So the votes have been cast and counted, and Donald J. Trump, an outspoken business tycoon and real estate mogul who has never before held public office, will soon be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.
The President-Elect’s victory has shocked many commentators around the world and upset the natural order of rule by the Establishment. So far then “The Donald” has achieved what he set out to – a seismic upheaval of the status quo and a massive “up yours” to the prevailing consensus. Or, to use language that Mr Trump’s supporters might understand, “He’s changed things”.
Language is at the very heart of Trump’s success. Commentators are correct that he’s pulled off what can only be described as a shocking victory, against all the odds. But if the UK’s Brexit vote taught us anything, it’s that the bookmakers and the pollsters are anything but infallible.
To dismiss Trump, as many did, as a narcissistic, egomaniacal, self-obsessed, borderline sociopath is to rather miss the point. He may well be all of these things. But an analysis of the way he has communicated with his core base of support throughout this campaign gives an insight into his appeal to his followers: the marginalised, disenfranchised, blue collar, white American workers who have become so disillusioned by continually being overlooked by Washington’s elite that they hung on his every word and carried him across the finish line of this bitter and divisive contest.
At his heart Trump is a salesman and a self-professed “deal-maker” and he recognised better than anybody that to win the presidency you have to sell yourself. His speech is often incoherent, his policy ideas bare and uninformed, his ideology an enunciation of populist concerns, rather than an overtly-Republican world view.
Trump has always understood what all the other candidates, both during the Republican nominations and the race to the White House, didn’t – that a groundswell of public opposition to the establishment could be exploited in the pursuit of power. And he did what others didn’t; he spoke to the disenfranchised on their level, with language they understood, about issues they cared about.
If you think honestly about the most convincing sales pitches, were you swayed by the product or by the salesperson? More often than not I’d argue that the personality of the salesperson, and your trust in them, is what leads most people to buy. In short, Trump sold himself more effectively and more convincingly to his target audiences; he persuaded them to buy his product, his brand, rather than his competitor’s.
To identify what makes Trump’s language different, we can look at the shape of his sentences. One analysis found that he talks at just below that of an 11-year-old’s reading level, compared with the 14-15 year-old reading levels at which his competitors speak. This may not be particularly complimentary to American voters, but his victory shows the success of this approach.
His speech patterns don’t work the way modern political rhetoric does – they work the way punch lines work: short (sometimes very short) sentences, monosyllabic words, with the most important words at the end to add extra emphasis and leave an enduring impression in the listeners’ minds. He almost speaks in Tweets, and his ability to harness the power of social media to drive his campaign forward has provided him with an invaluable platform to directly engage and communicate with his followers in real time. He often repeats key words, uses commands like “look at [this]” and consistently implies third-party endorsement and support from unnamed and unverifiable sources who have contacted him personally to drive home his message.
His rhetorical approach is rare among modern politicians, and not simply because they lack Trump’s showmanship, celebrity or comedic gifts. It’s rare because most successful modern politicians are fanatically careful about the language they use. They are keenly aware of the ways in which any word they speak may be (mis)interpreted by journalists, partisan groups, and citizens.
But Trump’s approach reinforces and retrenches his stance as the political outsider, a standpoint that chimes with his key audiences, as did his continual accusations that the political process in the country was “rigged” by a cabal of establishment politicians and their media flunkies. If Trump’s opponents can take solace in anything, it’s that his victory proves the system is not rigged in the establishment’s interests (or if it is, not sufficiently so to deny him his success).
Not only did he speak to his target audiences in a way they could understand, and which didn’t make them feel patronised, he convinced them that he was one of them, with the same shared beliefs, concerns and goals. And he goaded his opponent into further marginalising his supporters, with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton calling his followers “deplorables”. It’s no small feat for a billionaire property tycoon, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, to win over the very people who so often get exploited in the pursuit of amassing such a vast fortune.
Throughout the campaign, commentators found it easy to write Trump off as an idiot and a maniac… before he won. But win he did, and whatever partisan or personal opinions you hold about his character and policy approach, what he’s achieved in politics so far is monumental.
Far from being an idiot, Trump is a pragmatic salesman and astute communicator who tapped into the vehement underbelly of America’s disenfranchised masses and drove them to the polling booths. He had a clear plan about how to seize power and he executed it perfectly. Central to his success is his command of appropriate and effective communication tools.
It remains to be seen whether this astute pragmatism is transplanted from the campaign trail to the Oval Office and whether his promises to unify the county and “Bind the wounds of division” are sincere. To be sure, this Presidential campaign has inflicted wounds on American society that are deeper than most in recent history.