Trump’s rhetorical style and deliberation

Donald Trump’s speaking style is extraordinarily paratactic. That is, he utters declarative sentences without any of the explicit transitional words that can explain why sentences fit together. No “therefore’s,” “on the other hand’s,” or even “well, I think’s.” He just plunges in. Many listeners perceive the content of his various sentences to be logically unrelated. However, he is remarkably repetitive when he speaks at any length, so the unity of his speech derives from his returning to the same phrases. Finally, he uses “I” sentences overwhelmingly, plus “you” when he’s talking to someone in particular. He makes relatively rare use of the third person. We could name his style “paratactic/egocentric.”

I’ve been arguing that the way we organize our thoughts affects our ability to deliberate with others (to listen responsively to what they say). As I note in this video, some people hold such scattered thoughts that you can’t grab onto their argument in order to understand and engage it. Others have such centralized networks of ideas that all you can do is assess their one core principle (which might be individual freedom, equity, or God). If you happen to disagree with it, there’s no way to route around it. A better structure is connected, complex, and not overly centralized.

By this standard, Trump’s rhetoric is disastrous for deliberation. The network formed by his sentences manages to be disconnected except insofar as he repeats a few nodes and connects all his ideas to Donald Trump (which one cannot take as one’s own idea without becoming personally subservient to him).

My notion of what counts as good talk could be biased by class. After all, one of the things you learn as you accumulate years of education and pile on degrees is parataxis: connecting ideas by using explicit transitional words. That is either a sign of superior reasoning or a way for a white-collar elite to identify its own superiority. (Paging doctors Habermas and Bourdieu for a consult on that question.) Likewise, talking in the third person about ideas and institutions is either essential to deliberation or an evasion of personal authenticity. Some read Trump as honest and view more objective speakers as evasive.

I’ve been developing this view of deliberative rhetoric since long before I cared about Donald Trump. It’s in We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, pp. 50-2. I oppose and reject Trump for many reasons other than his rhetorical style. Therefore, I don’t think I’m just criticizing his style to score political points against him. But it’s worth thinking about whether the rhetorical standards suggested by my theory are class-biased.

See also: tracking change in a group that discusses issuesassessing a discussion10 theses about ethics, in network termsstructured moral pluralism (a proposal).

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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