Comic Hero: Why Donald Trump's Candid Rhetoric Resonates With Supporters

Jan 19, 2017
Originally published on January 19, 2017 10:34 pm

No matter what you think about what Donald Trump says, there's no doubt that there's something very unusual about how he says it.

After Trump takes the oath of office on Friday, he is expected to deliver a set piece speech, recited from text, not by impulse.

But what distinguished him as a campaigner wasn't his talent with the teleprompter. It was a manner of speaking unlike anything we heard from his rivals or predecessors.

"The way that he talks is as different from any other politician as Barack Obama looked," says Jennifer Mercieca, a historian at Texas A&M University, who's writing a book on Trump's rhetoric.

She says Trump's informal, impulsive style goes over well with his supporters. They hear a man who says what he thinks, not what consultants think he should say.

"The idea seems to be that all other politicians are corrupt, and that we know that because of the way that they talk to us," Mercieca says.

They are canned, prepared and rehearsed, while the impression is that Trump is spontaneous, authentic and candid.

His rhetoric is much like that of a stand-up comedian, says Marc Jampole, a blogger and poet from New York City. He says a typical Trump speech has the structure of a stand-up routine.

"Most stump speeches have a beginning, a middle and an end and follow classic speech structure, which basically is tell the audience what you're going to say, say it, and then tell them what you just said," Jampole says. "Trump doesn't do that. It appears to be free-form just like a comedian."

Jampole says Trump's followers hear him as a comic hero and a disruptor.

"It was Rodney Dangerfield or Jackie Mason in the Caddy Shack movies where these two comedians played rich guys who were really average Joes breaking down the barriers of elite institutions," he says.

Use the audio link above to hear the full story.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

No matter what you think about what Donald Trump says, there's no doubt that there's something very unusual about how he says it. Tomorrow, after Trump takes the oath of office, he's expected to deliver a set piece speech recited from text, not by impulse. But what distinguished him as a campaigner wasn't his talent with the teleprompter. It was a manner of speaking unlike anything we heard from his rivals or his predecessors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I always joke. I say, we want to see win, win, win, constant winning, and you'll see if I'm president. And you say, please, Mr. President, we're winning too much. We can't stand it anymore. Can't we have a loss? And I'll say, no, we're going to keep winning, winning, winning because we're going to make America great again. And you'll say, OK, Mr. President, OK.

(APPLAUSE)

JENNIFER MERCIECA: The way that he talks is as different from any other politician as Barack Obama looked.

SIEGEL: Jennifer Mercieca is a historian at Texas A&M. She's writing a book on Trump's rhetoric. She says Trump's informal, impulsive style goes over well with his supporters. They hear a man who says what he thinks, not what consultants think he should say.

MERCIECA: The idea seems to be that all other politicians are corrupt and that we know that because of the way that they talk to us.

SIEGEL: They are canned, prepared, rehearsed. He is spontaneous, authentic, candid. Or at least that's the impression. Professor Mercieca says Trump is using rhetoric very strategically - for example, the rhetorical device called paralipses.

MERCIECA: Paralipses can be said colloquially as, I'm not saying; I'm just saying. It does this great thing of allowing you a window supposedly into what he's really thinking. At the New Hampshire primary, he said, but all of the other candidates are weak, and they're just weak.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: ...All of the other candidates are weak, and they're just weak. I think they're weak, generally. You want to know the truth. But I won't say that because I don't want to get myself - I don't want to have any controversy. Is that OK? No controversy - so I refuse to say that they're weak, generally, OK?

MERCIECA: Right, so he said it three, four times. They're weak. But he knows that he shouldn't say that. He's walking you through his thought process. It shows us just how strategic he is about what he says 'cause he tells you in the middle of saying it that he knows that he ought not to say it and still says it anyway.

SIEGEL: We asked Trump supporters around the country how the president-elect sounds to them. No one said he sounds like a politician.

RYAN WRIGHT: To me, it sounded like more like a football coach.

SIEGEL: That's Ryan Wright in Tipton, Iowa. Here's Ney Vasconcelos in Phoenix.

NEY VASCONCELOS: This is like the way I talk with my peers, people that I work with or whatever.

MARY NICKERSON: He seems more like a game show host to me.

SIEGEL: That's Mary Nickerson in Nashville.

NICKERSON: He does not take the time to think long enough to even lie about anything.

SIEGEL: Marc Jampole is not a Trump supporter. He's a blogger and poet in New York City, and he says what Trump really sounds like is a stand-up comedian. He says a typical Trump speech has the structure of a stand-up routine.

MARC JAMPOLE: Most stump speeches have a beginning, a middle and an end and follow classic speech structure, which basically is, tell the audience what you're going to say; say it, and then tell them what you just said. Trump doesn't do that. It appears to be free-form just like a comedian.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What a crowd. What a crowd. They're beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: What a crowd. What a crowd. And outside - we have many more people than this outside. It's incredible.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON WHITE: I came home from doing a show the other night, and she goes, Honey, the dryer's broken.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: She said, Darling, you're president. You cannot call an air conditioning company. I said, that's OK. It's so much fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Even the guy stamping the passports was terrifying. He was like, what is your occupation?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: They said, you know, he made that statement. I'd like to take him to the back at the gym.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I just got back from Israel, you know what I'm saying?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I just got back from Florida. I was begging for, like, a regular commercial - Ivory Snow, Heinz Ketchup.

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: Every commercial was a hit on on Trump - hit, hit, hit. And almost all of them weren't true. Some were...

SIEGEL: Marc Jampole says Trump's followers hear him as a comic hero, a disruptor.

JAMPOLE: It was Rodney Dangerfield or Jackie Mason in the "Caddyshack" movies where these two comedians played rich guys who were really average Joes breaking down the barriers of elite institutions.

SIEGEL: Our Trump supporters didn't describe him that way. In Tipton, Iowa, Jim Trcka heard in Trump echoes of a real-life figure from his youth.

JIM TRCKA: He kind of reminds me of my Air Force recruiter back when I joined the military - off color, tend to exaggerate at times to make a point.

MATT BENWARD: He just talks like he's going to be your buddy drinking a beer with you, you know?

SIEGEL: That's Matt Benward in Nashville making a point people used to make about George W. Bush.

BENWARD: Hillary just, like, talked down to people. To heck with that.

SIEGEL: Jim Trcka pointed higher in the pantheon of Republican presidents.

TRCKA: He does remind me a little of Ronald Reagan, though Reagan is much more eloquent. I think with time, Donald will come around and speak more presidentially.

SIEGEL: But here's a difference between Reagan and Bush, between most politicians and Donald Trump. Other politicians often tell us stories they've heard from ordinary Americans, little object lessons that prove a larger point. In Trump's speeches, that hardly ever happens. John Murphy is an associate professor of communication at the University of Illinois. We reached him by Skype.

JOHN MURPHY: There's no effort to identify a Joe the Plumber. He never ever does that. He doesn't seem to speak of or meet people personally. It's all a kind of public performance.

SIEGEL: Elvin Lim, who teaches political science at the National University of Singapore, says that to cite other people would only detract from Trump's central message, which is all about himself.

ELVIN LIM: He does not need props or analogies or other people to help him tell his tale. He believes that he is almost messianic in his status and ability to be the solution to what America needs to become great again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I alone can fix it.

LIM: It's focused very much about his line and his narrative. And I don't think he takes very kindly to other people helping him make that narrative happen.

SIEGEL: Nor, it seems, to facts that run counter to his assertions. Again, John Murphy of the University of Illinois...

MURPHY: Trump relies very much on separating appearance from reality. So it may look like you're getting good health care, but in truth, you don't have any health care options. For Trump, he wants to be the only source of information about himself and, in some ways, about the world itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Again I will tell you the plain facts that have been edited out of your nightly news and your morning newspaper. Nearly 4 in 10 African-American children are living in poverty while 58 percent of African-American youth are now not employed.

MURPHY: And so he's constantly pointing out how the appearances of the world lie to us, that they don't tell the truth. What you think you see is not actually what's going on.

SIEGEL: In that case, Trump's assertion of the plain facts flies in the face of federal data. That 58 percent black youth unemployment figure includes full-time students who aren't looking for work. The Labor Department's unemployment rate for young blacks is 19 percent.

For admirers of Donald Trump, his style works. His facts might not check out, and he might not be especially eloquent. But what supporters, like Jon Mortensen in Salt Lake City hear, is a man unfiltered, speaking his mind.

JON MORTENSEN: He doesn't like the BS. I don't like BS. He tells the people straight. So when he's done speaking, I know what he's said.

SIEGEL: Donald Trump's next public speaking assignment will be his biggest to date by far - his inaugural address tomorrow afternoon at the U.S. Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUNG GALAXY SONG, "HARD TO TELL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.