Donald Trump’s shtick

Donald Trump continues to maintain his large lead nationally and in New Hampshire while trailing Ted Cruz slightly in Iowa. Trump’s sustained success since July, despite all the pundits’ repeated predictions that he would soon fade, has created a minor cottage industry of attempts to understand how he does it. One factor is undoubtedly the massive media coverage he continues to generate even as the major media begin to wonder if they are responsible for his success and have been complicit in creating a monster.

What seems to draw Republicans to him is not only that he is not part of the political establishment but that they feel he is the most decisive, most competent, and most electable candidate, even if they don’t think he is particularly likable or compassionate. When others attack him, it makes them like him even more.

His rallies involve him speaking without notes for close to an hour and keeping the crowd totally engaged, which is no mean feat as any public speaker will tell you. Ed Pilkington of The Guardian has been attending Trump’s rallies and he says that humor is Trump’s main weapon.

Long before he fires up his loyal supporters, before he hits them with outrageous comments that send shockwaves around the world, he makes them laugh.

He looks like the man he is: a real estate developer with dodgy hair. But don’t underestimate the guy – he has the intuition and timing of a stand-up comedian.

Holding his hands out wide like a preacher, the second finger of his right hand pointed to the heavens for added purpose, he reduces his audience within minutes to fits of laughter. It could be any comedy store on a Monday night, except you then realize that there’s something odd about what he’s inviting the crowd to find so funny.

Jennifer Merciaca studies American political rhetoric and she discusses the “rhetorical brilliance” of his style and says that there are five elements that stand out.

First, Trump draws on the myth of American exceptionalism. He depicts the United States as the world’s best hope: there is only one chosen nation and, as president, all of his decisions work toward making America great. By tying himself to American exceptionalism – while classifying his detractors as “weak” or “dummies” – he’s able to position his critics as people who don’t believe in, or won’t contribute to, the “greatness” of the nation.

Trump also uses fallacious and divisive rhetorical techniques that prevent him from being questioned or backed into a corner.

He often uses ad populum arguments, which are appeals to the wisdom of the crowd (“polls show,” “we’re winning everywhere”).

When opponents question his ideas or stances, he’ll employ ad hominem attacks – or criticisms of the person, rather than the argument (dismissing his detractors as “dummies,” “weak” or “boring”). Perhaps most famously, he derided Carly Fiorina’s appearance when she started to go up in the polls after the first Republican debate (“Look at that face!” he cried. “Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”).

Finally, his speeches are often peppered with ad baculum arguments, which are threats of force (“when people come after me they go down the tubes”).

Some of us may not see his style as brilliant and instead view it as too discursive and full of digressions and distracting asides. For contrast, here is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, delivered on
November 19, 1863, following a bloody battle in the middle of the brutal civil war that threatened to tear the country apart. It is often correctly held up as an example of powerful and concise speechmaking. Here it is in its entirety, consisting of only 278 words.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Reader Jake sent me this piece by Jay Jochnowitz that uses Trump’s rhetorical style to accurately capture how Trump would have expressed those same sentiments. Here’s how Trump would have dealt with just the first paragraph.

So, 80-some-odd years ago, the Founding Fathers — a great group of people, just great, am I right? — started this country, with the idea of liberty, with the whole point that men are created equal. And let’s be clear, and I know I’m going to get in trouble for this with the media, but as you know, I tell it like it is: they meant white men. That’s what they meant. And yeah, I know, they didn’t mention women, for whom of course I have the greatest respect. I love women. But they didn’t mention them, so what can I say? That’s what they did.

Take a moment to savor the full piece. It’s worth it.


  1. raven says

    My take on the Trump rise.
    1. The newness-outsider factor. Which is what Obama had, that Hope and Change slogan. The rest of the GOP candidates are interchangeable, boring god babblers. I don’t care if jesus loves us and hates everyone else. That doesn’t help anyone or fix anything.

    2. Trump reflects back the anger, fear, and hate of what were middle class whites. The middle class has been shrinking since 1970 and it has put huge stresses on our society. The US is on trend to go majority nonwhite in 2043. Goodbye white privilege.

    3. Trump offers simple solutions to complex problems. Mexican migrants??? No problem, build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. Never mind that Mexican immigration went negative in 2010. That wall will just trap Mexican nationals on..the US side of the border. Until they invent the ladder and shovel.

    Of the three, the anger, fear, and hate is probable the most important. And right now, the GOP nomination is Trump’s to lose.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    Trump’s sustained success since July, despite all the pundits’ repeated predictions that he would soon fade…

    All pundits except one. On his blog, Scott “Dilbert” Adams predicted Trump would win not just the nomination, but narrowly win the election. And he made that prediction back in August. In October he revised his prediction to “landslide”.

    Interestingly, in December, he predicted that his prediction in August would be ignored.

    And here we are in January, where “all the pundits predicted Trump would fade”. People don’t want to believe that Trump’s rise was predictable. They don’t want to believe that a misogynistic douche like Scott Adams could be right about anything. Solution? Pretend it wasn’t, pretend he isn’t. And when reality knocks on your door -- hide.

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