The languishing language of election politics


Want to see the differences in how the presidential candidates speak? Watch how comedians parody them.

"Donald Trump — he's the used-car salesman ... that won't let you kick the tires on the car," said Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. "Hillary Clinton is the insurance salesman — like Flo [the Progressive girl], but you're not quite sure what the policy is."

The candidates' communication styles, public presentation and even word choices differ markedly.

Republican nominee Donald Trump has a history of hyperbolic speech that is both blunt and easy to understand, Jay said.

"It's harder for him to adapt to being managed," he said.

Clinton's communication is less off-the-cuff and more nuanced, which reflects her extensive background in politics, he said.

The two candidates use different types of communication for different purposes — Clinton uses emotional rhetoric and evidence-based persuasion, while Trump relies almost exclusively on emotional language, said Gerol Petruzella, an adjunct professor of philosophy and associate director of academic technology at MCLA.

"They use language in fundamentally different ways," he said. "That's a really important distinction."

Trump in particular has also repeatedly engaged in faulty reasoning in the form of rhetorical fallacies, he said.

He frequently mocks his opponents, rather than responding to their claims — the ad hominem fallacy, he said. His speech also reflects the straw man fallacy, in which one expresses an opponent's position in over-simplified language to make it seem ridiculous, he said.

Trump has said that Clinton wants to totally open the United States' borders, which is untrue but serves its purpose of making her immigration policy ideas easy to reject, he said.

Trump also responds to questions in ways that sound relevant but actually miss the point in a flawed pattern of reasoning known as the non sequitur fallacy.

In the first presidential debate, for example, Trump responded to questions of racial healing with a comment about Mar-a-Lago, a golf club he opened that he said didn't discriminate against African-Americans or Muslims.

"The fact that he opened a club doesn't actually address his position on racial healing," Petruzella said.

Emotional rhetorical strategies are more likely to appeal to voters that are already predisposed to respond favorably to that message, he said.

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The candidates also frame their campaigns differently, through their publicly spoken and written language.

Clinton's campaign uses a lot of value-laden language with words like dignity, humanity and safety, Petruzella said. Her rhetoric is designed to frame her campaign as a positive and forward-moving effort that evokes a shared responsibility to move the country forward, Petruzella said.

Trump's campaign speech is also value-laden, but the expressed values differ significantly from Clinton's, he said.

Trump uses "loaded language" that lacks the optimism of Clinton's campaign, with words and phrases like disastrous, unilateral or out of control showing up even in his fact sheets, he said.

His speeches are also much more likely than Clinton's to contain words like deadly, disastrous, criminal or terror, Petruzella said.

"Simply the repetition of certain emotionally evocative words has a certain rhetorical effect when used over and over again," he said.

Using words that evoke conflict and danger, as Trump does, can lead listeners and viewers to think of their situation in those terms, he said.

"That's the intention of that type of rhetoric," he said.

Modern presidential communication with the public has evolved into primarily feelings-based language like partisan punch lines, said Nicole Mellow, professor of political science at Williams College.

Because of presidential reliance on public opinion to secure votes, candidates turned to simplistic rhetoric to engage potential voters. Simple messages — those that can be reduced to a sound bite — are what's remembered and reported, she said.

Candidates who succeed on the basis of this strategy are later stuck with campaign promises they made that don't fit the nuanced complexities of government, she said.

Relying on emotional manipulation of constituents can also unintentionally enrage the opposition, as it has in Trump's case, Petruzella said.

Trump is probably making choices to use emotionally volatile techniques to engage the segment of the population that would vote for him, he said. He sends a message of stability — he promises to bring back what some see as a stable America. This appeals to voters that are afraid of a changing world, he said.

"He happens to be in a moment when the voting public is responsive to the way he happens to speak," he said.

The conflict between Trump and Clinton represents more than just the usual clash of policies, Petruzella said.

"This is deeper," he said. "Because a candidate (Trump) who does not agree to use language to persuade through evidence represents a deep challenge to what makes democracy work."


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