There were many concerned parties following the presidential election in 2016. Linguists Jesse Egbert and Douglas Biber were no exception. However, their interests dealt primarily with the language of the candidates. They wondered about President Donald Trump in particular.
The two suspected that language had always been important in political discourse, but figured that words had played a larger role in 2016. They noticed that journalists’ coverage frequently focused on Trump’s language in debates, interviews, rallies and social media. They decided to investigate from a linguistic standpoint.
Ebgert and Biber started with political debates. They watched every debate going back to 1960 and created a corpus. In linguistic terms, a corpus is a collection of texts that are assembled for the purposes of study.
Then, they used Hillary Clinton’s speech as a control group. They suspected she represented a more traditional style of political rhetoric. This, along with the corpus, helped them understand more about the novelty of Trump’s language.
Egbert and Biber found that his language was definitely an outlier.
Their study showed that Trump would often position himself in regards to a topic by using words like “horrible,” “disaster,” “irredeemable,” and “unbelievable.” He would also involve debate moderators, Clinton, or the audience in his rhetoric.
Trump tended to be vague when citing statistics, using phrases like “millions and millions.” The study found that Trump also used a “highly narrative style” and a lot of story telling. Egbert said Trump would quickly transition between stories, which often made them hard to follow.
The linguists noticed that Trump took frequent impersonal stances. He would mention that something needed to happen in regards to various political issues, but he would rarely mention his own position specifically.
Egbert said this was not typical for other politicians they studied. Instead, most would identify themselves specifically. Phrases like “I don’t believe we should do this” were common in the corpus.
In terms of successes, Egbert said he believes Trump’s linguistic style has effectively connected with audiences. Egbert found this to be more effective than other politicians, who focused more on “rattling off” statistics and facts.
He said voters should be willing to hold all politicians, including Trump, accountable for the facts and figures they share.
After viewing debates and town halls of the 2020 election cycle, Egbert said Trump’s debating style influenced both Joe Biden and Mike Pence. Egbert said he does not believe either would have interrupted their opponent had it not been for Trump.
At this point, Egbert is not sure if this new style will die with Trump’s presidency, or if it will have lasting effects on the future of politics.