I’ve written before about President Obama’s eloquence, arguing that persuasion, clarity and focus help develop loyalty in followers. However, we have to admit it’s not always the only way to inspire loyalty, as I’ve explored in a recent article about studies that show vagueness of speech can support charismatic leaders, allowing followers to imagine whatever they want their leader to say, regardless of what he means.
Still, there’s a difference between strategic vagueness and “gibberish,” to use political scientist Todd Gitlin’s term for Trumpspeak from his recent article about Donald Trump’s use of language.
Using examples from TIME’s transcript of their cover story made out of their phone interview with the president of the United States, Gitlin argues that Trump’s discourse shows a disturbing new pattern of incoherence and irrationality: “He heaps words on top of words, to overwhelm meaning with vague gestures. He does not think, he lurches.”
Let’s look at the evidence with a few examples. They are literally untranslatable into other languages, and sometimes, even in English:
“I took a lot of heat when I said Brexit was going to pass. Don’t forget, Obama said that UK will go to the back of the line, and I talked about Sweden, and may have been somewhat different, but the following day, two days later, they had a massive riot in Sweden, exactly what I was talking about, I was right about that.”
There is one clear sentence here, the first. The rest, if analyzed, turn out to be nonsense syllables in terms of a confusing run on sentence ending with a stock phrase, “I was right about that,” a strange misstatement that seems to imply he was psychic, or in a later comment, “instinctive.” (This lack of clarity doesn’t even reflect a check for accuracy in facts, which were mixed in with exaggerations and mischaracterizations– Obama’s comment referred to negative results of a potential Brexit vote for world trade standing, and a rock-throwing youth incident in Sweden was real, but hardly “massive”).
Another example may be even more disturbing to a follower who wants some clarity: “I inherited a mess in the Middle East, and a mess with North Korea, I inherited a mess with jobs, despite the statistics, you know, my statistics are even better, but they are not the real statistics because you have millions of people that can’t get a job, OK. And I inherited a mess on trade. I mean we have many, you can go up and down the ladder. But that’s the story. Hey look, in the meantime, I guess, I can’t be doing so badly, because I’m president, and you’re not. You know. Say hello to everybody, OK?”
Yes, the newly elected leader of the United States did say to a reporter, knowing full well he would be quoted: “I can’t be doing so badly, because I’m president and you’re not.” I suppose even this muddy arrogance is a form of clarity, but coming on the heels of that ambiguous “ladder”, and “my statistics are even better, but they are not the real statistics,” his “nyah-nyah” is rather disturbing since it gives us a clear sense that he sees his leadership role as set, although his understanding and expression of actual issues may have been inaccurate — he’s right because he is the president.
I believe all of us, regardless of our party affiliation, should be paying attention to these specifics, including the way he speaks, and doing our best to translate. For those of us with the inclination, comparing his assertions to facts can be illuminating. But perhaps more importantly, looking at his scattered speech and more scattered thoughts can give us insight into the scattered effects of his first days in office, and why his approval rating continues to dip (37% approve in the March 20th Gallup Poll).
These low approval ratings are telling so early in his presidency, and may be in part because it’s hard to be confident in a leader who cannot speak in full, coherent sentences. When we do understand his gist, it’s arguably even more confusing.
In that same interview, he implied, in one breathtakingly incoherent statement, that the election that earned him his “I’m the president and you’re not” place in history might have been fraudulent.
“Well now if you take a look at the votes, when I say that, I mean mostly they register wrong, in other words, for the votes, they register incorrectly, and/or illegally. And they then vote. You have tremendous numbers of people. In fact I’m forming a committee on it.”
The fact that he clearly believes he should have won more doesn’t take away from the implication that the vote was not accurate, which means that on further examination from this committee of experts, presumably including his lawyers who have already said there was no evidence of significant voter fraud, it might turn out that he did not win at all. It’s a big risk to take for a man whose victory was greeted with more resistance than celebration in the US and the world.
The clarity missing here is a combination of unfocused syntax and the paradoxical combination of extreme personal confidence and tremendous personal fragility. Because although he says he’s the president and great, and in fact he is the president, he seems to have to prove it by asserting his rightness over and over again, while questioning the very process that got him into power in an effort to get other people to make him look more right than wrong.
So the confusing talk and false assertions may not only reflect an inability to make a point clearly. With every sentence, President Trump seems to be arguing with himself and his (real and imaginary) opponents in his head. He’s not really talking to the American people or the reporters, sharing a considered argument in his “outside voice.” It’s as if he’s still turning the ideas round and round in his head, sharing his “inside voice.” And yet, he expects us to treat his words as presidential and coherent, even when they’re not. Because apparently, he makes sense to himself (as we all do, to ourselves, in the labyrinth of our private thoughts).
If he makes sense to some followers who hear what they want to hear or like his executive orders and promises, that still doesn’t mean his actual sentences make sense, or that many Trump voters won’t have regrets because of what they’re hearing. Look, I can let political eloquence go; it’s a bonus, but not everyone has access to that art. And our country has elected many presidents who aren’t not always going to enact policies I necessarily agree with. As a citizen, I can handle that. Democracy is a process, and there are many opinions about what is best for our nation. But the bottom line is this: gibberish and incoherence make it hard for a leader to actually lead.
In my political representatives, I look for clarity of purpose, commitment to civil service, and an informed coherence to convince me that they are taking action based on considered intelligence and collaboration with experts. With each scattered sentence and fragmented assertion, President Trump pushes away committed and potential followers who are hungry for clarity and a meaningful plan.