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Donald Trump’s recent speech at a Scranton, PA town hall meeting occurred during the Democratic National Convention (DNC), and it was chockfull of the usual tyrannical rhetoric: loud and unabashed, self-righteous aggrandizement, and brimming with non-specific criticisms of the establishment. He ridiculed the DNC for its lack of flags onstage, telling his cheering audience, “now we had a lot of flags,” as though the presence of dyed cloth is enough to demonstrate his patriotism and ability to run a country.
He brought up Putin, saying “we were talking about Putin today… no respect, no like, nothing.” Not only is the sentence grammatically troubled, but it also makes no sense. Anyone truly listening would be a little baffled as to his meaning, yet people loved it; contained within his enigmatic words they heard an entire style of foreign policy appealing to their sense of American Manifest Destiny.
People criticize Clinton for hedging her language and positions to account for any which way the political winds may start to blow, but the reality is that Trump is by far the master of this kind of slippery posturing. He knows exactly how to say the right kinds of words and sentence fragments to garner support in the form of righteous, uninformed anger while also never saying anything of real substance.
The Trump style of oration doesn’t center on a thesis with supporting evidence because that’s not what the Trump base wants. The Trump style is to hit as many patriotic buzzwords until one lands. It’s not inarticulateness that stems from stupidity, however. Rather, it is a genius move that renders counter-protests impossible, since nothing is really said in the first place.
In her brilliant evaluation of Trump’s “Idiolect,” Jennifer Sclafani clarifies that “idiolect is not the language of idiots but an idiosyncratic form of language that is unique to an individual.” Hinging on the “precarious connections between linguistic form and meaning,” such idiosyncrasies, according to Sclafani, produce the “polarizing evaluation” that we witness in audience responses: one hears a fascist while one hears a hero of the common man.
Sclafani tells BTRtoday that the reason for such a variant response is that policy is second, in terms of importance, behind the candidate’s “project of character.” Through language, a candidate uses public appearances to project what Sclafani calls a “presidential self.”
Trump weaves his presidential self by recounting past conversations and thoughts with and about people, and reminding his audience of his opposition. Such as, Sclafani says, his “constant reference to ‘crooked Hillary.’” The repetition, Sclafani explains, “creates an image of consistency, a quality that people deem important when they are looking for a trustworthy candidate.”
This “image of consistency” means that Trump need not work to gain his supporters’ trust through policy advocacy. His followers already believe he has the answers, and so they hear him making policy suggestions even when he doesn’t.
“I was told by my parents and teachers that if I worked hard and played by the rules, life would be okay,” says Gary Nordlinger, a campaign consultant and professor of legislative affairs at George Washington University. “There are millions of people out there who have worked hard and played by the rules and their lives aren’t okay.”
In his mid-DNC speech, Trump waxed on about trade but he never once mentioned specific policy plans but instead relied on “we are being ripped off by every single country.”
That’s a ridiculously easy statement to make because, again, it appealed to the people’s anger and sense of abandonment by their leaders while simultaneously committing Trump to nothing.
“People talk about his gloomy message,” Nordlinger tells BTRtoday, “but to me, he actually exerts a lot of enthusiasm and optimism.” By employing the same masculine rhetoric of success and grandiosity that has made him millions in the private sector, Trump assures his flock that he will shape America like he has shaped his fortune.
“Instead of saying ‘this is going to be the greatest golf course ever,” Nordlinger says, “Trump is saying ‘this is going to be the greatest country ever.’ He’s doing what has served him well over the years and for whatever the reason, his followers don’t seem particularly concerned about the details of policy.”
This isn’t about the fact that Trump lies. Everybody knows Trump lies. This is about the even more dangerous fact that he spends most of his time not lying, because most of his orations are heavy on rhetoric and light on specific policies that can then be proven false. Trump doesn’t argue–he speaks in a conglomeration of buzzwords and patriotic machismo meant to distract and arouse his already angry audience.
This makes beating him in a debate incredibly difficult.
It is true that political debates are not the ideal notion of two candidates engaging in direct political discourse, but instead reiterating their stump speeches with variations to fit the questions. Nevertheless, Trump doesn’t have an orthodox stump speech. He barely has one at all. Watching him debate Clinton will be equally unorthodox, because Clinton will have to fight his speaking style with her own, which is not without its own criticism.
According to Lara Brown, professor of political management at George Washington University, expectations are some of the most critical elements in winning a debate.
“We know from political science that pretty much those who are deemed the winners are those people who you believed would win going in,” she tells BTRtoday. The expectations for Trump are “exceedingly low,” she surmises, and as a result, so long as he can “deflect and not necessarily engage, if he can essentially just survive the debate, he may well be seen as having done very well.”
When asked how Clinton could respond to his word vomit speaking style, Brown suggests she respond similarly to her debates with Sanders, who was often rather unspecific and broad in his policy suggestions, favoring “revolution” over semantics. Clinton’s response was to “draw out the meaning of what his words would really be,” Brown says.
Such a tactic would be highly relevant in a debate with Trump, whose meaning is even less clear, swimming in a muddy swamp of angry and patriotic rhetoric.
What Clinton cannot do is stoop to Trump’s level. Attempting to do so failed for the other Republican primary candidates because his bit only works while he is the only one doing it.
For Clinton, there is also the added complication of gender because Trump’s style is “all about emotion,” according to George Washington University’s Steve Billet. “He uses emotion to destroy reason,” says Billet. For a female candidate already under heavy scrutiny for her dress, her voice and laugh, and her age, employing highly emotional debate tactics would undermine the careful image of experience and wisdom that she has built over decades.
The bright side is that she has very effective surrogates to do that for her. Every time Elizabeth Warren gets up and calls Trump a weak fascist, both Clinton and Warren get major bumps in support and Trump looks like, well, a weak fascist.