As a linguist, I can tell you what Donald Trump’s first words as American President really reveal about him

The new emperor tore away his toga and went off script, all plans to be a Kennedy or a Reagan abandoned

Paul Breen
Saturday 21 January 2017 15:11
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Trump: 'America first, America first'

Donald Trump climbed onto the American stage yesterday still caught up in a kind of campaign puberty, high on testosterone and ego. The winner, the outsider, the salesman of the grand idea standing triumphant on the side of the people.

Short sentences, fragmentation, oppositional language, emotive ideas, and even a touch of bad poetry. Cliché-riddled and contradictory, he spiralled between earth and sky, dreams and realities, God above and rusted factories down below. Taking “an oath of allegiance to all Americans”, he made meaty promises for the future: “America First”, “winning like never before”, recovering from “carnage”, making America “great again”.

For a moment, Trump seemed to have changed his style, starting with longer sentences and more conciliatory language than had characterised an election campaign that was toxic on all sides. Perhaps he truly had taken inspiration from John F Kennedy, as he’d suggested he might. Soon, however, he reverted to form. The classic Trump emerged in his full pomp of oppositional language and fragmentation of ideas. Very quickly, he moved from reaching out to the world and restoring promise to all Americans.

Trump couldn’t resist one more dig at the establishment, and a reference to the transfer away from “these people” to “you”. It wasn’t even delivered in the manner of Shakespeare, of Marlon Brando voicing the rage of Marc Antony. This was primal playground stuff, the knife of Brutus driven down hard in the rain. The new emperor tore away his toga and went off script, all plans to be a Kennedy or a Reagan abandoned. Those statesmen come from a world that’s long gone in the reality TV age. Trump wanted to talk to the America of today; to hell with history.

What this speech told us, however, is that Trump can’t make a leap of imagination or emotion beyond the boundaries of his own personal history – and he does not even see any need to do so, because he stands to his supporters as the embodiment of the American dream.

He is playing to the people he took on a gonzo-style road trip across the rusted midriff of America and raised up to the heavens. Even on the day when he was supposed to formally enter the establishment, he said a public “no thanks” to that. In his words, he’s going to “take power from the folks in Washington” and hand it to the ordinary ignored people of America.

Trump’s linguistic presentation is a strange series of soundbites that he believes to be poetry, philosophy and unprejudiced patriotism. He delivers heady promises, rather than practical solutions.

A prime example is the way his great notion of “eradicating Islamist terrorism” was uttered in almost the same breath as a remark withdrawing America from its role as policeman of the world, secure inside its own borders. How can he square this circle? Other sections followed the same pattern. He spoke of eradicating poverty while discussing his desire to end programmes for poorer Americans such as Obamacare health insurance.

It’s possible that Trump himself is not sure how he’s going to draw all the loose ends of these ambitions together. Before he took to the stage, he looked strangely subdued, even uninterested and uncharacteristically nervous. But ever the grand showman, he built his confidence on the podium by taking refuge among the people who put him there. He carefully used the language they wanted to hear: God, jobs, victory, and a world where America comes first, secure in its own borders.

As a linguist, this reads like a script that’s made up as he goes along. Maybe that’s all part of the theatre. Perhaps Trump writes his speeches in one unedited take, a stream of consciousness. The failure to follow in the rhetorical footsteps of presidents past may prove useful to him. After all, some of the audience didn’t have the greatest reaction to Chuck Schumer reading the “Dear Sarah” letter. Perhaps the people aren’t interested in history anymore, or the mistakes that they can learn from. Perhaps he calculated that Americans watching from home don’t have the attention span for anything so serious. Trump’s own concentration jumps about like a frog in a box. During the presidential debates, he’d abandon sentences and arguments in mid-flow.

There’s an element of theatre in all politics, especially American politics. But Trump presents us with a different kind of theatre. This is gonzo theatre, not written according to script but delivered according to the needs of the moment.

Trump's bizarre signature overshadows first official act as President

Trump’s style may be his downfall. If he can’t stick to some aspects of the presidential script established by history, he’s going to take the country, and the world, in a very uncertain direction. This inauguration was the President’s last stab at playing the outsider, one of “us” taking on “them”. Now he has to start delivering on the grand promises he made.

Today’s show is over, but sit back and settle in. The auditorium is about to get interesting.

Dr Paul Breen is a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster’s Professional Language Centre

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