Donald Trump, true American poet?

Trump’s words ignite our emotions.
Trump’s words ignite our emotions.
Image: AP Photo/Matt York
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Everyone has an opinion about the way that Donald Trump talks. His supporters are enthusiastic: “He tells it like it is.” “He’s tough.” “He speaks my language.” They like the idea of a man whose linguistic roughness appears to promise a similarly aggressive stance as the next US president.

Trump’s detractors, on the other hand, believe that he is the ultimate vulgarian. No topic is too low, no slander too gross, no prejudice too retrograde for him to exploit. Even when he isn’t spouting off, he appears to lack a basic grasp of grammar and argumentative cohesion. Yet the amount of attention that this camp has lavished on the Republican candidate suggests that they are just as captivated by the Donald (albeit in a horrified way) as everyone else.

How has Trump managed to marshal such widespread passions? The answer may lie in the fact that Trump, in his rhetorical role, is best understood not as a politician or businessman but as a poet.

To understand why this is true, you first have to understand what exactly a “poet” is today—and consider what the poet’s role once was. Nowadays we tend to think of poetry as mere adornment. It’s a genre we may experience with pleasure, but we don’t consider it to be “serious” talk—unlike political speeches or classroom lectures or even serious novels. Prose is serious; poetry is frivolous.

It was not always so. Once upon a time, in cultures all over the world, poetry was the means by which a culture gave itself coherence, and allowed its members to share their perspectives with one another. A poem, recited to music, was the way people “told it like it was.” They used poetry to pass on information about their history, religion, and values to the next generation. That remained true in the West, at least, until literacy replaced orality and, as a result, prose took over from poetry as the means by which a culture replicated itself—particularly in Athens during the fifth century BCE.

The tropes that we associate with poetry today arose during these periods, in which the majority of people were not literate and culturally necessary information was transmitted orally. Much of what we think of as the fancy frills of “poetic” language arose not for aesthetic but for practical reasons: Poetic tropes made information easier to remember. Alliteration, assonance, anaphora (repetition), rhyme, meter, and many other tropes arose as mnemonic devices. Many have lasted into our era, in which poetry has largely become a form of written communication.

But even thousands of years ago, some people were skeptical of poetry’s place in the political sphere. Plato, writing the Republic at a time when literacy was just beginning to replace oral tradition, argued that it was important to keep poetry out of the ideal state. He was particularly vehement about preventing poets from obtaining leadership roles. Poets, according to Plato, are immoral: they pervert reality with  songs that seduce readers into an imaginary world, leaving them unable to function in the present.

Most contemporary American political rhetoric functions much in the way Plato hoped that it would. While former New York governor Mario Cuomo memorably said that we campaign in poetry and govern in prose, the fact is that the bulk of campaigning is pretty prosaic too. This is one reason why many Americans have developed a deep aversion to any kind of political rhetoric. Politicians’ speeches don’t grab them. Their words are neither memorable nor inspiring.

But when a true political poet comes along, we can’t get enough of his words—just as Plato feared. If we understand this, we understand Trump’s power, for better or worse. His poetic tendencies explain why so many people find him irresistible, while so many others—the more Platonically inclined—find him intolerable. Like the best poetry, he arouses strong feelings in his audiences. No one is wishy-washy about the Donald.

So what is it in Trump’s rhetorical practices that make him poetic? He does not rely on the most obvious poetic strategies, rhyme and meter. Indeed, rhyme and meter are more associated with women politicians in today’s political climate—both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have used these poetic devices to memorable effect.

But Trump does rely heavily on other, less obvious poetic tropes. For instance, he makes a lot of use of aposiopesis—breaking off a sentence before it’s finished. He is a fan of anaphora, or repetition: he never says anything once when he can say it three times. He is a master of hyperbole (exaggeration): Everything about him, from his hands to his fence at our border with Mexico, is the best, the most, or the greatest.

At the same time, Trump conscientiously avoids the soaring figures of speech that signal “poetry” to us, like metaphor and metonymy. His aversion to these kinds of devices aims to convey that he is a man who is truly down to earth. He does, however, sneak important poetic stratagems in when we’re not paying attention.

The traditional poet, like Palin, replaces prosaic reason with poetic rhyme. The poet is thereby freed from the requirement to make sense. Trump replaces prosaic reason with poetic diction of another kind, but the effect is the same. He doesn’t need to make sense. The thrill of his language carries his audiences along with him. He tells it like it is, even if no one is sure what “it” is.

Even more telling than Trump’s use of poetic tropes is the way that he positions his rhetoric as poetry. A speaker of prose would be held to our normal expectations that a politician make sense. Trump is doing something very different on the 2016 campaign stump.

Think of ways of speaking (or writing) as arranged on a continuum based on who bears responsibility for determining the meaning of the author’s words. On one end, we could put poetry. On the other end, we could put instruction manuals.

When we encounter what we believe to be poetry, we expect ambiguity and uncertainty. We are comfortable with the idea that a Shakespearean sonnet may mean different things to different people, and that we will have to play an active role in deciphering it.

On the other hand, at the other end of the scale, we expect our computer’s instruction manual to be crystal-clear and free of ambiguity. If the writing is not straightforward, we have the right to be confused (and testy).

Trump’s ingenuity lies in marrying these genres: the bulk of his speech could be said to constitute prosaic poetry, or perhaps poetic prose. Because he swears and skirts high-flying language, he sounds prosaic and therefore trustworthy. But much like poetry, his remarks are highly opaque and without a clearly discernible single meaning. Because of his use of aposiopesis, hyperbole, and other forms of de-clarification, he leaves the meaning-making up to his audiences. Thus, he avoids taking responsibility for his words.

Moreover, Trump’s fondness for anaphora (repetition) encourages the public to remember his words and quote them to others. Eventually, this repetition may effectively convince people that his words represent not the effusions of one particular politician, but received truth. As Lewis Carroll said, in The Hunting of the Snark:

Just the place for a Snark! the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.

Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.

By the third time we repeat any idea, it begins to take on the aura of received wisdom. Trump knows this well. So many of his speeches reiterate themes: Obama’s Kenyan birth, the criminality of Mexicans, Trump’s history as a supporter of women’s issues—just for starters. Of course some of this reiteration might be due to the fact that Trump has only a few ideas, so they have to do a lot of work; but another reason, I think, is that he knows the power of the “Snark Rule.” And because repetition offers poets a means to signal to their audiences, “This is what you believe. This is what you know is true,” many of us find Trump’s repetitive pattern very persuasive.

So I call Donald Trump a poet. While that doesn’t mean that I like his poetry, I don’t object to the idea of campaigning with it. What concerns me more is that if he somehow manages to win, he would also govern in poetry. And here I am with Plato: that’s dangerous.