"Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public." H. L. Mencken
Words Matter. The words people chose to use tell us a lot about them. The same is true with politicians and in the case of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton one finds a fascinating contrast in language. With the help of my research assistant I did a rhetorical analysis of three speeches of Trump and Clinton. Our conclusion is that Clinton may be too smart for her own good.
For Clinton we examined her March 9, 2016, presidential debate comments, her April 19, 2016 New York State primary victory speech, and her recent and most talked about June 1, 2016 foreign policy speech. For Trump it was his March 10, 2016 presidential debate comments, his April 19, 2016 New York State primary victory speech, and his April 27, 2016 foreign policy speech. The comments or speeches selected gave us a wide range of speech types but also they shared patterns in terms of time or potential content. What did we find?
First in their March debates in terms of content Trump displays language with more emotive or feeling types of meaning. Clinton is more likely to use language that evokes logic. The choice of words seems to confirm stereotypes about the two candidates in terms of him appealing to heart, her to the brain. For linguistics, Trump’s rhetoric is more characteristic of the language of feeling that women use, Clinton’s a logical structure stereotypical of male language. Trump spoke at a 7th-8th grade level, using few words with more than two or three syllables. Clinton spoke at an 11th-12 grade level, rich with polysyllabic words. By way of comparison, the average adult in America reads at a 9th-grade level and the average newspaper is written at an 11th-grade level according to Impact Plain Language Services, although some are at lower or higher readability levels.
In their respective April 19, New York State primary victory speeches Trump used 1,022 words and spoke at a 9th-10th grade level, while Clinton used 1,516 words at an 11th-12th grade level. There was no noticeable difference in one using more logical or emotive language. If anything, an examination of their two speeches displayed more parallels in word choices than during the debates.
Finally, compare their foreign policy speeches. Clinton again spoke at an 11-12th-grade level and 36.4% of her words were monosyllabic. For Trump he too spoke at an 11-12th-grade level–uncharacteristic of his normal speaking patterns–but 60.8% of his words were monosyllabic.
For Clinton her ten most used words were:
For Trump his ten most words were:
For their respective foreign policy speeches one finds some overlap in words yet an overall reading of the two speeches found both of them appealing to emotions, but again this was more characteristic of Trump’s rhetoric than Clinton’s.
What we see is that Trump overall speaks at a more simplistic level and more emotive than does Clinton whose choice of words display more complex word structures and appeals to logic. Of course many will conclude that this proves that Clinton is smarter than Trump or that she is speaking to smarter audiences than he. That may or may not be true. But a different conclusion is that Trump more often speaks to the heart, Clinton to the brain. Clinton seeks to persuade with logic, Trump with emotion. For those who know anything about persuasion, appeals to facts and logic often are less successful than appeals to emotion. . Advertisers know this and that is why they are successful in getting us to by their products. Trump as a salesman too knows this. In addition, he is speaking a language closer to what more people can understand.
What all this suggestions is a rhetorical style for Trump that is potentially more effective in moving people–one way or another–than Clinton’s language. Clinton’s language may suggest she is too smart for her own good if she wants to win the presidency. Clinton's rhetorical style may suggest she is assuming American's are smarter than they are or that Trump is proving that Mencken may be correct after all.