language, politics

Understanding the Unintelligible

Donald Trump may be a jerk, but he’s a compelling jerk. Jeb Bush may be the closest anyone can come to a rational Republican, but he’s a bore. Understanding this distinction clarifies the Republican primary process, which otherwise might seem even weirder than it is.


Candidates’ behavior on the stump falls into three neat piles: linguistic, paralinguistic, and extra-linguistic. The linguistic behavior is what shows up in the printed transcript of a speech: the words and grammar alone. Paralinguistic behavior is everything else that emanates from the vocal cavity: intonation, pitch, speed, loudness, and more. The extra-linguistic part of a message includes facial expression, gestures, and stance.


Professional commentators see the purely linguistic part of a message as the only important part, the one that is worthy of analysis and comment. There is a good reason for this. It is quotable, while it is often impossible to quote an intonation pattern or a facial expression (we don’t have names for most of these in ordinary language). Without lapsing into turgid academese, it’s hard to talk about them so that your audience knows what you’re talking about and can decide if it agrees with you.


But in fact, it is the unexamined parts of a message that matter the most, even if hearers are unaware of them. Para- and extra-linguistic factors are the carriers of emotion, in contrast to the purely linguistic message, which bears the purely intellectual content (though it also carries emotions). So if a discourse is one in which emotional connection with its audience is of paramount importance, hearers will respond first to the emotional triggers, and then use quotes pulled from the linguistic message to justify their para- and extra-linguistic based responses.


On this analysis an otherwise bewildering primary race begins to make sense, however perversely. Why is Donald Trump so successful, powerful Republicans wonder. Most thoughtful pundits see him, exasperatedly, as a buffoon, a man of no weight and no real accomplishment who has never held public office. How can he be outpolling and outdrawing the party’s presumptive heir, Jeb Bush, who has actually done things and won things? Who appears thoughtful and intelligent, at least in comparison to Trump? Republicans have traditionally been orderly and predictable in selecting their candidates: the choice normally falls on the one whose turn it is, the one with the dynastic history, the familiar and conventional one is the Republican choice. What’s going on here?


Start from the assumption that Americans, especially those apt to be voting Republican, are angry and frightened. They want to hear words that are reassuring and at the same time pugnacious – able to drive the scary things away. In comfortable times, people feel calm and want to hear calm orators telling them that everything is just as OK as it seems. But when frightened and bewildered, they want razzle-dazzle to conceal their terror, and they want big, flamboyant, and strong rhetoric to convince them that the speaker is a manly man who can save them from whatever they need saving from.


That explains something otherwise inexplicable. Voters traditionally hate the flip-flopper (remember how Republican hordes attacked John Kerry in 2004 by waving flip-flop sandals in his face?). But The Donald is the biggest flip-flopper ever. He has changed party affiliations from Democrat to Independent to Republican and back again; he has been pro-choice but is now anti-abortion; he assailed Mitt Romney in 2012 for his suggestion that undocumented immigrants “self-deport,” saying that Romney “has a crazy policy of self deportation which is maniacal,” but Romney’s proposal was far less extreme than the roundup Trump is currently advocating. In the past he heaped praise on Hillary Clinton, calling her the best secretary of state we have ever had; now she is the worst, “a criminal.” He has advocated a single-payer health care plan; now he rejects anything remotely similar, including the ACA. But his supporters don’t care. Why?


Trump rhetorically gives them what they want and more; Bush is incapable of that.


Trump has a loud voice, a confident approach, and stylistic flamboyance; he makes big, exaggerated statements (which, looked at closely, disintegrate into clichés, but no one’s looking closely); he has great variety in his intonation patterns and pitch; he often speaks fast, as if he had too much to say and too little time to say it; his gestures are large, his arms flailing far away from his body; and they are staccato, sharp, and angular. His face is mostly steely and unchanging. His whole message conveys control and machismo: he occupies the entire space allotted to him and goes for more. He is hard and tough. His dress, too, conveys authority and masculinity, a crisp suit, tie, and white shirt: the modern American formal male mode. The very fact that he dresses formally, when so many of his competitors have abandoned the suit and tie, is a gesture of respect for his audience: it says that he takes them seriously. It also reminds them that he is the boss, he is above them, he could fire them if he wished, and he doesn’t care if they know that. Everything he does and says conveys: I don’t care what anyone thinks. I am The Donald. I don’t need to talk down to you, or up to you. You need me. I don’t need you, and I won’t toady to you – or any of the people you fear.


Bush, on the other hand, adopts the standard candidate posture, which makes him invisible. He speaks in a low voice; he slumps a bit; he hedges and stammers. He has very little paralinguistic variety – he speaks in a monotone, ordinarily a male marker but next to Trump’s command of a wide range of options, Bush’s voice lacks authority and gumption. He speaks slowly, as if (in comparison to Trump) he didn’t have much to say and was running out the clock. His gestures are small, within the scope of his body, and they are gentle, round, and flowery: women’s gestures. He wears a pastel shirt and tie, no suit, and after a short time in the hot sun or the hot lights of an auditorium, the shirt starts working free of his pants. He rolls his sleeves up just below the elbow, a motif that has in recent years become part of the politician’s uniform, meant to convey, “ready to get to work.” But precisely because he dresses like a typical twenty-first century politician, in contrast to Trump, his costume marks him as conventional, old, and ho-hum. Moreover, it is not macho at all – it is even somewhat effeminate: fuzzy at the edges. Because it is so conventional, it announces that Bush is not a daring person, not someone we can elect to run great risks to solve our problems for us. He is languid. He is, in fact, a lady.


While stylistically Trump and Bush are very different, in one way they are identical: both are internally consistent – their linguistic, para- and extra- linguistic messages are all in sync. In that respect, Bush could be successful – if Trump were not in the room sucking up all the oxygen. Even if their linguistic messages don’t make much sense, the fact that they are consistent with their para- and extra-linguistics gives them a kind of “rhyme” that transcends any need for “reason.”


And this internal stylistic self-consistency may, for Trump’s supporters, render his flip-flopping innocuous. If he appears consistent, he is consistent. What happened in the past stays in the past.


Moreover, Bush may have begun to make things even worse for himself. Egged on by his team, he has begun hitting back hard at Trump – linguistically. As reported in The New York Times (8/21):


Mr. Bush, contrasting his own background with Mr. Trump’s, offered a machine-gun burst’s worth of differences.


“I cut taxes every year; he’s proposed the largest tax increase in mankind’s history, not just our own country’s history,” Mr. Bush said. “I have been consistently pro-life; he until recently was for partial-birth abortion. I’ve never met a person that actually thought that was a good idea. I believe we need to reform our health care system to make sure we stop the suppression of wages and allow people to have access to insurance; he’s for a single-payer system.”

The danger, for Bush, is that by adopting a hard-edged linguistic style but not changing the rest, he is compromising his one rhetorical strength, consistency: his linguistic message has shifted, but the other two parts remain the same. He will sound confusing and confused to his audiences.


This rhetorical struggle for the hearts and minds of the Republican Party is of both theoretical and political importance. We are witnessing a seismic shift in public self-presentation, offered or thrust upon us, ironically, by a non-politician. You may not like what he says, and still less the way he says it, but – depending on where the Republican nomination finally comes to rest – you may well be witnessing the start of something, as he would say, BIG.