hoover (in office 1929-33). Hoover was placed highest — his language was pitched at 16-year-olds. Trump came last. Note that this kind of analysis has been criticised.
Statesman
Oxford Dictionaries: “A skilled, experienced, and respected political leader or figure.”

Subjects

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