WASHINGTON – Presidential oratory has helped to define this nation. From Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to Reagan’s demand to “tear down this wall” to John F. Kennedy’s call to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” a chief executive’s rhetoric has at times inspired, and at other times comforted the nation and at rare moments even changed the course of American history.
Such speeches have shaped not only the way Americans see themselves, but the way the world sees the United States.
So, where does “Make America Great Again” fit in?
Certainly at the top of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric.
Since announcing his candidacy in June 2015, Trump has tweeted more than 8,000 times (not including retweets). In those 8,228 tweets (as of May 1), his most-used words include “great” (1,315 times), “America” (855 times), some variation of “Hillary Clinton,” (686 times), and his own last name (541 times), based on an analysis by the Capital News Service and word-cloud data collection.
Beyond his favorite words on social media, though, his speech reflects a bias against women, against immigration, and against the media.
On Twitter, he’s used the word “illegals” 2.3 times more than he’s used the word “immigrants.” He’s more inclined to tweet the word “Fake” with “CNN” than he is with “Fox News.” And, he’s tweeted about Hillary Clinton 9.6 times more than about his own wife, Melania.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has tweeted about Russia 200 times, which is about four times more frequently than he mentioned “collusion,” (57 times).
“Trump is in a category of his own, and not in a good way,” American University professor and author Chris Edelson said in an interview with Capital News Service. “He can’t really be compared to other presidents. He’s done things that are challenging the core of constitutional democracy, and one of the ways he’s done that is through his rhetoric.”
Edelson, a fellow at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, is critical of the way Trump speaks, calling the president “racist” and “authoritarian.”
“The Trump presidency concerns us because…some of his rhetoric certainly makes one think of authoritarianism,” he said. “Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler. He’s not Mussolini. He’s not even Putin. But he’s doing things and saying things that challenge what we all took for granted as certain norms. Who would have thought that any presidential candidate would (say the things) Donald Trump did?”
“He uses really dangerous racial, ethno-nationalist rhetoric that divides people,” Edelson said. “But, he does that in a very calculated way. He knows that there’s a base that this appeals to, and it’s really dangerous stuff.”
It also proved to be an effective way to stand out and, ultimately, get elected to the Oval Office, said Ben Blatt, journalist and author of Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve.
A great speaker has “the ability to connect with an audience,” Blatt told Capital News Service. “And Donald Trump was able to resonate by going after a base. He (spoke) in a way that got people excited in a way they hadn’t been in decades.”
“As a citizen, it’s very easy to say this is completely awful,” Blatt said. “But there is also a reason that it worked and drew people into his speeches or tweets in a sad way.”
Traditional politicians are often “indistinguishable” to the anti-political base Trump attracted, according to Blatt.
“Donald Trump was just so distinguishable that, in a crowded field, it was very easy for him to stick out,” he said. “If you’re the one that’s different, that’s a huge advantage in politics, and in writing.”
However, Trump’s ability to mobilize his supporters is not what makes him an effective communicator, according to some analysts. It’s his ability to connect with them over social media platforms, while breaking traditional rhetoric and writing styles.
“Trump as great a communicator as Reagan, precisely because … he is keenly focused, whether by instinct or design, on talking to ordinary Republicans,” Jeet Heer wrote in The New Republic. “Trump knows that his political fate is tied to those voters. As long has he has them on his side, the Republican political class will protect him from the scandals that threaten his presidency.”
The president “is just a Kardashian with a political attitude,” Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest and a former speechwriter, wrote in his article, “Trump the Authentic.”
“(His) antics draw attention to him, something he is truly expert at in an age when technology-aided exposure is its own reward, regardless of virtue or merit,” Garfinkle observed.
Throughout his campaign and presidency, Trump has come under fire for countless comments, such as calling countries “shitholes,” claiming that immigrants from Haiti “all have AIDS,” boasting about sexual assault on the “Access Hollywood” tape, and other racist and sexist comments. Yet polls show no signs of his base deserting him.
Even Kanye West has taken to Twitter to express his support: “You don’t have to agree with trump but the mob can’t make me not love him.”
“The idea seems to be that all other politicians are corrupt, and we know that because of the way that they talk to us,” Jennifer Mercieca, a historian at Texas A&M, said in an interview with NPR in 2017. Mercieca has authored multiple books, including one analyzing President Barack Obama’s rhetoric.
However, Trump’s language used to express the same ideas across platforms varies significantly, according to Blatt. Trump’s formal speeches, such as the State of the Union and his inaugural address, are more politically correct than his off-the-cuff tweets, he said.
“When he is in a more State of the Union or formal setting, he does have formal speech writers and resorts to the teleprompter,” Blatt said. “It’s kind of undeniable that his language shifts.”
A CNS analysis of word-cloud data supports that observation.
While delivering prewritten remarks, Trump has historically used the word “immigrants” 5.75 times more than “illegals,” breaking with his Twitter patterns. He’s mentioned Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, 6 times more during speeches than over Twitter. He has also mentioned the border wall 13.7 times less during prewritten remarks than over Twitter.
Part of the danger, Edelson said, is the president’s use of Twitter in an official capacity.
“There are some things presidents do that have the full force of the law,” he said. “If you’re issuing an executive order or signing a bill into law, that has a specific legal weight, but a tweet clearly doesn’t, although it creates confusion…People have been fired over his Twitter.”
Lawmakers are still wrestling with Trump’s use of the platform, and have yet to agree whether his tweets should be considered official presidential statements, according to Edelson.
Despite this, Edelson said, Trump’s tweets “carry the weight of the official office behind them,” because “elected officials in other countries (don’t) make the distinction between whether the president is saying something from a podium or from a Twitter account.”