language, politics

Donald Trump, the Poet


Opinion is divided on Donald Trump’s talk. His supporters are enthusiastic: “He tells it like it is.” “He’s tough.” “He speaks my language.” They like the Trump they think they see and hear: a man whose linguistic roughness is a promise of nonverbal toughness in our next President. For them, the harshness and cruelty that characterize so much of Trump’s speaking style signal that the man is no “political correctness”-hugging sissy.


Intellectuals, the commentariat, and media personalities have another view. To them, Trump is your basic vulgarian: no topic is too low, no slander too gross, no prejudice too retrograde for him to exploit; and even when he isn’t spouting off offensively, his language lacks grammar, and his arguments lack cohesion, trickling off without a point, other than the incessant one about the speaker’s greatness, largeness, and hugeness. They sneer openly about the common man (or woman) who is taken in. But even as they inveigh against him, the amount of attention they devote to criticizing him suggests that they are just as captivated by The Donald as everyone else – they just can’t admit it.


These Trumpian perspectives would seem to have little in common It’s hard to think of a candidate about whose speaking style public opinion differs so sharply. Why do Americans find it so hard to understand what the man is up to?


I think that Trump, in his rhetorical role, is best understood not as politician or businessman, but as poet. To see why this is true, you first have to understand what a “poet” is and does, and contrast what the poet’s role used to be versus what it has evolved to be. Nowadays we tend to think of poetry as mere adornment, something we experience with pleasure but don’t consider “serious” talk – unlike political speeches or classroom lectures or even serious novels. Prose is serious; poetry is frivolous.


It was not always so. Once upon a time, poetry was the means by which a culture gave itself coherence, and how its members shared their perspectives with one another. A poem, recited to music, was the way people told it like it was and explained to the next generation the history, religion, and general knowledge that everyone needed to know and share.


When most people were not literate and culturally necessary information was transmitted orally, the tropes we associate today with poetic diction came into being. Much of what we think of as the fancy frills of “poetic” language arose not for aesthetic but for practical reasons: poetic tropes made information easier to remember. Alliteration, assonance, anaphora (repetition), rhyme, meter, and many of the others in this category arose as mnemonic devices and some have lasted into our era, when poetry has largely become a form of written communication (“literate” and “literacy” are derived from the Latin word for “letter”).


Plato, writing at a time when literacy was just beginning to replace oral tradition, was not a fan. He argued for keeping poetry out of his ideal state, and particularly for making sure poets did not get leadership roles. Poets, said Plato, are immoral: perverters of reality whose songs entice readers, especially the youth, into an unreal world, leaving them unable to function in the real one. At best their work is a pale imitation of reality, not the thing itself. And maybe worst of all, poets lie: they give us a world that is not and seduce us into it. So no poets in Plato’s Republic!


Most contemporary American political rhetoric looks a lot the way Plato wanted it to look in his ideal state. It is true that Mario Cuomo said that we campaign in poetry and govern in prose, but the fact is that an awful lot of campaigning is pretty prosaic too. This is just one reason why too many Americans have developed a deep aversion to any kind of political rhetoric: it doesn’t grab them, it is neither memorable nor inspiring. Better to go watch the Kardashians.


Until a true political poet comes along, and then – just as was true in Athens 2500 years ago, as Plato feared – we can’t get enough of his words. We know it when we see it – or hear it. And that poet is Trump. If we understand that, we understand his power, for better or worse, and we see why so many of us find him irresistible, while so many others, more Platonically inclined, find him intolerable. Like the best poetry, he arouses strong feelings. Nobody is wishy-washy about the Donald.


So what is it in Trump’s rhetorical practices that makes him poetic? First of all, I don’t mean what might sound obvious: he doesn’t use the most obvious poetic strategies, rhyme and meter. Other candidates may, but not him: not for him the (for today’s American) girliness of rhyme and meter. So Hillary Clinton can make use of rhyme as a way of satirizing Republican beliefs:


“American families like progress a lot,” she begins, according to CNN, taking off from Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

“But the Grinches in GOPville, it seems they do not. Together they shout with great grinchy zeal, that on healthcare their plan,” (a moderator says before the video cuts to short clips of Trump, Carly Fiorina and Cruz each saying “repeal.”)


Sarah Palin, on the stump and off, makes great use of assonance and meter, sometimes to good effect. And sometimes not.


“Illegal immigrants, welcoming them in, even inducing and seducing them with gift baskets. ‘Come on over the border, and we’ll — here’s a gift basket of teddy bears and soccer balls.’”


“Our kids, and our grandkids, they’ll never know then what it is to be rewarded for that entrepreneurial spirit that God creates within us, in order to work and to produce and to strive and to the thrive — and to really be alive.”

Inducing and seducing. Strive and thrive – and to really be alive.


Jingles and rhymed couplets like these once played a significant role in American campaign rhetoric, but nowadays, except for examples like Clinton’s, which are tongue-in-cheek, they are apt to strike their hearers as childish or inane. So that’s not how the Donald waxes poetic. He means to be a down-to-earth guy: no jingles for him.


But Trump does make a good deal of use of some favorite poetic tropes, just not the ones we immediately associate with poetic diction. For instance, he makes a lot of use of aposiopesis – breaking off a sentence before it’s finished. He is a fan of anaphora, or repetition: he never says anything once when he can say it three times. He is a master of hyperbole (exaggeration): everything about him is the best, the most, or the greatest. But he avoids the soaring figures of speech that say “poetry” to us, like metaphor and metonymy. That, of course, gives the hearer the sense that here is a man who is truly down to earth. He tells it like it is. So you might argue that Trump achieves his most persuasive poetic effects by displaying an aversion to poetic diction as we learned to recognize it in our high school English classes.


He does, however, sneak important poetic stratagems in when we’re not paying attention, so our suspicions are not aroused. His is sneaky poetry, but poetry nonetheless. The traditional poet, like Palin, replaces prosaic reason with poetic rhyme, and is thereby freed from the requirement to make sense. Trump replaces prosaic reason with poetic diction of another kind, which demands that the hearer give him a pass – he doesn’t need to make sense, the thrill of his language carries hearers along with him to wherever he’s going: he tells it like it is, even if no one is sure what “it” is.


For this rhetorician, more important than employing identifiably poetic tropes is his use of forms that bring about his interaction with a reader as a poet, as opposed to a speaker of prose, who would be held to our normal expectations of sense making. Here Trump proves himself a true poet who is doing something very different from other politicians on the 2016 stump.


Think of ways of speaking (or writing) as arranged on a continuum based on how responsibility for the determination of meaning is shared, from those types that ask the most of the hearer and give the hearer the most responsibility, to those that give the job of determining the sense of a speech to its speaker or writer. At the left end we could put poetry; at the right, instructional manuals (we hope). When we encounter what we believe to be poetry, we make a sort of deal with the poet: you put in complicated words, and I’ll work extra hard to make sense of them. A poem then is a kind of puzzle which readers enjoy solving for meaning. We expect ambiguity and uncertainty: it’s part of the game. We are comfortable with the idea that a Shakespearean sonnet may mean different things to different people, and that we will have to play an active role in deciphering it.


On the other hand, and at the other end of the scale, you expect your computer’s instruction manual to be crystal clear and free of ambiguity: it should be straightforward, and if it isn’t, we have the right to be confused (and testy).


Trump’s ingenuity lies in bringing the two together: prosaic poetry or poetic prose. He sounds prosaic and therefore trustworthy, down to earth, and “telling it like it is” – no flights of fancy here! But like a good poem, his remarks are highly opaque and without a clearly discernible single meaning. Because of his use of aposiopesis, hyperbole, and other forms of de-clarification, he leaves the responsibility for meaning making up to the hearer, as a poet does (and thus avoids taking responsibility himself: you decide what he means according to what you were hoping to hear – at least if you are a supporter). His fondness for anaphora (repetition) poetically encourages us to remember his words, quote them to others, and eventually, if they are repeated enough, come to believe that they represent not one politician/businessman’s effusions, but received truth. As Lewis Carroll said, in The Hunting of the Snark:


“Just the place for a Snark!” the Bellman cried,

As he landed his crew with care;

Supporting each man on the top of the tide

By a finger entwined in his hair.


“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:

That alone should encourage the crew.

Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:

What I tell you three times is true.”


In other words, by the third repetition of anything, it has become received wisdom. Trump knows this well. And, because the use of repetition is an opaque way of saying, “This is what you believe. This is what you know is true,” many of us find Trump’s repetitive pattern very persuasive – just like poetry.


So I call Donald Trump a poet.. That doesn’t mean that I like what he does, or that he is giving us an exalted aesthetic experience by his rhetorical choices. He is following Cuomo’s advice to campaign in poetry, which is OK with me. But what I am worried about is that if he somehow wins, he would also govern in poetry. And I’m with Plato here: that’s dangerous.