John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The New Republic.
Watching Donald Trump's interview the other week with CNN's John King about the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, one couldn't help but notice something novel about the way he spoke: Trump's talk was almost pathologically first-person-focused, with his "I'm proud of myself" and "I've done a great job" a near constant refrain. What kind of person speaks like that? And, given its ugly yet undeniable appeal, what does it mean for the future of political speech?
To be sure, there are good reasons to be cautious in drawing broad lessons from the rhetoric of someone who is such a singular, bizarre character. Trump's style of speaking clearly reflects an unusual degree of narcissism. The pride he repeatedly mentioned was for forcing the release of the birth certificate — when the release was in fact a repudiation of his claims that such a document did not exist. One sensed not desperation, cynicism, or irony in Trump's declarations of victory, but a genuine inability to process oneself in any but an elevated light. In addition, some of Trump's habits, like his inveterate tendency to interrupt, can be seen as typically, albeit exaggeratedly, male: A classic study showed that in eleven conversations between men and women, out of 48 interruptions, men were responsible for 46.
But the most interesting explanation for Trump's rhetoric is that it represents the purest form to date of what is the wave of the future — in which political communication, once mediated by writing, is increasingly liberated by mass media technology and restored to the style of plain speech.
Trump's use of "I", even when compared to demagogues of old, is remarkable. Not even from resonantly rabble-rousing figures of the past, such as Father Coughlin or Huey Long, did one hear such a rapt first-person complex. Joseph McCarthy's famous "I have in my hand" speech is an early example. And yet, despite the first-person phraseology in that intended dramatic high point, the speech referred generally to the collective. That is, McCarthy spoke with writerly distance. For instance: "It is the apathy to evil which people who have been subjected to the tremendous evils of war feel. As the people of the world see mass murder, the destruction of defenseless and innocent people, and all of the crime and lack of morals which go with war, they become numb and apathetic." His personality type was not unlike Trump's, but his era would not have allowed him to give a speech touting what "I" feel about the issue and how well "I" am doing in combating it.
Following the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, I argued that it was no accident that the virulence of our political rhetoric has risen neatly alongside such inventions as YouTube and high-speed Internet connections. Writing, the piece noted, is conscious and slow, and allows an intellectual distance less likely in speech, which is more about the "I" (witness, therefore, the self-directed focus of most rap, a highly "spoken" form of music). Earlier politicians had to rely on writing and speechifying — talking "in writing" — which are better suited for the more cerebral realms of ambiguity and extended argument. Talk, which comes in packets of, on the average, about ten words at a time, is all about the immediate and the emotional. Today's broadband, podcasts, and streaming allow one person to get immediate and emotional with the entire nation whenever they feel like it.
Trump's style of speaking is, in many ways, the example par excellence of this new wave. In his profanity-laden speech at a Las Vegas reception, it also proved his undoing. But there's no denying that, for a moment at least, Trump's words held a captivating sway. And while his poll numbers may have bottomed out, one should expect his style of speaking to only get more popular.