Regardless of how you feel about the President’s policies, it is hard to deny that Donald Trump is a highly effective speaker. Trump’s popularity during the presidential campaign was largely fueled by his rhetoric: without a background in politics or a stable policy position¹ on key issues, what lured voters in was the way that Trump presented himself and his ideas. The power of Trump’s speeches continues even now that he’s in office: 75% of the people who watched his first State of the Union address approved of his message.² That number is especially striking given the President’s low approval numbers: going into the State of the Union, ⅔ of his own party did not approve of how he handled his job as President.³ Simply put, Donald Trump is good at making his audience believe what he says. And while the president often speaks in a casual, simple way, his rhetoric relies on sophisticated strategies to persuade his audience.
Let’s look closely at the State of the Union to see Donald Trump’s rhetorical skill in action.
1. He repeats what he wants us to remember--and believe
There’s a strange quirk about the human brain: the more we hear something, the more likely we are to believe it. Each time you hear the same idea, you reinforce that idea in your brain.⁴ That’s why it’s a good idea to keep repeating the same message if you want your audience to be persuaded by it.
In the State of the Union speech, Trump repeatedly points out that his administration cut taxes on the middle class. Throughout the entire speech, the word “tax” is mentioned sixteen times! As a comparison, “education” and “health” are each mentioned just twice.
Here’s a video montage from the State of the Union:
The strategy here is to ensure that folks listening to the State of the Union remember that Donald Trump slashed taxes, created new jobs, and strengthened America. Even after an hour and a half of this speech covering many topics and stories, listeners will walk away with the notion that Donald Trump has improved the economy and thereby made their lives a whole lot better.
2. Donald Trump uses hyperbole to signal his bravado
Donald Trump is known for exaggeration, and his State of the Union speech is no exception. Read the excerpt below to see how he hyperbolizes how bad the tax burden was under the Obama administration:.
“We eliminated an especially cruel tax that fell mostly on Americans making less than $50,000 a year -- forcing them to pay tremendous penalties simply because they could not afford government-ordered health plans. We repealed the core of disastrous Obamacare -- the individual mandate is now gone.”
So what is the effect of this exaggeration? Imagine if your best friend came to you and said,
“Let’s go see this movie. I heard it is pretty good.” Now what if she said, “It would be a tragedy if we did not see this movie. I’ve heard it’s the best in the last five years.” Which version of this pitch would be more convincing?
Hyperbole raises the stakes on what the speaker is trying to persuade the audience to believe. In the hyperbolized version of your friend’s suggestion, the movie she is trying to get you to see is much more important and merits your consideration. In the case of the State of the Union, Donald Trump is trying to make the case that the Obamacare policy was bad for middle-class Americans and the Trump policies are amazing in comparison.
More generally, Donald Trump adds hyperbole to his statements to signal to the audience that he is a bold man with big ideas. In his own book The Art of the Deal (1987), Donald Trump explains his use of hyperbole:
“People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”
Donald Trump doesn’t want his audience to think that he’s tackling inconsequential problems; he wants them to believe that he’s tackling “especially cruel” and “disastrous” policies because he thinks and acts boldly.
3. Donald Trump uses vivid stories to leverage emotions
Ever since Ronald Reagan put everyday people⁵ in his State of the Union speech in 1982, Presidents have recognized that sharing vivid stories about individual Americans can be a powerful rhetorical strategy. These everyday Americans, who are often heroes, victims, or other illustrations of the President’s key issues, act as living proof of the President’s main points. While we tend to forget the numbers that get cited during a speech (how many new jobs did we create again?), the stories of individual people usually stay with us, especially if those stories have vivid imagery. More importantly, while the numbers do little to stir up our emotions, well-crafted stories inspire a visceral reaction.
Just how powerful are these stories about individual Americans? Donald Trump uses them twelve times during his State of the Union speech. Each time, he points to the person or people he’s talking about in the audience to recognize them. Here is an example:
Trump is trying to get his audience to support securing the border and reforming immigration laws to keep more illegal immigrants out of the country. He can do this in various ways: by citing immigration statistics, by crafting a logical argument based on government spending or legal precedent, or by citing some other authority on immigration policy. But none of those tactics would have the same effect as watching the four parents cry on national television as they relive the murder of their daughters. Watching the parents’ reaction makes the audience frightened by the gang members who are terrorizing innocent people. It also makes the audience angry that the murder happened and determined to prevent it from happening again. The argument goes from a logical argument (logos) to an emotion that we can feel (pathos).
So why is this convincing? Our emotions are heavily involved in our decision-making.⁶ That’s because the mind looks for shortcuts: would you rather read through the statistics and analysis of immigration policy or make a decision based on your gut? In an ideal world, you would choose the first option, but the mind would much rather go with the gut instinct and save itself the trouble of thinking through all those complex numbers and arguments. This is why pathos is such a great motivator, and why it’s so frequently relied upon in speeches that are intended to incite an audience to action.
So whether you agree with the content of the President’s message or not, it’s hard to deny that the way he presents that message is skillful and effective.
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